Ian Wilson's blog

Welcome to the blog of Ian Wilson, author of the award-winning books on 1950s Canadian steam railway operations.

A 1958 Christmas in Owen Sound

December 24, 2016

And now, twenty one-year-old Angus finds himself in a quiet, unoccupied room. He sits down on a couch and looks around. There stands a Christmas tree in a corner. It’s not like those he’s known. This one is spare. Its skeletal limbs struggle to hold the gifts laden upon them. Yellow bulbs blaze, imparting pinpricks of light amid the dead branches upon which they rest.

Angus knows he’s in Owen Sound again. That’s because he has a lingering memory of walking here from the Canadian Pacific Railway roundhouse. There, steam locomotives had filled the interior with billows of white.

A wall calendar near the tree shows almost every day in 1958 stroked off. Angus senses that a young couple resides here, having just started their lives together. The gentleman evidently enjoys taking pictures—there are a couple of cameras in leather cases lying on a side table. He likes trains too, as Angus does—there are HO scale freight car kits in Athearn and HObbyLine boxes on a shelf. Perhaps more in those unopened gifts.

The couch under Angus sags beneath his weight. It’s second-hand. He can tell by the way the springs dig into his pant legs through the fabric. But he senses that the young couple who lives here won’t mind his presence. Or the melting snow from his boots that is creating a puddle on the linoleum floor. The occupants seem to have beckoned Angus here in their absence.

Absence—that word pervades the scene and Angus’s thoughts. He gazes at the little tree. It must have been passed over on an Owen Sound lot until the resident young couple brought it to their second floor apartment.

That tree, that sprig over there in the corner, speaks of sadness and loss over the earlier months of 1958. That absence forms a vision in Angus’s imagination. He sees a young mother hospitalized for weeks, barely clinging to life. And a heartbroken father, picking out a tiny casket at a local funeral home.

Angus swallows a lump in his throat. Tonight, in 1958 and in his regular life in the 21st century, a baby girl who never knew a waking breath lies under frozen ground in an Ontario cemetery. That little girl is the absence Angus feels in this scene, spoken of by the tree which will end up on a bonfire a week or two from now.

But there are also those yellow bulbs of light on that Christmas pine. And those gifts. They have been wrapped with loving hands. Angus can read some of the tags. To Mac from Mary Lou. And others. To Mary Lou from Mac.

Angus bows his head. He closes his eyes and says a prayer for this young couple, this Mac and Mary Lou. He prays that they will know happiness instead of grief in 1959. That their heartbreak will mend. That they will go forward in their life together like those blazing lights of hope on that tree.

Maybe this young couple, this Mary Lou and Mac, will have another child again soon. One that survives. Maybe he’ll be a boy, like Angus. Looking at those gifts around the tree, Angus ponders who this boy might become, were he to be. That boy would have double the responsibility to live his life well. For it would be not just for himself, but also for his deceased sister. Would she have not lost her life, he would never have his.

Would such a boy, were he to be, have an awareness of the circumstances by which his parents’ life began together? I think he would, Angus says to himself. I think he will. Like his parents, that boy will experience challenges and trials, but he’ll blaze forward. Like those twinkling yellow lights on that tree over there in 1958.

Angus can see a certain Christmas Eve coming, in his time, in the second decade of the 21st century. Generations removed from this 1958 scene in Owen Sound. By then, the boy’s parents will be lying in the same ground as his deceased sister. Angus can see that boy, the future child of this young couple, struggling to find the right words to express what he’s feeling, despite his talents as a writer. For that boy, this writer-to-be, will miss those parents—Mac and Mary Lou—on a December 24th with a sense of loss he cannot hope to express.

In that small Owen Sound room, with its bristly tree and yellow lights, Angus rises from the sagging couch. He thanks the young husband and wife for inviting him in, for revealing something of themselves. For showing him that the joy of love will blaze through despite the heartbreak of loss.

Then Angus walks outside, into the cold winter of 1958. He’s a better person now, for those moments in front of that little tree.

Happy Christmas to all.

Read More:

Back to the Blog