Seasons in White

As we say farewell to January (and its theme, Things that are white) and look forward to lengthening days and the coming of Spring, I offer an image in white for each season:


Autumn:  Tree bones • Rockwood Conservation Area, Ontario


Winter:  Ice crystals on frozen pond • Eramosa Karst Conservation Area, Ontario


Spring:  Cherry blossoms in May • Mississauga, Ontario


Summer:  Fragrant Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata) • Muskoka, Ontario

To celebrate International Correspondence Writing Month, February’s theme is A Writer’s Life.


Angel Whiskers (Part 3)

The final installment of the story of Simone, or Simmy, Sim-sim, Simkin – whatever you want to call her. (Just don’t call her late for dinner.) If you missed the previous posts, click on Part 1 or Part 2.

10154663021600100-by-nancy-3Simmy the Travelling Cat was also a Wonder Cat. One day when I came to visit, she greeted me as usual but was clearly not herself. My mother wasn’t, either, but neither was about to tell me what was wrong. Then I noticed that the cat seemed disoriented and was bumping into things. My heart sank when I realized what my mother already knew  ̶  that Simone couldn’t see. A trip to the vet told us that Simmy had detached retinas and was completely blind. There was only a small chance of the condition reversing itself, perhaps in a matter of days or weeks. With great sadness, we brought Simmy home, resigned to the fact that our beloved cat would end her days in distress and darkness. Simmy did adapt admirably, navigating through the rooms tolerably well by whisker-feel, and, probably, sound and memory. But our lives – hers and ours – were just not the same.

But, lo! A couple of weeks later – just as the doctor had predicted – Simone was no longer colliding with chair legs or walls, and she seemed so much brighter and happier. Another veterinarian’s visit confirmed that, by some minor miracle, her retinas had spontaneously reattached, and she could see once again!10154663047545100-by-nancy-2

We enjoyed several more years with Simmy. (Gulliver, by the way, went back to my cousins when they returned from New Zealand; he was always their favourite and Simmy their least. They were delighted when my mother agreed to keep her for good.) But time and illness took its toll on the little Japanese Wonder Cat. She lived bravely with hyperthyroidism for the last years, her already petite frame growing increasingly thinner as the disease progressed. In the end, congestive heart failure, so common in old cats, was what claimed her. On that final, merciful visit to the vet, Simmy was courageous to the last. She ended in a purr, hearing how beautiful she was while accepting oh-so-gentle pit-pats on that bizarre yet beloved rear end.

That was about seven years ago. I still miss the ginger-headed little princess, sometimes expecting her to jump down to greet me when I arrive at the door, and to this day she reminds us of how she once graced our lives. Every once in a while, in my mom’s immaculately-kept home where Her Majesty reigned for so long, I still come across the occasional pure white, silky hair, or a long barbed whisker. It’s as if our lovely Sih-muh-nee, in her inscrutable wisdom, stashed them there on purpose, knowing one day we’d find these heart-wrenching yet beautiful

A huge thanks to my sister, Nancy Barrett of Nature’s Dance Photography, for supplying some of the photos for this series.

Angel Whiskers (Part 2)

Part Deux of L’histoire de Simone, the Van from Japan.


Even house cats need a vacation: Simone spent an idyllic three weeks of every year playing Huntress in the great Muskoka wilderness.

Once the Japanese émigrés, Simone and Gulliver, were ensconced in my mother’s house (Do you think they speak English? Mom – bless her – asked), life took on a rather different slant for all of us. I began visiting Mom a bit more often. My mother was not fooled; she knew I had come to see the cats, a fact I cannot deny. The cat I’d grown up with was long gone. After I’d married a self-confessed cat hater (more on that later) and moved to a small apartment, I was destined to indulge my love of the beasts vicariously through other people’s pets, never my own. I’m the ultimate Cat Auntie – every cat I’ve come to know and love since then, I spoil rotten.

