How to See in the Dark

by Maureen Koch from Victoria, BC
Sep 26, 15

I’ve always been a great fan of letters. Mail, I mean. The kind that arrives at your door, delivered by a human being. I delight in the choice of elegant stamps, fancy stationery. I am a gel pen enthusiast. I am not averse to licking envelopes. 

It’s not that I don’t use e-mail or other electronic services, but if I really want to say something, I turn to pen and paper. I bask in its permanence, in its embodied energy.

I save letters too. Not all of them, of course. But the good ones, the ones that nail down a time for me. The letter I truly treasure, is the one that tells me why my grandmother turned out the light. And, why she turned it on again.

After my parents’ death, I came across a short note written by my mother, Isabel Gordon, to her brother, Gerald, who was still stationed overseas. It was dated November 26, 1945. Neatly typed on a greyish- blue, aerogramme, Mom describes the return home of their younger brother, Rorie, after the war. I am not sure how this came to be back among my mother’s possessions. It doesn’t matter. 

If ink was tea, this letter was steeped in Mom's sunny, brave, exuberant nature. Waiting with her sister and friends, she notes the electric atmosphere of the expectant crowds at the CN depot in Winnipeg. Mom wrote, “There was someone announcing all the time, trying to keep control of the place. He said as soon as the band started to play the boys would start coming down.” She wrote that she had no trouble finding Rorie in the mob because “... he is tall and I am tall and we soon spotted each other”.

The letter moves on to describe driving back to their home, Pine Falls, Manitoba, a small pulp-and-paper town about 132 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. The roads were bad, so the trip took nearly four hours. They drove the route that led to “the Rock”, the part of the town where my grandmother, Abigail, lived and was waiting for her youngest son to come home from the war.  

As my mother told it to Gerald in her letter, “We were going over the hill and I said, ‘it’s funny, the kitchen light is out’, but no sooner did I get it out of my mouth than on it went. Mother had been sitting at the window and had put the light out for better vision”.  

And it is here, that my own heart lifts up, for I know that my grandmother had been sitting in the dark for almost two hours, waiting in darkness, so she could see as far as humanly possible in the night – so that when the car finally appeared on the edge of that hill, she would know, that very instant, in the speed of light or whatever other measurement of love we have - that her youngest son was safely home.

My 1950’s childhood was filled with conversations about the War. Not my conversations. But those of my parents, whose reference point for all things, it seemed to me, was World War II. Events happened before or after the war; food was abundant or scarce during the war; people left before and returned after the war. Or didn’t. But conversations are ephemeral and easy to confuse with dreams and imagination. This fragile letter has a compelling toughness that is true and enduring. It is a physical symbol of my grandmother’s love, my mother’s ardor, and the best way to see in the dark.