What I most associate with opening weekend is the smell. Opening the cottage door for the first time in eight months, the smell of the place is at its most concentrated. Windows have been shut and doors have been locked for the only time they ever get locked each season. The curtains have been drawn for 210 sad days. It’s been more than 5,040 hours since the screen porch door last swung open and slammed shut as wet feet ran in and out of the kitchen for slices of watermelon, ice cream cones and Cheezies. No flowers, or fruit or fresh-baked, wild blueberry muffins have been left on the kitchen table to draw you in from a nap on the porch to hang in the kitchen and just talk for the first time since the workweek, and day camp, and ukulele lessons ended and you loaded the car, and fought traffic like a salmon fights its way upstream to spawn, driven by some primal instinct, a need to be here that can’t be suppressed. A need to experience this smell, which is there every time you open the door but is at its most intense when you open it for the first time each spring.
It’s a comforting, wholesome smell of old pine panelling, mixed with the new pine walls downstairs, mixed with the slight residue of the mouldy and hideous, very un-cottage-like seventies carpet we had to tear up and dispose of the year we bought the place, mixed with a few ashes left un-swept from the fireplace after Thanksgiving weekend when we closed up, mixed with a faint hint of dead mouse.
Every few years, there is a sad and so horrendously dehydrated-from-the-mouse-poison mouse that I ask myself if the mouse poison is really necessary. It’s the one mouse that didn’t leave the cottage to look for water as the copy on the box of poison promises. The mouse that some child usually finds under a pillow or in a cupboard and then screams a very convincing scream while you’re on a ladder doing the staining that really should have been started 3 summers ago. It’s a mouse that lost its mousiness many months ago, before everything froze solid into winter. Any lingering smell of death is too faint to interfere with what is otherwise the most uplifting and life-affirming of smells.
One year, opening up the family cottage where I spent every summer as a child, just down the bay from the place my wife and I bought 5 years ago, the smell was different. Not because the family cottage has cedar walls in the original structure that, despite being almost 90 years old, still give off a different, but equally comforting smell. And not because of the musty smell that the old chest full of magazines and comics in the living room gives off. Some of those comic books date back to the 1950’s, but have grown so mouldy that they are essentially worthless. If someone opens the chest, my father’s asthma starts acting up, but no one would ever think to have the chest or the magazines inside removed – they grow more valuable the more they decay. No, the smell that hit us that day was horrendous. It was the smell of cedar, mixed with mouldy magazines, mixed with old eiderdowns in garbage bags with moth balls in them, mixed with the smell of whatever it is in the attic – pretty sure now that they’re ants – that have been leaving more and more of a sawdust-like buildup on the floor each spring that really needs to be dealt with but will probably require an expert, mixed with dead seagull.
The seagull was in the fireplace. It must have come down the chimney on some sort of suicide mission or perhaps it was perched on the chimney top when it died suddenly of a heart attack and simply fell in. Hard to say.
I remember my sister being quite upset. “Get Howard,” she cried. Howard ran the marina and was the sort of guy who could handle any problem. Calmly, my dad covered his nose and removed the bird as we ran around opening windows and doors as quickly as possible.
That was not a pleasant opening weekend moment. And yet, over time, it has only added to the sense of anticipation I feel every spring as I turn the key to the cottage door for the first time and prepare to inhale.
Opening weekend is coming. I can smell it.
The trick with opening weekend is to leave for the cottage early enough in the morning that you can get the power on, the groceries put away, the dock reset, the pump running, the cottage swept, the beds made, the cupboards cleaned of mouse poo, and furniture re-arranged in time for the first cocktail of the season. After such a busy day, a simple cocktail makes sense.