The Backhouse At the Lake


Been a while since I shared a story with you. So here is one that takes a rude comment from the president, and turns it into a family tradition. The comment, something about those "...shithole countries."

A friend remarked that he could not recall a time when he used that term, "shithole." I wracked my brain as well and could not come up with a time either, though I did share an experience with one. A real "shithole". The outhouse at the back of our lake house property in the Berkshires of Northwest Connecticut. We called it the "back house" since it was across the road from the main house, up a small hill in the woods, at the end of a little dirt path.

The "back house" was for the men to take care of Number 2 duties as the single toilet in the main house, more of a cottage several feet from the lake, drained into small holding tank that had to be drawn out periodically. The women could use it for both numbers 1 & 2, the men only #1. The back house was for anything else. NO ONE ever broke the rules. It was family tradition.

On the seat was a Readers Digest and a can of lime was on the floor to help decompose the organics. My grandmother, well up into her 70's and 80's would march up every morning and sweep away the spiders, shake some lime in the "shit hole" and wipe down the seat with disinfectant . The wooden building was painted evergreen green to blend in with the background and bright white inside. One cousin carved her initials in the door, and got a beating for it, but more about that later.

The cottage was built in 1938 when my grandmother and two of her sisters built cottages on the lake, two right on the water, and one across the road on the hill with right of way between the two waterfront cottages, Aspenwood and Stardust. The hole was dug in rocky ground and the building set over it, leveled and remained in place for almost 50 years. It was moved once in that time, and Uncle Henry ended up in the hole when they were trying to move it. On another occasion when the family dog, a cocker spaniel named "Bunky" got in the way of another family project, someone locked her in the outhouse. She figured out how to escape by lifting the toilet seat, jumping down the hole (yummy), digging her way out and presenting herself to my grandfather who was ready to dig another hole to bury her in, dead or alive I hear.

I spent every summer of my life from 8 months of age to 18, on that lake, losing the cottage when I went away to college in Virginia and my grandmother assumed, that since I was the last one who loved the place, and I was "gone", it was time to sell the cottage. Her two sisters had already done as much, so in 1968, thirty years after building it, Stardust was sold, torn down, and a blue box monstrosity took its place.

I was away from the lake (self-fulfilling prophesy) for 18 years, and at 36, married with two kids aged 8 and 9, decided to return to the lake of my dreams and rent a cottage on the lake for a week. We were in First Bay, but of course we had to swing by to see the old place. While the cottage was gone, there was the outhouse, still in place. There was no one home, so I walked up, unlatched the door and made myself at home. Can you believe the Reader's Digest from 1967, the last summer was still there? I now have it stashed away.

The next summer my mom and dad rented Aspenwood, the cottage next door and that provided another visit to the lake. It was the Fourth of July and I walked down the lane, looked up, and to my dismay, the outhouse was gone. I went down to the Blue Box house, and walked up to the front door. I knocked and the new owner came out on the porch. I asked him what happened to the outhouse. He told me it was funny that I asked, only the day before he had torn it down and carted it off to the dump.

I walked away, but my gears were turning. If he just yesterday took it to the dump, and today was a national holiday, if I went to the dump tomorrow, maybe, just maybe I could find it. Sure enough the next day my dad and I headed to the dump. I asked the dump guy where a wooden structure or pile of old lumber might be. He pointed to a muddy dirt road that went to a flat area on top of the hill. "You might find it on the brush pile up there," he pointed. We drove up, and there were not one but two huge brush piles, 25 to 30 feet high. I headed for one, my dad to the other.

I walked around it looking at logs and sticks and twigs and trees and brush. Almost ready to give up when I spotted it. Near the top about 20 feet up was an evergreen green door, the piece I sought. I crawled up, turned it over, white with initials! I had found it! I crawled down with the door held high over my head, whooping to my dad.

Once home, I cut out the part with the initials and a name, "Captain Tappy" J.... Turns out that was the nickname of my mom's cousin Jean whose parents, Aunt Dot and Uncle Henry (of the falling in the shithole business) owned Aspenwood. She never finished her whole name, having spent too much time in the outhouse and being interrupted by her dad Henry who didn't take too kindly to her defacing his sister-in-law’s property.

I had a friend of mine make a frame of the outside green wood, and centered it around the white piece with the nickname and initials. For Christmas, I presented it, with family gathered round to cousin Jean. She was speechless.

She kept it on her wall for a number of years, and then when she turned 90 last February, she asked if I would like it back. It now hangs on the wall of our family lakehouse in West Virginia. Just something about Family Traditions.

Frank L. Miller January 12, 2018


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