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.


Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage (Part 3)

The hummingbird hovers, the goldfinch alights
A leafy green path ’neath the lofty pine beckons:
“Come ye to the woods, seek their earthen delights
where oaks count the hours and bright toadstools, the seconds.”Willow basket in hand, she heeds sylvan call
and wanders past foamflower and lowbush blueberry,
whispers welcome to trees, with a silent footfall,
she soaks up the magick of old forest Faerie.A lighthouse stands guard on the point, giving warning:
Wave-lapped rocks – sailors’ bane! – warmed by midsummer heat.
Her throne a moss pillow bedewed from the morning,
she rests, breathes in pine-scented air, soft and sweet.How wondrous the isle where the woods are enchanted!
How sparkles the sun on the diamond-like water!
How blessed is she in her sturdy white cabin,
where secrets are passed from wise mother to daughter!

Scenes from a Witch’s Cottage, Part 3
© 2017, Valerie Barrett


20161005_135718-5You may not be celebrating a national holiday like Thanksgiving today, as we here in Canada are doing, but I would like to wish each and every one of you a beautiful day, wherever you are. Hopefully you’re spending it doing something you love, and taking a moment to appreciate the wonders – however big or small – that we’ve been given.

I’m heading up to Muskoka today to help close up the family cottage for the winter. It’s a bittersweet time as we say goodbye to a wonderful summer and hunker down for the long wait until we can be there again in the spring. But it’s not all bad: in between chores, I’ll be taking lots of photos of autumn colours, as well as gathering woodsy bits and pieces to use in upcoming craft projects.

I’d like to thank my readers and fellow bloggers for taking the time to visit my site. Your wonderful comments and support have been truly inspiring, and I’ve loved reading your blogs, too. Thank you. 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving from Canada!


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.

Weekend Presents

The women in my family have a tradition of giving each other “weekend presents”:  small, ad hoc, just-because gifts; tokens bestowed for no other reason than to lift each other’s soul. These prezzies are modest and never expensive, perhaps spotted at a local shop or farmer’s market, brought back from a trip, or handcrafted with that special someone in mind.

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Yarrow and thyme

During vacation time at the family cottage, before each member arrives from her own part of the world, we might leave a welcoming bouquet on her bedroom dresser. Nothing fancy; just a small vase chosen from amongst the house’s mishmash of hand-me-downs, and filled with a few sprigs of wildflowers. Our tiny island doesn’t have a lot of flora, so we pick judiciously, filling the arrangement out with bracken and what most people would consider weeds. The gesture is a small one, but it’s lovingly done and always appreciated by the new arrival, whose journey up through heavy traffic has left her frazzled and more than ready for a little R and R.

I was the last one to arrive this time, so I was touched by the sweet little arrangement left in my room by my mother, who, like most moms, always thinks of others before she takes care of herself. Thank you, Mom.