A little granite island on Lake Muskoka, home to tall pines, majestic oaks and maple, aromatic cedar, scrubby juniper and an active population of pixies, has been in my family since my great-grandfather purchased it in 1911. His son, my mother’s dad, built the sturdy wooden cottage a couple of years later, and other than the addition of a screened-in porch, the house has stood unchanged and resolute throughout the decades. My mother has spent every summer of her life there, as have her three children. Other branches of the family have also enjoyed it, and we all have rich and long-lasting memories of such a magickal place.
Over the years, for example, there have been three marriages performed at the cottage; one of those brides carried fragrant white water-lilies, plucked from a local bay, as her bouquet. I chose to be married in the nearby town of Gravenhurst and have our reception on the (now) 131-year-old Royal Mail Ship Segwun, an elegant and graceful steamer that’s been plying the lakes since the logging days. My sister held her wedding and reception on the same ship, which cruises past our island on every voyage. The cottage has also been the perfect location for honeymoons; on warm summer nights when the moon spreads her silvery splendour across silent waters while loons call out emphatic yet rather haunting encouragement, what could be more idyllic?
As far as I know, no children (human, anyway) have ever been born on the island, but a passel of kids has certainly grown up there. Along its wave-lapped shores, we learned how to swim, paddle canoes, ply oars and run the motorboat. We picked up frogs, crayfish and snapping turtles with naïve hands and caught our first pike in its waters. We ran willy-nilly down the sloping dock path at unstoppable speed, skinning our knees, and we swung to and fro and twirled around on the old rope swing, then got sick all over the dinner table. Clad only in wet bathing suits, we raced through the woods on scavenger hunts and spent idle afternoons in the hammock or perched on a favourite rock, devouring ripe blueberries, juicy blackberries and oh! so many novels. At night we fell, sunburnt and exhausted, into creaky wrought iron beds with lumpy mattresses and were lulled to sleep by the cries of distant gulls.
The cottage’s furnishings haven’t changed much since the old days, except the occasional coat of white paint (the porch rafters were given a distinct marine feel with the addition of lake-blue stripes). When the kids got older, however, we converted a no-longer-needed “bedroom” – a corner of the porch – into a quiet reading nook, complete with white wicker chairs, blue cushions and a view of the lake. From this north-facing aspect, the water is sometimes cobalt, calmly reflecting a sparkling summer sky, and sometimes it’s a dark, moody slate, with a whipped topping of whitecaps foreshadowing an approaching storm.
Like most summer places, the cottage has been the repository of household items the thriftier generations thought “too good” to throw away. Drawers and cupboards are jammed with all sorts of utilitarian bits and pieces such as dented pots, an ancient egg beater, a rusty ladle, heavy stoneware jugs, a chipped enamelware colander and umpteen different patterns of silverware. There’s even a 19th century zinc washboard hanging around, and each bedroom still has its original chamber pot – or “thunder mug”, as we’ve always called them.
All of these things carry their own memories and rustic charm. But there’s one group of items that has graced the kitchen cabinets for as long as anyone can remember: a mismatched collection of blue and white china. Among this classic transferware crockery, the nearest and dearest to my heart has to be Blue Willow.
The story of Blue Willow (or just “Willow”, as it’s properly known) is a popular and romantic fable involving runaway lovers, a secluded island and, sad to say, their doomed end. Despite this melancholy tale, I’ve always found it a cheerful experience drinking my morning tea and eating light summer meals from such classic and fresh blue and white ware. The fact that some of our pieces are at least 100 years old and still in use (we’ve only had to retire one cracked dish) attests to the family’s fondness for the “cottage china”. (There’s good reason this pattern is often used on-screen to evoke old-time hominess and domesticity.)
When I married, I chose the Blue Willow pattern as my own household dinnerware, and for years I scoured antique fairs for rarer, more unique pieces to add to a growing collection. To me, this pattern will forever speak of that little white house on that wooded island in that deep, blue lake – and I will always love them both.