A Blue and White Love Affair

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.


A Writer’s Life

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter

dsc_5172-4My love of books, of language, of the power of words, started very early. From the time I was a tiny tot, my parents read me a bedtime story every night. My favourite books back then were the charming tales by Beatrix Potter. Who could resist the likes of Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Squirrel Nutkin? To help prolong the life of these beloved volumes, my mother made covers for them from purple-flowered wallpaper left over from my room. The beautifully-illustrated little hardcover books still wear those slipcovers and occupy a special place on my bookshelves to this day.

Perhaps because my parents instilled a love of books in me from such an early age, I became adept at reading and writing. (My mom also encouraged me to sing before I could read, which I believe helped develop my ear for music.) Spelling always came easily, and I was never confounded by the rules of grammar.

“let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences” – Sylvia Plath

I took typing classes in high school. Throughout those years and in university, I wrote all my papers on a manual Underwood typewriter similar to the one pictured here. (The circa 1912 machine in the photos belonged to my husband’s grandfather, a clergyman who likely used it to compose his sermons and prayers.) Our old typewriter was already a relic when it was handed down to me; frustratingly, the e (the most frequently-used letter in the English language) always got stuck. Imagine how pleased I was later on when, with the proceeds of a stint as a community college English teacher, I was able to purchase – wonder of wonders! – an electric typewriter! This was before personal computers became a household staple, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.dsc_5220-3Although my language skills were pretty polished, I didn’t yet have a firm understanding of punctuation. In a university Old English course, as we studied the Venerable Bede, the Great Vowel Shift and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I learned a valuable lesson. My professor (we’ll call him Æthelbert) handed back a graded essay of mine. The first couple of pages were covered in red Xs; after that, there was one last acerbic note from the prof. He was thoroughly exasperated with my overuse of commas, he said, and would I, please, stop using them, before he acted on his desperate urge, to commit a rather, unfortunate, violent act. His plea was followed by about a dozen exclamation points.

I took the hint and cleaned up my grammatical act. Thanks in part to Professor Æthelbert, I went on to earn my degree in languages, literature and translation.

I’ve always found it easier to write my thoughts down rather than express them verbally, especially if I’m struggling with a decision or when I’m upset. The process of getting thoughts, feelings and frustrations down on paper is cathartic and therapeutic. And I’ll often think – hours later – of what I should have said: a biting response or a witty bit of repartee. Far too late, I know, but churning words over in my mind and writing them down helps me work through problems and see things more clearly. No one will ever read those scribblings, but I almost always feel better.

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Around 2010, I began work on a novel. It’s based on dreams I had when I was much younger, and the fantasy has been growing and morphing and causing agonizing self-doubt about my writing abilities ever since. There have been days and nights when I sit down at my laptop, forgoing food and drink, conversation and participation in real life for long stretches. Suddenly, I’ll look up to find that, whilst I’ve been lost in my dream world of words, testing phrases on my tongue and searching for le mot juste, a full eight hours have flown by. My characters have lived, loved, fought and sometimes died, and I’ve rejoiced, struggled and wept along with them. Nothing else exists for me during this time, and I’m at my happiest when I’m tapping away in this world, alone yet not alone.dsc_5211-4

That novel is far from finished. Sometimes I go great guns, writing pages and pages; other times, I feel the thing is complete rubbish. Certainly the story has strayed far from where it started, and that doesn’t sit right with me. I know I need to make major changes to its plot and structure, but for the last couple of years I’ve been stricken with a terrible case of writer’s block, an inability to see how it can be done. There are other big issues going on in my life which are undoubtedly damming the creative flow. Perhaps when I sort those out, I can get back to doing what I love most.

Summer’s End

dsc_8886-16the soft subsidence
of summer; sharp-scented thyme
a dried memory

“Summer’s End” © 2016 Valerie Barrett. All rights reserved.


Favourite Things

For my entire life, DSC_9584 (6)I’ve known and loved this charming rocking chair. It lives at the family cottage and, like so much of the house’s early 20th century furnishings and trim, was originally painted deep burgundy-red. This was a popular colour of the time, and the paint – common and cheap – contained lead. Trouble was (aside from the health hazard, which no one knew about back then), all that darkness made the house seem very gloomy indeed, especially at night. My mother recalls evenings as a youngster, before the installation of electricity, reading by the feeble light of a coal-oil lamp. The room’s wood-panelled corners were shrouded in mysterious shadow; who knew what lurked there? How her youthful imagination must have taken flight – and set the gooseflesh to rising!

