Cottage Clutter


When we bought our cottage in northern Michigan about 15 years ago, I filled it with lots of stuff. I was so excited to have a blank slate — an opportunity to create a space that’s welcoming, charming, calming, and relaxing. A place that my family and friends would all want to come to time and time again. 

For colors, I decided on predominantly red accents for the front room and blues for the back room. I was crazy for cherries, so I adorned a bedroom with cherry-themed items, proclaiming it the “Cherry Room.” I had cherry-themed bed linens, a couple of cherry lamps, a cherry painting (by yours truly), and more cherries! A star in that cherry space was a vintage chair I’d found at a garage sale. I painted it white and begged my artist brother-in-law to paint cherries on it. (I can’t believe I “themed-out” a room!) 

The cottage became a project for me. Every time we went, I brought more items with me — books, paintings, comforters, decorative pillows, coffee cups, salt and pepper shakers (with a cherry motif), little picture frames, and hand-me-down furniture from friends who were moving or pieces from my parents’ home after it sold. In my mind, those items equaled quintessential cottage. And if I couldn’t use something at my main home, well, I knew we could find a spot for it at the cottage! 

I wanted “charm,” and charming it would be!  (Note: My husband is NOT one for charming spaces — he likes clean lines and minimal knickknacks, so you can see why I was excited to create what I thought would be a warm and cozy retreat.)

Instead of stopping at cute and comfy, the cottage evolved into a chore — a stuffed-to-the-max responsibility. 

Fast-forward 13 years. I began to see that all that stuff was getting in the way of why we purchased the cottage in the first place. After all, when we’re there, most of our waking hours are spent outside. This was to be for contemplation, family yard games, canoeing, and relaxation — certainly not something that requires a lot of dusting. 

It hit me one July weekend a couple of years ago. “What is all this stuff, and why do I feel like I’m suffocating here?” Yikes! How many salt and pepper shakers does a girl really need? Do I have to knock over a few to get to my favorite, plain one in the back of the cupboard? But trying to choose even one shaker to get rid of was a real chore. The bunny ones (with broken ears) are from my husband years ago, when I was into bunnies (pre-cherry days, apparently); the Scottish Thistle pottery set was part of my parents’ everyday dishes, so when peppering my eggs, I’m transported to a cherished time; the little pheasant ones were in my parents’ hutch the entire time they were married, and remind me of marriage and special family dinners; the big pepper grinder was my father’s favorite dispenser, so every time I use it, Dad comes to mind; and the folk-art wooden ones were my husband’s grandmother’s, so there’s that! See what I mean? How does one clear away this clutter?

It’s easy. Have a bonfire! And, no, I didn’t toss any salt and pepper shakers into the fire that July night when we talked about our increasingly encumbered getaway. But we did throw a few items into the flames! Most memorable was  a  wooden owl that stood about 10 inches high. I don’t know where the owl came from — and if you’re reading this and you gave it to me, I’m sorry. My sons determined that the made-in-China dust collector was destined for the fire that evening. As we all watched it burn, we laughed and laughed (this type of thing is particularly funny to teens, plus it made great firewood), and the boys chanted, “Mom, get rid of all this STUFF!” Indeed, much of what I surrounded us with was meaningless to my family and me.   

The best decorating always comes from the heart. Meaningful pieces make a house a home. And whether you’re decorating a cottage or decorating your life, think about each item that encircles you. My new philosophy: Keep what’s significant. But ... I won’t be tossing or donating any of those salt and pepper shakers just yet (I admit I also have my eye on some cherry-themed ones — see them at right).

Even landscaping can get out of hand, whether at home or at a cottage. The idea is to create a space you can enjoy and not have to worry about or work in constantly. My husband thought it was a good idea way back when to design a hosta bed at the cottage. Every time we arrived, the bed was full of more than beautiful hostas — there would be clumps upon clumps of plant-choking grass. While the beckoning shoreline was just steps away, our aching bodies were constantly leaned over that hosta bed, eyes locked on stubborn roots and dry soil, rather than looking out toward the glimmering waters and passing sailboats.

I found it ironic that as I was writing this, one of the magazine’s graphic artists was sharing with me what he did over a recent weekend. He told me he put some mulch down in a flowerbed and did some landscaping at his home. I asked him if his property featured major landscaping. He said, “Nothing too crazy — a few pine trees out back, with a bonfire pit.” 

There you go! Trees and a bonfire. That’s about all one needs.

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