Although she was small, Simone was without a doubt Cat Number One in that household and asserted her royal prerogative over Gulliver accordingly. And when our entire family vacationed at our island cottage (an indoor cats’ paradise), she assimilated quite well with my sister’s older, more established cats, Mister and Missy. Perhaps because Simmy was so sure of herself and didn’t require heaps of attention, that excellent pair accepted her without a flick of a whisker, and life at the cottage hummed along quite harmoniously. They even went on safari in the woods together, sometimes led by their Humans. (Try navigating a narrow woodland path whilst three or four felines, intent on exploring the delicious scents ahead, choose the space between your feet as their primary lane of travel.) Meek and unsure Gulliver, on the other hand, (who, on his very first island visit cowered at the edge of the woods for three days, peering at us longingly with saucer eyes and a grumbling tummy from behind a pine tree) had to submit to Mister’s authoritative paw during several machismo-filled hiss- and growl-fests. Mister, a handsome tabby with a magnificently long, curling tail, made it crystal clear that this was his turf, not the young upstart’s. The two avoided each other quite judiciously after that.


Brother and sister duo Mister and Missy look ready to rumble.

It was down at the dock, or when we took a dip in the lake, that Simone displayed another of the Van’s characteristic traits. Apparently, these cats love to swim, possibly due to their ancestors’ habit of fishing in Turkey’s Lake Van. Simmy never showed fear of the water; if anything, she enjoyed being around it. She’d hop readily into our gently-rocking moored boat. Once, we even found her underneath the wharf, exploring the rocks exposed by a low waterline. When we took the cats for walks, she was the one who jumped onto the half-submerged rocks farthest out in the lake, showing no distaste when her paws got wet. And, although we could never coax her to actually swim with us, she stayed as close as she could, looking for all the world as if she wanted to join in.

We had also read that Turkish Vans are rather more standoffish than most cats and dislike being held. Simone stayed true to her breed in that regard, to be sure, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t a sweet, loving cat. In her own way, she showed us great tenderness – but always on her terms. She refused to curl up on our laps and would tolerate being picked up for about 3.7 seconds, but absolutely adored snoozing beside me on the couch, an ever-so-convenient position for her most favouritest thing: the administration of endless “pit-pats” on her backside.

Once in a while, though, the Princess surprised us. Back at the cottage on a chilly summer evening, we caught her and my supposedly cat-hating husband nestled together by the fire. Heat-seeking missile Simmy had euphorically if temporarily suspended her “No laps” policy, while my husband was doing his best to maintain an air of complete indifference to this unlooked-for lap rug. The gig was up for both of them when we spied him sneaking out a hand to give the cat a few furtive yet clearly loving caresses. Busted!


Not exactly a dignified position for Her Majesty, yet essential for soaking up that fireside heat!

During my mother’s move to a condo, Simone expressed bewilderment and grief at the (temporary) loss of her rightful Human when I took the cat home with me for safekeeping one night until the movers were done. She refused to eat, drink or use the litterbox, and prowled the apartment incessantly all night, crying pitifully for my mother. Naturally, I couldn’t sleep for all this caterwauling, either. I loved Simone, but I wasn’t impressed by this performance. Once settled into her new home, however, she happily ruled the roost once again, sleeping at the foot of Mom’s bed (something my mother vowed would never happen) and keeping her faithful company. Whenever I came to visit, she’d wake instantly from her afternoon snooze, hop down from the bed and trot cheerfully to the door to greet me. I wasn’t fooled, either; Simone knew perfectly well that she was in for a glorious few hours of silly talk and endless pit-pats; a task the One Who Fed Her left very happily to me.

~ To be continued ~

Angel Whiskers (Part 1)

The first chapter in the life and times of Simone, a little white cat.


Simone: Looking a little worried that the garden voles might be bigger than she is

My mother’s cat, Simone, enjoyed a well-travelled, storied life. She was born in Osaka, Japan, where my cousin and his wife taught English as a Second Language for several years in the 1990s. My cousins are diehard cat people, and when it comes to taking pity on strays, each has a big “S” (for Sucker) emblazoned on the forehead. When the teaching gig ended and they came back to Canada, they brought five (or was it six?) rescue cats with them.

One of these wayward waifs was Gulliver, so named because he was an enormous black-and-white boy with a comical moustache and an insatiable appetite for kibble and a whole lotta lovin’. If he wanted cuddles (once he realized with great sadness that a treat wasn’t in his immediate future), he’d peer up with dinner-plate eyes, attempting to mesmerize with his goofy brand of big-boned charm. That rather unsettling green gaze was his way of telegraphing intent to embark on a full-body snuggle, there to stay forever if you let him. Prepare to be boarded was what those eyes were saying. And he did weigh about the same as a jumbo jet. If he sensed we were about to put him down, perhaps to restore circulation to our cold, dead arms, he’d go all limp and pseudo-comatose, as if to project how helpless and hopelessly lovable he was. You could practically hear him beg, I won’t be a bother. I promise I’ll be good, but please, please don’t ever let me go!


