For over five decades Marlene Miller has had a Toronto address, but home? Well, home is where her family is and that is Pictou County.
That is not to say that she hasn’t built up a web of family and friends in the big city. When she was called for an interview, she had just returned from her cottage for the sole reason of helping a friend whose cat needed to be fed.
Helping, especially animals, is Marlene’s passion.
For over 100 years, the Miller family has lived in Salt Springs, Pictou County. Settled by Scottish immigrants, it is named after saline springs that bubble up from the foot of Mt. Thom. In this little village, Marlene was raised on a sheep and dairy cattle farm. She would watch sheep giving birth, had her favourite calf, and always had a dog. Like many farms, there were always cats, but some in the Miller family were not fans. “My mom feared them, and my sister was nervous around them. Me, I loved them.”
She reflects on her childhood saying, “We weren’t rich, but our mom was a great cook, using fresh food from the farm and area.” She and her seven siblings had a happy upbringing. “We had a great life! Playing hide-in-seek in hay bales, tobogganing, skating on the river. It was a very good life.”
As children, we don’t see the work that made those days possible. Having a farm means long days, and bad seasons. As she got older, and her parents struggled, Marlene took on a leadership role: she managed the berry fields. “I have always been full of ambition,” she says. “I had 20 employees. One of whom was my sister. I had to let her go – she was eating too many berries!”
Farm life was tough; eventually, her father turned from a farmer to a logger. Marlene had a decision to make: what did she want to be? In her late teens, she made the decision to join her aunt and uncle in Toronto, her ambition greater than what Salt Springs could offer.
It was there, in Upper Canada, that Marlene flourished with a mixture of ambition and love.
Marlene started working in a factory and met her partner, Shirley. They would buy their first apartment building, then another, eventually leading to their full-time jobs as property owners. Taking care of these buildings, Marlene noticed that there were many cats – strays, abandoned, feral – that she would find hanging around the buildings.
Over the years Marlene would help re-home cats, or care for those that lived outside. She built a community of cat caretakers in one apartment and made sure to donate to animal charities to help others.
Then, she heard that the Humane Society was seeking foster homes. “Cats are like potato chips; you can’t have just one!” Marlene chuckles, looking at the cats in her home today. “They have free roam of the house, and the garden. Some like to lay under the skylight, others like the basement. All of them come to the kitchen at night for a spoonful of wet food, it’s our daily ritual.” Marlene admits that she falls in love too easily, hence the double-digit number of cats, two dogs, and possibly a possum or racoon family in the backyard she has made accommodations for in case they need it.
Life in Toronto for the farm girl from Salt Springs has been a fortunate one. Before COVID, Marlene never missed a summer visit to Pictou County. When her partner Shirley became ill and was writing her will, she wanted to recognize Marlene’s love of animals and asked her, “where should I leave a gift?” Although Marlene had only visited the Pictou SPCA once, she knew she wanted to help support her hometown animal shelter. “The staff were doing their best, but I thought ‘oh lord, this place is too crowded.”
Marlene and Shirley did not know then about the legacy they were helping to create. After Shirley passed away, Marlene received a call from the Nova Scotia SPCA, showing appreciation for the bequest. “We talked about the Granton facility, and I was so happy to hear that a new one was being built in Stellarton to help the North Nova communities! I know from talking to family back home, it is hard to get a vet appointment, so the fact that this will be a bigger spot for animals and have a hospital, is going to help so many.”
Upon learning more, Marlene has made a major gift herself, donating to honour and support the work the SPCA does, especially to spay and neuter animals. “I have seen too many stray cats that have no one to help them. But together with the SPCA, I will help them.” When you enter the new facility, make sure to stop at the cat adoption room, which will be named in Marlene’s honour.
As she tries to do a few times a year, but only for a few days because she is needed by her furry friends at home, Marlene travelled home in May to join the groundbreaking of the new facility. “I think it’s great that the local community is working together to make it happen, with Sharon and Elmer MacKay, Marsha Sobey, and Steve Smith. I am so happy to be a part of it.”
Marlene Miller may have left for Toronto, but her heart belongs in Salt Springs. And now, because of her love of home and cats, families, like the Miller’s still in Pictou County, will have a place to take their pets for wellness and other programs.
It’s enough to bring a saline tear to your eyes.