Those summer nights, perched cross-legged on that chair, my mom read and re-read one of her all-time favourite books, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. This novel was written in 1908 by John Fox, Jr. Billed as a “western romance”, it involves the encroachment of modern industrialism on a traditional Appalachian coal mining town, two feuding clans, and a good ol’, darn tootin’ Eliza Doolittle/Professor Higgins-style romance. Wildly popular, Lonesome Pine inspired a 1913 song and numerous subsequent stage and screen adaptations. My mother’s copy, which had graced the cottage bookshelf for decades, disappeared one summer, but about 20 years ago, she found a replacement (shown here) at a local antiques shop. I sheepishly admit that, in all my summers at the lake, I haven’t yet read this wonderful volume. But its yellowing pages are calling me now, and I know I’ll read it settled into the seat of that welcoming old rocker.

My grandfather, with the assistance of his then ten-year-old daughter, installed the chair’s rope seat when the original rushes wore out. My mom remembers helping to hold the ropes taut as he worked. They did an excellent job, because for more than seventy years, it’s stoically withstood summers on an open-air porch, mouse infestations, uninsulated winters and generations of soggy, bathing-suited bottoms.

As for all that dark red décor, it eventually fell out of fashion; light, creamy white was now in. But by then it was known that stripping lead paint was DSC_9455 (6)dangerous, so the red was simply covered over. And over. And over. Many years and layers of paint later, that deep burgundy still shows up where the white layers have chipped, or bleeds through in patches of pale pink. It’s as if the old finish – once desired and au courant – is part of the very lifeblood of the place, reminding us of our favourite things, and willfully refusing to be forgotten.

The Beauty of Ordinary Things

DSC_1311 (4)We’ve passed them by a thousand times, those everyday objects – humble, utilitarian things which serve and make our lives more convenient. And yet we usually take these objects for granted; in fact, we never really notice them.

And that’s a shame, because, if you take the time to look a little more closely, a bit of beauty can usually be found in the most ordinary of things. My interest in macro nature photography has taught me this. I find wonder in the spiral of a common snail’s shell. A minuscule mushroom’s delicate gills demand closer inspection. And the subtle rosy shade of a lady’s-slipper makes me stop to take just one more photo, even though I’ve already captured dozens of images of the same flower.

I will always photograph wild things, but recently my focus has settled on human-made objects. I spend time each summer at an island cottage, the house my grandfather built in the early 1900s. Like many rustic cabins, it was filled over the years with cast-offs and hand-me-downs, those utensils and furnishings that were no longer wanted at home but were “too good” to throw away. In our case, some of these pieces date back to the Victorian and Edwardian periods, when objects, no matter how humble, were manufactured with attention to detail and made to last. The first generation to come here, more than a hundred years ago now, used them; the next relegated them to a high shelf or fireplace mantel; those generations which followed (including my own) now largely ignore these finely-wrought things, dismissing them as quaint yet unremarkable relics of a bygone age.

Lately, my interest in these neglected antiques has been sparked in part by the knowledge that we may not be able to hold on to the cottage much longer. So, I took the cracked milk pitchers and kerosene lamps and rusty flat irons out of dark cabinets and down from dusty shelves and began documenting them in photographs. As I did so, I started to truly appreciate their utilitarian yet lovely lines or worn, hand-applied paint, the meticulous workmanship, the scratches, grooves and chips which whisper of long-ago lives. And I began to wonder at the history of each piece: where was it made? Who brought it here? What was it used for?

My mother is the oldest surviving member of our cottaging clan and has spent every summer of her life on her beloved island. When we’re at the house, gathered around the sturdy pine dining table – also crafted by her father – she reminisces about the early days and her youth here. She loves this place and all its quaint bits and quirky bobs dearly. One day soon, before time has run out, I’ll sit down with her to record on paper the stories behind these humble, beautiful ordinary things.