The Journey Home

Preparing the family cottage for a son’s upcoming summer wedding, a father finds a foothold in small-town roots. // Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark
the journey home illustration

When I arrived in April to open the family cottage in Elk Rapids, I noticed the toilet in the downstairs bathroom had sunk three inches into our Michigan basement. By June, the toilet was even lower, prompting my daughter to suggest hanging a “Use At Your Own Risk” sign above it. In September my son, Michael, announced that he had asked Melissa to be his wife, and that they wanted to have the wedding in Elk Rapids.

What followed was a year-long journey in a small northern Michigan town that began with replacing a toilet, ended on a beach at midnight and in between was filled with uncovering my roots, witnessing my son’s most important passage in life and pulling out thousands of square nails. It’s a story of everybody’s family cottage and ours is very much family.

At the turn of the century, the DuFresnes immigrated from Quebec to Northern Michigan for jobs in the pig iron foundries of Elk Rapids, at the time an industrial town that rivaled Traverse City.

Eventually, my great grandfather saved enough to start a cherry farm, where my father was born, and then, in 1923 — having given the farm to my grandfather — purchased a two-story house in town.

This home became the DuFresne family cottage, a legacy passed down from father to son.

In 2001, just before my father died, I was given the keys.

Family cottages are never really owned; the next caregiver just steps up. This house was already 125 years old when I took over. My father’s first major renovation in the early 1960s was the downstairs bathroom. Up to that point, we were using a two-hole outhouse that was attached to an old horse barn in the backyard and washing up in the Elk River.

The bathroom also happened to be the last room in the house I turned my attention to. But now I had to. I’m not a handyman. I’m not my father, the practical engineer.

So I hired a local carpenter named Bru because he had worked on other old homes in the town, and because he was neither a deer hunter nor an ice fisherman — important considerations when you have a project to complete in Northern Michigan.

My job was to dismantle the bathroom. I spent the winter driving Up North, renting a motel room in Traverse City (because the cottage has no heat and the Village of Elk Rapids, no motels), taking down the drywall my father had put up. Then I continued with the original plaster, along the way pulling off a dozen layers of wallpaper. A century ago, I discovered, the room had been papered in a yellow Victorian pattern.

One bitterly cold January night, I dismantled the cabinets my father had built at home and installed during his annual two-week vacation at the cottage. Pulling off the doors and removing the shelves, I found his scribbled penmanship: measurements, lines and notes like “butt 2by4 against the wall.”

My father had been gone for 12 years, but late that night I found him in the downstairs bathroom; his thoughts, his careful calculations, that practical but precise architectural style of his. Suddenly, I was flooded with emotions and a pang of guilt because I was dismantling his work. For a long time I just sat there in the single digit temperatures staring at the partially dismantled cabinet.

the journey home illustration 2

Stepping Up

By March, after I had pulled out every square nail embedded in the rough-cut studs, Bru took over. He fortified the floor from the basement; he hung and finished the drywall. Within a week, I was back up, painting the walls a McDonald’s strawberry shake pink, a color my wife had chosen.

Bru just stared when he walked in.

“I didn’t pick out the color,” I said.

“I hope not,” he replied.

By June, the cottage had a functioning bathroom with a new toilet that was as level as you can get in a room with a floor that tilts two inches to the right. Michael called, congratulating me on the new bathroom, and I told him I was thinking of wrapping up the 50-year-old toilet paper holder — the one his grandfather never thought needed replacing — as a wedding gift. “You know, it played an important role in your progression from diapers,” I said.

Michael laughed. “Thanks Dad, but I’d rather have the cookware on our register.”

With the wedding less than three months away, I turned to other details. For the rehearsal dinner, I rented the pavilion at the marina overlooking the end of Old Mission Peninsula, where my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and arranged for Pearl’s, the Cajun restaurant in town, to cater the meal. I picked up the wine from Chantal Chateau, my wife’s favorite local vineyard, but the beer — Short’s Autumn Ale — was brewed less than a mile from the cottage.

As others scrambled arranging the flowers, the dresses and the church, I popped into the Elk Rapids Sweet Shop, a town bakery that’s been around longer than I have. Asking Darlene, the owner, if she could provide donuts and coffee cakes for the morning after the wedding was like asking my mother to watch her grandchildren. “You know you’re our third wedding that weekend,” she said, glowing.

lanterns for the journey home

Two days before the Big Day, Michael and Melissa arrived after midnight, but my son was up early the next morning. He needed to clear his head so we loaded a sea kayak onto a wheeled cart and rolled it two blocks through town to the Elk River.

We dropped it in the water not far from where I use to wash up as a kid, and after adjusting the rudder I handed him a paddle. “You’re coming back, right?” I said. “Because I can’t get my deposit back on the pavilion.”

“Don’t worry,” Michael grinned, then pointed the kayak towards Elk Lake and began paddling into the warm glow of sunrise.

After that, wedding weekend was a whirlwind.

Following the rehearsal dinner, we opened up the pavilion to enjoy local brews as a fiery sun dissolved into the bay. The ceremony was held at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where my father used to slap me on the back of the head when I misbehaved during mass. Guests gathered back at the cottage, then, before strolling half a block to Siren Hall, the restaurant we took over for the reception. Around midnight, after the last dance, we all meandered down to the beach, where the bridal party launched sky lanterns…paper balloons that soon became just pinpoints of light drifting over Grand Traverse Bay.

And when the last candle flicked out, I walked the three blocks back to the cottage, the last leg of my journey home to Elk Rapids.

Clarkston-based author and travel writer Jim DuFresne is Michigan BLUE Magazine’s “Top 5” columnist.

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