Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mountains or ocean?

I remember taking a quiz in a woman's magazine a long time ago and one of the questions was "which would you prefer, a mountain retreat or an ocean retreat?" I chose ocean even though my family had a cabin in the mountains where we'd spend much of our time escaping the summer heat of Phoenix.

As fate would have it, my husband, his sister and older brother inheirited a ramshackle beach cottage years after I took that quiz. It's in Mexico and located right on the ocean. We'd never in a million years be able to afford such a location in the U.S. His family bought the place 35 years ago when the area was just taking off and were able to get the pick of oceanside lots.

The house itself has never been fancy, a living room, a bathroom, kitchen and 2 bedrooms. The main focus is the patio with a magnificent view of the Sea of Cortez. On a clear day you can look across and see the Baja Pennisula in the distance.

Through the years, weather, humidity, sand and time have taken their toll on the place but we have always loved our trips there despite the rundown condition and the primitive facilities. There are two water tanks on the roof but we can't drink the water and only use it to wash. The shower is barely a trickle and most trips I skip even trying to take a shower and boil some water on the stove and take sponge baths. Brushing teeth involves using bottled water, always a feat trying to rinse the toothbrush that way. The bed in the master bedroom is the original bed brought to the house over 35 years ago and sags in the middle, both parties ending up rolled together whether they want it or not. The windows rattle fiercely with the strong breezes and the gaps let sand accumulate in the house. The stucco on the outside is peeling, the roof has never been replaced and all the furnishings and kitchen goods are discards from one place or another.

Despite showing her age, despite her quirks, the house has been a much loved part of my husband's family and now a part of mine. The ocean air, exploring the tide pools, gathering shells, the tradition of watching the sun set into the sea, cooking out on the patio, watching the ocean life including dolphins and seals and our big discovery one visit of bleached whale bones (yes, we brought a rib home and it now sits in our garden) are all a part of the magic of the house.

For years the house didn't have electricity and that was part of the charm, lighting kerosene lamps and Coleman lanterns when it started to get dark, playing board games and Charades with the kids with no TV or video games in sight and the best part of darkness was sitting on the patio in chairs with our heads back looking at the starlit sky, sometimes seeing meteors and many times seeing the space shuttle arc through the darkness.

My husband's dad has been dead five years and we have slowly started to "improve" the house. The roof has been replaced as have the windows and doors, the outside re-stuccoed and repainted, we now have electricity and for the past few months we have been working on the inside with a new tile shower and fixtures in the bathroom and new tile on the floors including out onto the patio which has also been extended. The kitchen is now gutted, the old gas refrigerator long gone, the annoying- at- times tiny gas stove is history also. The propane tank has been removed. New cabinets are being made and new furniture is being planned. We'll definitely be more comfortable but in a way it's bittersweet.

The end of one era of the house is in sight. We will continue to enjoy the house and make memories there but I realize that the magic and beauty of the place has never had anything to do with beautiful tile, modern appliances or stylish furnishings. The perfection hoped for with the new improvements will make us more comfortable but not happier. The location, the loved ones and the traditions are things you can't improve with money and are the things that make us miss the place when we aren't there and cherish the place when we are.


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