Gulliver: “I’m not fat … just big boned”

The other Japanese import who came into our lives via the nomadic cousins was Simone. She was the polar opposite of her adopted brother: small and dainty, self-possessed and somewhat aloof. For some reason still unknown to me, my cousins (English teachers, if you recall), decided to pronounce the name SIH muh nee. Naturally, that eventually got shortened to Simmy, Sim-sim, Simkin and a couple of other variations.

Back in Japan, Simone was urged upon my hapless cousins by a well-meaning yet rather conniving store owner who’d noticed the young cat struggling to make a living in the mean Osakan streets outside his shop. According to him, the little cat, who was probably two or three years old at the time, had already borne at least one litter of kittens, which she’d once defended from a vicious dog attack. This she had done quite valiantly, claimed the shop keeper, who would have made a great spin doctor or grifter if the corner store had gone under. But what made the tough little cat truly special, he declared, was that she was a Turkish Van, a truly blessed feline indeed. Pronounced VAWN, this breed was developed in the United Kingdom from cats obtained from several cities in Turkey. They are short- to medium-haired, mainly white, with colour – usually red, brown, cream or black – restricted to the head and tail plus a few random body spots. The head colouring forms a vague M shape on the crown between the ears. The shopkeeper insisted this had been created when Allah placed his thumbs on the cat’s forehead in divine blessing  ̶  thus bestowing on that scrappy street urchin a status above all others of her species.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASimmy had another rather unique attribute: her foreshortened, deformed tail. Its origin was the subject of some speculation by vets and owners alike. It was about two-thirds normal length, and had a curious bony nobble on the end. I always thought it was the result of a terrible accident, but one doctor guessed it may have been a birth defect. Further reading revealed that Vans sometimes have shorter tails! They also share several behavioural traits which I’ll talk about later.

If you’d met these peculiar creatures and heard such a tail tale, I bet you would have done exactly what my cousins did: rescue Simmy and four or five of her gang (they found Japanese homes for the kittens), get them all fixed up by a veterinarian, and transport them at great expense to their forever home on the other side of the world. Except that “forever” didn’t exactly pan out as my cousins had intended. After a few months on their native soil, it was clear there was still no employment to be had, so off they scarpered to New Zealand, where they took jobs teaching ESL to Maori children. Because of that country’s strict animal importation laws, it wasn’t possible to bring the cats with them, so before they left, they were forced to farm them out to friends and unsuspecting family.

When I say unsuspecting, I do mean just that. My mother’s brother (and father to the cat-loving cousin in question) very helpfully “volunteered” his sister as a willing foster mother … without speaking to her first. Mom, who shares the “S” gene mentioned above, reluctantly agreed to take two of the cats, on condition that they go back to their owners once the Kiwi stint was done. And so Gulliver and Simone were dropped off at her house on my cousins’ the way to the airport. Gulliver, who was never possessed of much self-esteem or bravado, shot immediately down the basement stairs and hid behind the washing machine for three days. (He probably lost at least half a gram in the process.) Simmy, on the other hand, minced out of her carrier on delicate white paws, cool as a cucumber with petite ginger-stamped head and cropped tail held high. One patrician sniff of her new surroundings made it clear that she was Queen of the Castle now, thank you very much, and we were all henceforth her royal subjects. From that instant, Her Majesty stole our hearts completely, and never looked back.

~ To be continued ~

Snow Good: Two satisfying winter reads

20170113_141853-2First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen (2014, St. Martin’s Press)

I was initially attracted to this bargain bin paperback’s cover image of a frosted rosy apple on weathered barn board and the synopsis on the back cover. In a modern yet genteel North Carolina college town of rambling, turreted old Queen Anne houses, Hallowe’en and the first frost of autumn approach. A family of eccentric women who handcraft magical confections from their herb garden is threatened by the ominous arrival of a mysterious stranger who may be every bit as powerful as the women themselves. When I read the author’s dedication, in which she refers to her work as ‘a strange little garden book’; I was pretty sure I was in for a good ride. Sold!

