Let it Glow

Our winter light, a version of what I (incorrectly) called the "coil-oil lamp"
Our winter light, a version of what I (incorrectly) called the "coil-oil lamp"

“You should write about it mom,” Lynn kept telling me. 

About growing up in the dark. Not having electricity until I was six years old!

With the pre-solstice light diminishing fast as my memory, I’ll try to regain that experience, “turning it around, slowly, in the light,” as Virginia Woolf says.

If grade four students still study pioneers in Canada, they have an inkling of my childhood, even though I was born half a century after Western Canada was populated with immigrant farmers. 

My grandpa MacLeod and his younger brother Donald emigrated from the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides in 1906, the attraction of free land in Canada outshining the limitations of the family croft and courier business. They were each granted a homestead in the Rural Municipality of North Invergordon, pretty much in the centre of Saskatchewan. Before my parents married in 1948, dad and grandpa built our small farmhouse, just around the bend from where dad grew up. A year later, they needed a crib for me.

My earliest memory is waking up in the middle of the night, turning the radio dial in the living room, and curling up in the dark to listen to the quiet music and the sotto voices of the CBC. 

Without “the power” as we called electricity in those days, it must have been a battery-operated radio. Light came from coal-oil lamps. I remember two, a simple one of clear glass and a fancier version, milky white with red roses.

My strongest memories of life before we got the power are of the winter of 1955/56—one of the coldest in the province’s history, huge drifts blanketing the roads, snowbanks almost as high as the telephone poles. Because of the severe weather, Mom, who was expecting, spent the month before our baby brother Norm was born in Prince Albert, and my pre-school sisters, Joyce and Margie, stayed with my grandparents in town, Crystal Springs. I was in grade one.

Dad or the hired man (how did we afford him that one-and-only winter?) often drove me the mile and a half to the one-room school—in a horse-drawn caboose! If neighbours kindly came our way instead of taking the shorter route, I climbed into in a sleigh with their kids. Oddly, I don’t remember the school’s electric lights. It’s the funky smell of a classroom full of sweaty kids, damp wool, dry chalk and old books that’s stayed with me. 

Sometimes that winter I walked home, accompanied by my older cousin Dennis for the first half of the trip before he dropped off at his place. One particular afternoon stands out, fresh as yesterday, me, alone, walking on the tall hardened banks of snow, a tincture of light in the sky the colour of pale apricot, my first appreciation of the natural world. 

It was the first winter I could read on my own. I’d get a book (the school had a few and mom ordered stories for us from the public library in Regina), pull up a chair, open the oven door of our wood-fired stove, stick my feet on the door and turn the pages. 

“You must have been cold in that house,” Lynn said a few weeks ago. Though the frost on our small windows was fingered with my scratching, our house was warm and cozy, heated by a basement furnace and the kitchen stove. 

You could say I lived in the dark. Our farm was three miles from “town,” the hamlet of Crystal Springs. Too far away for night-sky pollution, not that there was much from a place with only a few dozen homes, three stores, two churches, a gas station, a hotel, a café, a school and a hall with a dance floor and two-sheets of ice. And the train station. From home, listening to the distant whistle of a nocturnal train was my dreamy passageway to a bigger world.

Was it awful to grow up on such a small, hard-scrabble prairie farm with Siberian-like winters, no running water, no power until mid-1956 and no TV until my teenage years? 

There were times in later years when shame and discretion kept my early life in the dark from certain others, but as young children, we didn’t consider ourselves poor. How could we with loving neighbours like Fern and Chad, generous grandparents nearby, teachers who cared and a whole community that celebrated the procession of seasons together? If you wanted space, you went outdoors. Or, more likely, escaped inside a book. Or thought about how different life would be when you grew up and went away, which as a teenager I couldn’t wait to do. Not realizing that the imprint of early life, like your shadow, is always there, in the light or its abeyance.


The lamp shown is from Etsy, the glow created by Magellan.

Oh My Source for one of the photos of a prairie caboose.

“Sask. residents debate what was the worst winter.” Global News. March 15, 2013.

Tanizak, Jun’ichiro. In Praise of Shadows. Maine: Leete’s Island Books, 1977.

What Next? Source for one of the photos of a prairie caboose.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Flamingo Modern Classic, 1994. Here is the beautiful sentence partially quoted above. “The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light.”

35 Responses

  1. Loved the blog Gloria. Thank you for sharing and thanks Lynn. Brings back memories of my childhood living with my Grandfather, coal stove, cold house but lots of family love.

    1. Lynn, she deserves credit for so much in our lives.

      Speaking of cold, we’re freezing in our modern townhouse in YVR at -7, makes me long for the warmth of forced-air heating and a wood-burning stove.

