I Renovated My Family’s Summer Cottage to Discover Comfort, Joy, and Mouse Skeletons

published Aug 20, 2020
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Before and after of a home renovation

I’ve had the same “happy place” since I was 15: sitting on the weathered cedar dock at our family cottage, staring out at Lake Archambault in Quebec’s majestic Laurentian Mountains.

My parents had spent 18 years’ worth of weekends looking for the perfect country getaway before finding this circa-1973 Swiss chalet-style retreat in 1980. When they first meandered down the tree-lined driveway that opened up to a glorious view of the lake, they knew their search was finally over.

The previous owners’ children had colored all over the walls, which my parents covered with knotty-pine wood panelling throughout. And other than installing chocolate-brown wall-to-wall carpeting and sprucing up the lower level—an in-law suite—with new flooring, nothing changed for the next 40 years. 

Our cottage offered a year-round escape from hectic school schedules and extracurricular activities. Just one whiff of the pine-kissed air when we unfolded ourselves from the car upon arrival and stress melted away. My family spent Christmas and March breaks skiing, snowshoeing, and enjoying the snow, and during summer weekends we soaked up the sun, swimming and canoeing. We played endless rounds of backgammon, cards, and Scrabble by the roaring fireplace. But the dock was my go-to destination the minute I could steal away.

It seemed fitting that the year my son turned 15, my husband and I bought the house from my parents. How could we not? I’d watched my boy take wobbly toddler steps along the water’s edge, heard him whooping with delight while careening down the nearby ski hill at age three, helped him build homes for frogs and worms in the forest. He fell in love with our house and the lake just as I had, taking full advantage of days spent fishing, sailing, kayaking, and hiking. For the last seven summers, we raced up here the day after school let out and stayed until Labor Day.

Of course, this year, everything was different: The universe shifted and threw everyone’s lives up in the air. Before we officially took over the deed of the house in January, we had taken stock of the long list of renovations that begged to be done: There was the violently avocado-green powder room and its purple-and-gold cousin bathroom upstairs that needed gutting. The (also avocado-green) kitchen was a tiny, dark space large enough for 1.5 people max, with curling peel-and-stick floor tiles revealing two other layers of linoleum underneath. The entrance featured a narrow hallway where we’d have to come in single file, arms laden with grocery bags, skis, and infant carriers. 

Just as we were about to swing our sledgehammers to the main floor, the pandemic blew in. My husband’s work as a TV sound recordist evaporated in an instant, and we wondered: Wasn’t this the very worst time to take on a major reno? Yes, yes it was. And yet, I pushed to move forward. We spent much of our lockdown hours scribbling and re-scribbling drawings of the open-plan layout we wanted. We decided to re-purpose the still-super-nice cherry kitchen cabinets my cousin was getting rid of, so there was much creative math done to fit them into our space.

In the spring, as hardware and lumber supply stores began reopening, we finally destroyed the first floor. We ripped out the honey-stained pine cabinets, pulled down parts of the plaster ceiling with its two-inch-long pointy tips, slashed up the brown shag carpeting, and scraped away the bits of padding beneath.

Cleaning out the nooks and crannies in the kitchen during the demo, I found many family mementoes—an old ski pass with my sister’s 12-year-old face smiling back at me; my grandfather’s nut-cracker; a manual for the never-used ice-cream maker my sister and I saved our allowance to buy for my dad years ago; my mother’s handwritten recipe for hummingbird syrup; a rolled up message in a soda bottle my son wrote at age six but had never tossed into the lake. Everything had a story, and I shared these with my son.

With the help of a contractor friend, we started rebuilding our cottage. Along the way, we made some interesting discoveries: Whoever built the kitchen cabinets had stashed some crumpled newspapers from 1974 in the walls (but no insulation—no wonder our utensil drawer was always freezing!) The same motley crew had likely not consulted the existing building code, because we found some odd electrical set-ups. Several generations of country mice had clearly decided ours was the best time-share spot in the ‘hood, because we found many intact skeletons in the walls, floors and ceiling. Ewww! 

Every night, we’d stumble into bed at 8 p.m., exhausted but excited as the house opened up and light flooded the space. We kept much of the charm of the original house—the mismatched yet welcoming wood walls, the funky 1970s black-and-silver track lighting, the stack of vintage board games, and framed photos of my dad’s first marathon that I couldn’t part with. 

Credit: Courtesy of Wendy Helfenbaum

Whenever I could, I’d sneak away from the sawdust and head down to the dock to watch families of ducklings zig-zagging behind their mother. Staring back at the house from my perch, I thought about how very lucky we were to have this slice of paradise in the mountains, where thoughts of deadly viruses could be kept at bay for the moment. And as I watched my son mow the lawn in my father’s 1970s-era work boots we’d found when emptying the closet we then tore out, I smiled, knowing that 40 years from now, he’ll have some great stories to tell his kids, too.