Sharing a Summer Cottage

Sharing a Summer Cottage

It was one of two houses for sale on Martha’s Vineyard in 1982 that my friend and I could almost afford, largely because its title was clouded by a land claim brought the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

It also was a fixer-upper. If Dick and I could scrape together the cash — banks wouldn’t lend — and if our friend Andy, a carpenter, could spend the month of May helping us fix it up, it was ours, sort of. We were thirty-somethings then, largely free of life’s entangling alliances.

Owning half a cottage and renting it most of the year, mostly to a winter tenant, is an exercise in extreme sharing. The title can get cloudy fast. Which half-owner has to sleep in the dank basement “bedroom” in the summer — and which inhabitant can buy and deploy the most tchotchkes? Or how many buoys does it take to make a house look like a tugboat?

Twenty-five years ago, before Jan and John signed on as our perennial winter tenants, our luck with renters was mixed. One left a week after signing the lease. Others found the utility bills too dear or the walls too flimsy when encountering various body parts. Some objected to bats flying about. Some tenants we never even met.

That first summer we marketed weekly rentals aggressively. We were desperate for cash (both of us were between jobs), and it clouded our judgment. Plus, having rented on the Island ourselves, we had learned a thing or two.

“Where do you buy The Wall Street Journal out here?” one prospect asked during his tour of our “camp,” as he called it. Before we could answer, “You don’t,” his wife screamed. She had spied a rat, a corpulent country rat not 10 feet from the house, gorging itself on seeds below the bird feeder.

Dick, who was in law school at the time (to his credit he stuck with journalism instead), responded authoritatively: “Oh, no, that’s not a rat, it’s a Vineyard squirrel — we have many unique species out here.” The discussion veered into Island zoology. Despite our spin, the well-heeled couple rented some other camp, presumably one closer to a Wall Street Journal.

Over the decades, our sweat equity could fill a whaleboat. We shingled, we repaired, we replaced, we beat back the jungle, and we built a roof deck for a better ocean view (which has since all but disappeared). The fixing up never ends. Dick, Andy and I are now straddling seventy-something. We don’t do roofs anymore, although on our annual April work week, we still manage to imbibe, play golf and act stupid when required.

This summer John and Jan left — this time for good, bound for their own home down Island. It presented a chance to do an extreme cottage makeover. Our wives became fully engaged for the first time. Previously, cottage management had been reminiscent of the Little Rascals’ He-Man Woman Haters Club — or so some aver.

When my wife and I arrived in early July, the cottage was eerily spare, virtually devoid of evidence of Jan’s and John’s quarter-century habitation: for example, no red-eyed loon wall covering in the living/dining room. It was all ours now, a blank slate, but it was sad just the same.

John and Jan took better care of the place than we did, and we could rely on them, and their Island connections, to get things fixed promptly in an emergency. When Jan landed a job at the high school, we extended their stay at the cottage. Come what may, we never worried when they were in residence.

Sure, they made the cottage their own in many ways, but our fingerprints, going back three decades, still could be found. A painting that we salvaged from the Aquinnah dump was left hanging in its place of high-kitsch honor, along with an arty poster of the Gay Head Cliffs that I over-paid for in 1982. John, who is an accomplished photographer, left some of his framed images of Island scenes behind. They remain in place.

If we had disagreements over the years, they were few and have mostly faded from memory. I recall laughing quite frequently, mostly on the phone. Up-Island gossip can be priceless. We actually saw one another maybe twice a decade. I called John once to raise the rent; after about 30 minutes he had me teetering on the brink of lowering it. It stayed the same for a few more years.

Sharing is a lost art in this country. We all want what’s ours to be ours alone. Grand houses on the Vineyard sit empty for all but a month a year, if that. Fence building is a booming industry. When I was a boy our family shared a ladder with two neighbors. Imagine that. When the well pump at the cottage died decades ago, our neighbor let our tenants connect a garden hose to her outdoor faucet to tide them over. That was nice of Artis.

I will miss sharing the cottage with Jan and John. It is unlikely we will be as lucky with our next winter tenants.