  2. City’s got conveniences like power and running water a lot sooner than the smaller communities. I also grew up in the country. The outdoor toilet in the winter was no fun. 😊

  3. Well lately I am have been running behind in my E mail and today is no different.
    Its like you read my mind as I was just thinking about when power first came to your Crystal Springs farm, power to this location was ballpark 1961.
    Prior to that it was battery operated radio, kersosene lamps, (coal oil) and also white gas, pressure lamps that used Naphtha gas fuel (Coleman stove and lantern gas) these lamps used fragile mantles that contained the fuel/air mixture and produced quite a bright light.
    Interestingly, I just learned that “Coal Oil”and kerosene are not the same, apparently Coal Oil comes from Coal and kerosene is petroleum based, they can perform the same duties but they are different. (Need to get the Engineer to clarify, Please)
    Due to the radio batteries needing charging, my Grandfather, Pete Matthew, had a generator that he used to charge our family batteries and also those of neighbours, for a price I believe as they also the only local store and post office. I never saw the generator just the pedestal that it was mounted on in the garage at the Matthew farm.
    Not to get too far off base I also remember the Christmas tree out here was lit with candles, maybe 3/8 inch in diameter and 6 inches long. My memory is not that great but I can only imagine that these were watched with great care and not used for extended periods of time due to the fire hazard,
    I have not seen a lot of your pictures from this story and will see if we can get copies of these at a later date.
    Your mother was indeed the Center of the winter nights as she always read stories to us, or at least parts of stories on a nightly basis.
    Never ever recall being cold as the wood stove and furnace always kept things toasty and that could only happen through constant feeding and care, By your mom and dad for sure.
    Maybe the lifestyle was not lavish but I do not recall anyone suffering any I’ll affects from what was provided and I consider myself beyond lucky for being included in the care and attention provided.
    Thanks for the memories 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔👍👍

    1. TY so much for this Barry. The year you were in grade IV that you spent with us after you dad died was exciting for us cousins. Luckily, by then the bus picked us up to attend school in town and you didn’t have to walk to North Invergordon. Remember the cakes that awaited us after school? How did she do it all!

  4. My most appreciated “new” technology is indoor plumbing. The trip to the outdoor toilet was not fun.
    I attended a one room schoolhouse until grade four and really enjoyed it. The neighbour kids came to school with horse drawn wagons or sleighs and Dad drove us so I wanted a horse ride instead.
    Thanks for these memories!

    1. Wasn’t it fun to listen in to what was happening in the other grades? And lunch time, what a cornucopia of thick sandwiches, smells of orange peels and mustard and boys guffawing with each other.

  5. Nostalgia almost to tears, Thanks for the memories. Love the shot of Maxine with baby Gloria, and reading with toes warming on the oven door. That’s how I got my first English class! And Virginia Woolf on maturity – right on! Reminds me I have a much longer story to write but ….

    1. With your finesses with words (remember you won $1,000 for solving the Western Producer‘s crossword puzzle in what 1958? equivalent to >$10,000 today!) you should definitely write a Saskatchewan version of Mrs. Dalloway.)

  6. This was a trip down memory lane. I lived in the railroad station from the winter of 1951-52 until Dec.30 1962. I still use the recipe for Mrs. Horley’s crabapple cookies and Runghild MacLeods buns. The caboose pictures are the same as the caboose we rode to town in when we visited our grandparents.
    Great memories Gloria. Merry Christmas

    1. Nice to hear from you. I don’t recall Runghild’s buns and would have loved it if on the way home from school, her son, my cousin Dennis, would have invited me in for one. Remember how hungry we were by 4:30?

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this story Gloria. And so glad that Lynn encouraged you to do so. I love all of the images that you have woven in this story, especially of you reading your book with your feet on the door of the wood-fire stove.

    The photos were great too! I can see your granddaughter in the photos of you!

    1. How kind of you Shelagh! You’ll like this story of youthful mishearing/visual miscuing—I thought our light came from “coil-oil” lamps not coal-oil. For years…

      And yes, as you’ve said and many have emailed privately, we owe Lynn—the light of our life—a TY for this blog.

    1. Hilarious Wade! TY. My dad’s given name was Donald but his grade I teacher told him from now on he’d be called by his second name, Kenneth, because there were already too many Donald’s in her classroom.

  8. Gloria,
    I can just imagine you sitting by your stove, contentedly engrossed in a good book! Those are wonderful stories – they make me homesick for the “Prairies”.


    P.S. And you’re spot on about redheads!! 😊

  9. Love this Gloria, will share it with Orval who will havc many similar memories growing up on a farm in Pennant Sask. without power for many year and going to school on their horse.

    1. So wonderful to hear from you! When writing this I wasn’t certain our one-room school had electricity so I called my teacher, who is now 87 years old and still spry as a cat. Now Norah Alexanderson, she confirmed there was electricity and told me one of her favourite memories. A young man named Ron Berg would deliver a horse to the school’s barn on Friday afternoons and she’d ride back into town where her parents lived. Dale, the oldest son of our neighbours Fern and Chad Horley attended school in town (North Invergordon only accommodated grades I-VIII) so he rode the horse back to his parent’s farm which was across the road from our school.

  10. That was Lovely! The perfect Winter Solstice story! My Mum grew up in similar fashion, her parents immigrating from Czechoslovakia. Her Dad was a tailor and then he arrived to his small farm outside of Calgary…and just builds a house!! Say what??!?! I mean, if I sat down today and tried to sew a blouse, having never done anything like that before, well…can you imagine what that would look like? And these guys just rolled up their sleeves and built…a whole house!! That’s just Amazing to me!

  11. Wow. Nostalgia galore. Love those photos especially that one-year Gloria in the grass!!! Beautiful. And yes the caboose had a stove in it and was cozy. Thx for the memories!!

  12. We’re very happy to reminisce about the early years for all of us… , but I have a question… did Lynn always hog the best seat on the sleigh and make the others pull it?

  13. Beautiful story for Winter Solstice. I loved the photos of you and your family too. I remember meeting Grandpa McLeod at your wedding. I am sure there was lots of love in that farmhouse.

  14. You didn’t grow up poor with those experiences and they helped create the person you are. I look forward to Sunday morning coffee with you and truly appreciate that you share your adventures.
    Merry Christmas!

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