I loved this novel from the very first page. The story immediately brought to mind Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman’s 1995 book and the 1998 film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Like that story, the Waverley women of First Frost have peculiar “gifts” which, in the eyes of the townspeople, mark them as odd and suspicious. Their magic is never malevolent, however, and each woman has her own way of using – or denying – her power. Their surroundings are also imbued with quirky magic: doors lock out those lacking inner peace, rooms spontaneously tidy themselves, and an ancient tree angrily lobs apples when it feels neglected. The main character, a teenaged daughter named Bay, has her own angst to deal with and choices to make. Will she accept her gift, or will she reject what she knows to be right and live to regret it? I was happy to find that this book is not a pale imitation of Practical Magic, but a well-crafted tale that follows its own lavender-lined path.

This story is rooted in the garden and kitchen, and is peppered with food imagery and exquisite description appealing to all the senses. Allen writes, “Simmering soup on a cold day was like filling a house with cotton batting.” Fallen leaves “looked like the world was covered in a cobbler crust of brown sugar and cinnamon.” And people’s moods are expressed in olfactory auras: the silvery-grey smoke of the mysterious stranger, and aloof Bay who “smelled like cold air and roses.” Insightful characters and a tight plotline kept me reading, and I was enchanted.

A bonus book-club section at the end of the novel offers opportunities for discussion, an epilogue following up on some secondary characters, and a few recipes featured in the story. There it’s revealed that First Frost is a sequel to Allen’s 1997 work, Garden Spells, which deals with the earlier years of the two oldest Waverley sisters. I’m conjuring it up on Amazon right now!

April Snow by Lillian Budd (1951, J.B. Lippincott Co.)

I’m also re-reading this old classic, which is set on a snowy, windswept island in 19th century Sweden. I first read April Snow as a teenager and was drawn to the resolute tenacity of its main character, a peasant woman named Sigrid. Life is hard on her isolated farm, and her lazy, selfish husband’s affections wane with the birth of each of their eleven children. In quiet rebellion, Sigrid harnesses her vibrant creativity, faith and hope to cope with the rigors of farm life and a loveless marriage, all the while staying true to her heritage. Although the prose is simple and rather stilted at times, this novel is a fascinating insight into Swedish tradition and culture, and, if you can snag a copy, is well worth a read.

The Crystal Cave

20170111_002030-3Named for the 1970 Arthurian novel by Mary Stewart, this garden of clear quartz (a.k.a. rock crystal) standing stones rises from a glittering bed of ice blue and frost grey pebbles. The seven stones (a magickal number symbolizing knowledge, awareness, meditation and introspection) stand proudly, admiring their ancient reflection in the surface of a frozen lake. Amongst this winter wonderland, a blanket of forest moss gives us hope for an early, green Spring.

To make this crystal garden, I filled the bottom of an 8” diameter rose bowl with a mix of blue and grey vase filler glitter stones, then nestled an inexpensive 5” round mirror amongst them – remembering to clean off the smudges first! Because none of the quartz points had a flat base, I used white tac adhesive (removable, non-drying and non-staining putty) to help them stay upright, and disguised it with moss and more pebbles. Tweezers and my cell phone stylus helped with placing and securing the pebbles and moss.

20170111_002030-5To add a further wintery touch, I originally sprinkled the garden with faux snow of the shredded clear plastic kind, but the large flakes with their colourful iridescence didn’t fit my theme of icy winter white and just didn’t look right, so I used my tweezers to remove most of them. If I were to do this again, I’d choose the granular variety instead.

I purchased all materials except the quartz and adhesive at Michael’s, although glass containers and craft mirrors can usually be found at bargain stores.

The beauty of this arrangement is that it’s temporary and can be changed according to one’s whim: with the seasons, using different decorative accents, or with minerals or stones that hold special meaning for you. Amethyst, for example, would be a wonderful choice for February!

For more information on the history and properties of clear quartz, please see my blog post here.dsc_5078-3

dsc_8957-4Here are two treatments of the same subject; I haven’t decided which I like better:

Haiku #1
in creeps frosted light
December’s dark mist no more –
the pagan wheel turns

Haiku #2
a frigid day dawns
months yet before the warming –
the turn of the year

“Haikus for January” © 2017 Valerie Barrett. All rights reserved.