When I moved here six years ago from Nebraska, I was prepared for the Packers, the cheese, and the snow. I wasn’t prepared for the jargon. What were cabins, cottages, lake houses, and places “up north”? Was there a secret dictionary of Wisconsin real estate that I hadn’t been issued upon crossing the Mississippi? And, what constituted “up north?” Was there some map that I hadn’t seen?
My interest in these terms first surfaced when my husband and I bought a house in Madison. We began to get to know our neighbors, and slowly, learned about each other’s lives outside our little cul-de-sac. As summer approached, we’d hear of efforts to remove sandburs and of a squirrel that sadly met its end in an upstairs bedroom. I began to learn that most of the people on the block had, or had once owned, a cottage…or a cabin, or a “place up north.” What I couldn’t figure out was what this meant.
Had I somehow managed to move into a neighborhood where everyone was a secret multi-millionaire? What were these second homes…were they lavish like on House Hunters? My mom watched that show and assured me they were probably amazing places. I should get an invite—and she’d like to come along. But there were also tails about freezing pipes, and “winterization” and maybe, maybe making the cottage “all-season”? All-season? As in a screened-in porch?
In Nebraska, people really don’t have second houses. You either live in town, or you live on the farm. Well, okay, maybe I’m simplifying. If you live in ranch country, you might — just might– have a ranch house and a town house. But only so the kids can go to school in town during the week. And you sell it as soon as the kids graduate because why would you have 2 houses?
I kept thinking about cottages and cabins. A cabin must have muskies and walleyes on the chinked log walls. Maybe it has running water, but probably not. A cottage though, it must be whitewashed and have baskets of river rocks stacked by the fireplace. This surely is the type of place where Mother Goose lives.
A place up north? Well, maybe that’s like my colleagues’ hunting land, which his wife finally let him buy. Where you have a trailer and probably a portable propane tank.
When one neighbor put their “cabin” up for sale I wanted to find it online so I could see just what this “cabin” looked like. But, alas, I could never quite remember where it was at….Mena-qua?, Mena-sha?, north of O-conno-ma-what? In Nebraska, the town names sound an awful lot like dead presidents.
Years went by until my luck changed. Our friends Todd and Maggie invited us up to “the cottage” for the weekend. The baby was weaning himself and was crabby. We were sleepy and Maggie warned there may be storms. But, no, we were going. I was going to get to see, in person, a real Wisconsin “cottage.” Maybe I’d finally start to unravel this mystery.
We boated, drank old-fashions, were tutored in euchre, and had the best time.
I walked around the lake. And slowly, I realized it didn’t matter what they were called. They were lovely—in all their variety. Small, large, all-season, or summer only. I hope I get invited back–maybe next time to a “cabin.”