D*S Essay Contest: Stacey LaFayette

by Grace Bonney

[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]

When I was young, my family would spend every 4th of July at our beach cabin in Manzanita, on the Oregon Coast. Even though we drove west to get there, we always said we were “going down” to the beach, as though we were descending into a simpler world, one with no phone service or wi-fi or cable. Everyone would go down there; aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – more people than could reasonably fit in a two-bedroom cabin. I don’t even remember where we all slept. We must have been lined up on the floor in sleeping bags, crammed onto couches and bunk beds. On the morning of the 4th we would all walk the five blocks to the main street, set up folding chairs, and watch the parade. It was a small affair at first, with homemade floats and Manzanita residents driving in their cars and throwing candy to the kids. Gradually it morphed into what it is today, a huge ordeal with dozens of floats made by businesses from up and down the coast, an impressive array of vintage cars, more candy than a kid knows what to do with, and a main street flyover from an F-15 jet.

Then we’d walk back to the cabin, where we’d have a barbecue and eat the biggest steaks known to man, my grandpa’s splurge for the family. In the afternoon we’d walk two blocks to the beach, stopping to try our hand at running up an impossibly steep sand dune. It was nearly vertical, or felt so as a small child, and we would have contests to see who clamber up the highest before giving in to gravity and sliding back down. Then there were sandcastles to build, and seashells to collect, and we’d run away screaming and laughing whenever mom would pick up giant pieces of slimy seaweed and chase after us with them. The nighttime firework show on the beach capped off the holiday, the booms reverberating in my chest and the smoke seeping into my clothes and hair.

Our cabin was built by all of us, bit by bit, over the past thirty-seven years. My grandpa bought the lot for $7,800 in 1976, when Manzanita was just another sleepy beach town whose main draw was the sand and the golf course. It was a quarter acre of tough, windblown trees and scrubby salal bushes. He laid the foundation in 1978, with the help of my dad, my uncle, and my grandma’s uncle . For three years they worked on it. My grandpa saved up for each new piece of the cabin so he could avoid debt. He and my grandma would stay down there on weekends and work on it, living out of a tiny travel trailer until the cabin finally had walls and floors. Even then, it didn’t have any carpet – just rugs and carpet remnants, laid out like patchwork on the rough wooden floors. The basement bedroom and bathroom only had bare sheetrock walls for about twenty-five years before we got around to painting them. It was one of the least stylish homes I’ve ever seen – and yet, no one cared. Our experiences down there were so much more interesting than the decor.

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Unfinished beach house
With only a few exceptions, every part of this cabin was made by my family and our friends. Most of us have literally put our blood, sweat and tears into it. A church friend helped with framing and siding, and in return was granted free beach cabin vacations for life. Our Manzanita neighbor built the kitchen cabinets. My grandpa bought a book on framing, plumbing, electrical work, and sheetrock installation so that he could do most of it himself. He still ended up accidentally putting the bathtub hot/cold valve in upside down, so anyone looking for a nice hot shower got an icy cascade of water instead. We’ve never wanted to change this. It was too funny, and too symbolic of the wonderful handmade nature of our cabin.

At some point during construction, once visitors were allowed over, people started writing on the sheetrock wall in the living room to commemorate their stay. I think they saw my grandma and grandpa’s founding signatures on it, and they joined in, writing out their thanks to my grandparents for building this house and letting them stay there. Someone drew a picture of a mermaid. Another person signed their name, and my grandpa drew an arrow to it and wrote “Who is this guy?” I don’t recognize most of the names on the wall. They were probably written down before I was born, or when I was a baby. There are so many people out there who loved the beach cabin before I even knew it existed.

My dad expanded the existing upstairs deck about fifteen years ago, and my brother and his friend helped build the downstairs patio. My parents brought down bricks to build a pathway in front. A family friend replaced the aging windows for us. My uncle installed storage cabinets in the bedroom. My aunts brought plants for the front yard that were hardy enough to stand up to the salty beach air; hydrangeas and crocosmias and tall elegant grasses. Everyone has contributed kitschy beach knickknacks, and some of us have painted rooms and laid down new flooring and carpeting and bought used furniture.

