During my childhood in Saskatchewan — 80 years ago — the severe winter nights made bedtime a challenge. You may find it hard to believe what I’m going to tell you but here’s my story.
Our house had no central heat and its walls were not insulated. Storm windows installed each Fall weren’t much help. As Winter progressed, my bedroom window upstairs gradually frosted over completely, and nature decorated it as a winterscape. For three months the frosted panes looked as if the images of snow drifts or ocean waves were etched into them by human hands.
Here’s how you went to bed at night: First, you got into your nightclothes in a small pocket of warmth behind the coal stove in the living room. Then you flew up the stairs as fast as you could in the unheated hall to limit contact with the cold steps.
On the kitchen stove, a caring mother had earlier heated one of the old clothes irons. It was wrapped without its detachable handle in layers of newspaper and slid under the covers down to the foot of the bed. What a welcome partial reprieve from the cold flannel sheet and two or three quilts to touch this warmed area with your feet! When you wakened in the morning, the water vapor in your breath had frozen so the sheet covering your chin was covered with frost. You also learned to move as little as possible because your body had warmed everything near it and everything outside this zone was shockingly cold.
Yet, in a way appreciated in comparison with sleeping outside, you felt snug and protected: The house gave shelter from the wind, and there was slight heat from the stovepipe that ran up through the bedroom.
The final challenge of a long winter night came in the morning when you threw back the hump of quilts resolutely and made a dash for the front room downstairs to dress for the day behind the coal stove. Top speed was essential in descending the stairs in order to limit the contact of your feet with the steps just as you had done coming up them the night before.
By the time you were back into your long one-piece underwear, corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and wool socks you had pretty well forgotten the experiences of the night and were ready for the fresh, brisk day.
I think of those bitterly cold winter nights from a lovely place we stay for some months each Winter in Florida. And I marvel at the difference in our evening routine when we turn on the electric mattress warmer recently given to us by our three children to warm their nonoginarian parents. What luxury!
But, who can forget the rigor of those cold nights? Who can forget the valor of parents who defended their young against the severity of the elements to the best of their ability and resources? I celebrate with thanksgiving the rigors of my childhood and the care of my parents but at the same time both Kay and I feel only deeper thanksgiving for a warm bed now!
Photo credit: Derek Gavey (via flickr.com)