At Large in Ballard: Dear Ballard
By Peggy Sturdivant
My family lives back east, including my sister and three nieces, sharing a cottage in the summer with my parents. My nieces often pronounce me 100% more hilarious than their own mother. They love to watch me tease their mother, as a big sister was born to do.
Every once in a while my sister sputters, “Well, you’re the one they consider hysterical.”
“Hilarious,” I correct her, with a meaningful wink toward at least one of the twins.
However this year my completely undeserved reputation for humor has spread farther. Over the course of an unprecedented six weeks with family (longest period since college) I sent desperate missives by email and text to a friend in Seattle.
“You know you’re hilarious,” my friend told me upon my return, but she didn’t mean it in a completely good way. “You send these messages that are absolutely biblical in their despair and now you return and say it was wonderful. You’re hilarious.”
She might by confusing hysterical in this case. She says it must be part of what makes me a writer. Unless she’s trying to avoid saying it’s what makes me a liar.
I’ve been thinking over her take on the contrast between my updates from the east and my summation. Isn’t it always the really disastrous vacation or holiday that stays in your mind longer than then one where everyone didn’t get food poisoning? Perhaps it’s like childbirth or “Survivor,” if you do get through the ordeal successfully with a positive outcome, don’t the low points recede and the survival part of a mythic triumph?
Then again maybe I only sent messages when I was so worn out that I couldn’t stand up. My friend heard about the effects of the mice infestation and the termites swarming. She heard about our attempts to reclaim the garden from an invasive vine that burrows underneath houses and kills trees above. I probably mentioned the mosquitoes, the spiders, the skunks (five cute babies) and the ticks we found on our pillows. That was before the rainstorm and the leak above the bed.
It’s an old cottage, never intended to last more than five or ten years, but now in its 133rd. Unlike other 4th generation families on the block who maintain their cottages my family chooses to live on the edge. No roof repair until it leaks. Lock the bikes? Hah! Laughing off the idea of an exterminator when there’s nothing between the floorboards and dirt anyway. The muggy weeks in the cottage are not like one long swing in a hammock without mosquitoes. Yet the drama becomes its charm and the satisfaction of digging up a 20’ root is disproportionately satisfying.
So the adversity gets reported (who needs an oven) and the sweet moments aren’t broadcast. After wrestling a vine with thorns all day there is nothing sweeter than the outdoor shower at sunset, miniature roses blooming above the shampoo. The moment after dawn when the birds are singing but all of the nieces are asleep, as cherubic as when they still slept in cribs.
It can take one swim to the sandbar or the sound of the foghorn to offset the mess left in the kitchen, the flotilla of fruit flies that rise above the ripening peaches. The baby chickadees are perched just outside the kitchen window waiting for their mother to feed them. Ignore the fact that just days later the niece’s cat will kill one within an hour of arriving at the cottage. There are fireflies up in the woods where they used to be low bush blueberries. The Red Sox game ended mercifully early.
What is it about an island that we can love so much? Why is the uncertainty of boats running, planes being able to land part of its appeal? Despite the email complaints about what cannot be controlled, that is also the addiction. The unexpected at all times. The ferry delayed to rescue the 19 year-old who thought he could sit on the rail. The new lights at the baseball field installed, but the permit not yet issued. It’s an amusement park ride that you love the moment your feet are back on sandy ground.
“Why did I extend my stay by a week?” I wrote to my Seattle friend. “If only I’d gotten out before the 100% humidity. The town water tested positive for eColi and we’re under boil water orders. All the restaurants are closed and you can’t even get a cup of coffee.”
But the truth is that I loved it. I loved the five “do not drink” notices posted above the water fountain. I loved the New England convergence at the library of polls opening for Election Day, Summer Reading Kick-Off and bottled water pick-up.
I guess I live to complain, perhaps even exaggerate. If there was occasional despair, there was always its flip side. So readers, it was a wonderful vacation because I survived. Ballard is still standing (although new buildings are standing a bit too tall). The library is open on Sunday! The towels are deliciously crisp; my tomatoes are huge and ripening. The raspberries are early. I appreciate every moment outside without multiple mosquitoes on my skin. The termites can swarm without me. In this old Seattle house there’s new water damage, but it only makes me feel more at home. Hilariously content.
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