I’ve had a lot of homes in my life, in different states and different countries. They have almost all been comfortable, happy, pretty places, full of things and people that I love, but none of them have had the same sense of camaraderie and resourcefulness as our scrappy beach cabin. It’s home to an entire extended family all at once, right down to second cousins and in-laws and family friends. Nearly everyone I love has stayed there at some point, for fun or relaxation or comfort from grief. My grandpa moved down to the cabin for six months after my grandma died, coming back into Portland occasionally to stay with us. I imagine he felt close to her down there, in that place they built together during those happy and frustrating and exhausting years when it first started coming together. And when my grandpa died five years ago, most of us who went down to the cabin after that felt both sad and happy to be surrounded by his decades-long labor of love, the home away from home that we all shared.

It was at the beach cabin that we learned my father-in-law had been killed in an aviation accident. I couldn’t go back there for nearly a year after that, gripped by the deeply irrational but perhaps entirely understandable fear that if I went back to the beach cabin, someone else would die. We finally took a trip there a year later with some friends and their kids, and I spent the first day in a state of near-panic, growing shaky and wanting to vomit any time anyone’s phone made a noise. On the second day of the trip it was sunny and perfect. Everyone played in the sand and built sandcastles, and on the way out of town we picked up a pizza and ate it on a bluff overlooking the ocean. It was simple and nice, and a welcome experience after the trauma of our previous visit. So many of us have carried our grief down to the beach cabin, and even if being there doesn’t help us get rid of it, I think we all eventually find some hope and happiness there too.

It’s a place that has brought so many people together. Not just my own family, but other people in our lives as well. My church youth group spent a weekend down there in high school, thirty of us squished happily into that tiny cabin, playing furiously loud card games, singing, flirting, playing Capture the Flag on the beach at night, and reveling in our closeness and the escape from ordinary life. My brothers, cousins, aunts, and I have all taken groups of friends down there, for weekend getaways, bachelorette parties, book clubs. As poor college students, my husband and I deeply appreciated having it as a free haven to visit on our honeymoon. Many of us have gone down there alone, to escape the madness and noise of normal life, to soak up the sound of the ocean out the window at night and the feeling of peace that it’s always possible to find there.

I spent this past 4th of July at the beach cabin with my husband, parents, niece, and dog. We ate good food, walked on the beach, went antiques shopping, built sandcastles, went to the parade, watched fireworks, and lounged around reading books. And, as always, we tinkered with the house. My mom cleared out brush and pruned the salal bushes. I rummaged through the local thrift shop for a few used books to leave on the bookshelf. My dad cleared out some things from the garage and brought them to the neighbors’ garage sale. I’ve always wanted to learn how to build things, so the day after the holiday my dad taught me how to build a planter box for the front yard. We found old lumber under the deck, and he taught me how to cut it with a circular saw, and how to add support beams to the inside of the box. I’ve never been so thrilled with anything I’ve ever made. It turned out beautiful and crooked, perfect and imperfect, made from scraps and collaboration and determination. I think my grandpa would have been proud of what we added to our home. –Stacey LaFayette

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  • Love this story! I married into a family with a funky old house that was built by an eccentric great-uncle, just down the road from Manzanita, in Twin Rocks. My husband says it was built from stuff that washed up on the beach and I believe that might be true. The toilet seat has a ’70s owl on it and the whole toilet tips to the side a little (at some point, someone was sitting on it after having a few and the whole thing fell over and and the person found himself outside–the wall was rotten). The fuses would blow almost constantly (my FIL finally upgraded to a new panel last year). There’s an area ringed with rocks in the yard that you can’t step on or you’ll fall into the old septic tank. When the great uncle was still alive, the house was painted white with red polka dots. We’ll be heading there in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait.

  • I am glad you mother encouraged me to read this on Facebook. I love the story. I have always loved the beach and always loved Manzanita. Your so lucky to have had this wonderful home to enjoy and your story brings us right to the memories. Great job expressing your feelings. Keep writing!

    Tami Litson Mahrt

  • Such a great family story, even though I am not a family member, this story made me feel like I was a part of them. Putting love, sweat, and tears building memories for this loving family. If only we all had a place to go to reflect on happy times and grievances. I would love to have a family cabin like this.

    Thanks for sharing your story

  • Love this. It reminds me so much of my grandparent’s cottage. They’re no longer living, but there is so much of them still in that cottage… everytime I go up to the lake I feel close to them.