Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What was the secret in that mysterious battered box in my father's closet? by Mary Jane Maffini

Mary Jane Maffini is a lapsed librarian, a former mystery bookstore owner, a previous president of Crime Writers of Canada and a lifelong lover of mysteries. In addition to the four Charlotte Adams books, she is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk adventures and nearly two dozen short stories. She has won two Arthur Ellis awards for best mystery short story as well as the Crime Writers of Canada Derrick Murdoch award. She is having fun with the fifth Charlotte Adams adventure: *The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder* (Berkley Prime Crime 2011) and says she’s grateful for all the tips she gets from Charlotte. Mary Jane lives and plots in Ottawa, Ontario, along with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds. Visit her at

What was the secret in that mysterious battered box in my father’s closet? 

by Mary Jane Maffini 

Charlotte Adams is always trying to get us to clean out our closets. Usually we find too much clutter. But sometimes that closet yields a treasure worth keeping. After my father’s death, my brother and I discovered a small, battered cardboard box on a high shelf in his closet. Luckily it didn’t get tossed away in that distressing activity of clearing out. Inside the box, we found a collection of yellowed letters my father had written to my mother while they were courting from 1939 to 1941. People sure didn’t leap into marriage back in those days. They had weathered the Great Depression and were heading straight into World War II. After my parents met in New Brunswick, my father had returned to his home town of Sydney, Nova Scotia to help his father run the family retail business. My mother returned to her home town to manage the ladies’ wear
section of Eaton’s department store (A big deal if you are Canadian!). At that time, everyone wrote to keep in touch. Daily letters weren’t uncommon. People even wrote to make an appointment for a phone call.

A few years passed, before I could bring myself to sit and read those letters without unleashing more emotion than I could deal with. But when I did, I found insights into my parents as beautiful young people and also a treasure trove of heartwarming moments, and many chuckles. My dignified and elegant white-haired aunt -- mother of seven, grandmother of umpteen -- was portrayed by her brother as a spoiled and willful teenager. Abby, who would become my mother’s best friend, was then a vivacious young court reporter about to be surprised at a wedding shower held by my aunts. She bought a lot of hats too! My father was happy to announce all that. He regales my mother with details about the dances and parties he, his sisters and friends went to. The meals, the family skirmishes the parties, the outings and the trips to the beach. He asks about her family and friends, tantalizing tidbits for me after all these years. He talks about the movies:

I’ve been to see Rebecca, a very good movie. Have you had a chance to see it?

It was such an innocent time. Canada had entered the war, but no one had any idea of the tragedy and horror that lay ahead. In one letter Dad wrote: They’ve had to cancel the hockey tonight. That darn Hitler!  I never learned exactly how Hitler caused the game cancellation, but I am guessing a blackout.

My father had no idea of the terrible, tragic and incomprehensible times that lay ahead, that he would serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force and that his brothers would go overseas. While his brothers came back, cousins and friends and one brother-in-law didn’t. Other uncles languished in POW camps until 1945. Everyone’s lives changed.

This look into the daily doings of the surprisingly optimistic and cheerful young people in an era with no television and no computers had a big impact on me. I loved the mood and the surprising optimism. Later, I was able to mine those letters for *The Dead Don’t Get Out Much*, a Camilla MacPhee book set partly during World War II (where the vivacious Abby got a role as Hazel, and some nice hats)

I also learned that’s the thing about closets: you have to know what to toss and what to keep. Dad’s letters didn’t go back onto a high shelf. I gave that correspondence a new home in a beautiful new box. It has a place of pride in my office.

My dad was a quiet man, so the biggest surprise was getting to know him as a lively man about town. I learned how much he admired and respected his own father, how he was involved in his community, and more to the point, how much he missed that beautiful, elegant lady who would become his wife. Years later, they adopted me and later my brother, John David. Good news for us. We continue to thank them for the gift of history, laughter and the value of family and friends. 


Isobel Ryan and John Merchant were married 69 years ago today. Happy anniversary, Mum and Dad, wherever you are.


Shane Gericke said...

Hey, I get the first comment ... marvelous! Your essay, that is, not my comment :-) Always a joy to see Mary Jane on any forum. Thanks for sharing her with us, Kaye. And congrats again on the award ... you deserve it muchly!!

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Hi, Mary Jane!

We moved my dad into a nursing home earlier this year; in the course of searching for relevant documents, I found a short series of letters he wrote to my mother while they were courting, and she was away on a trip with friends.

Then I found the corresponding letters from Mom to Dad. (They were tucked away in a file box, right next to the purchase receipt from his first car, "the old Auburn" that we always heard about as kids.)

I read one. I have not been able to read the rest just yet. Maybe soon, but I felt a bit voyeuristic, like I was peering into something that was meant to stay private. Did you find the same?

We don't have any rush to sell the house, just yet, so of course we haven't started the weeding and discarding. Why don't you send Charlotte down to lend us a hand?

Vicki Lane said...

What a wonderful post, Mary Jane! I have a collection of letters from my mother to my grandmother during WWII -- so very interesting. No, we don't want to throw out everything.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Shane! Always a joy to get a comment from you (okay this is a first! I agree with the well deserved award for our Kaye.

Jonathan - it took me years to be able to read these. I didn't think there would be enough tissues in the world. I felt a bit odd at the very beginning, but because the letters were so innocent and social (maybe my grandmother was reading them!), I didn't worry.

I'll send Charlotte over, but she has some chores for me first.

Hello,Vicki! I should have known you would like it. You have such an appreciation for our emotional heritage. That's why I love your books!

MJ (wondering why her word verification is muzzle)

Closet Confidential: a Charlotte Adams mystery

Maryannwrites said...

What a wonderful piece. It is so delightful to find these kinds of treasures. My father recently died and while we did not find letters, I got binders of his music with notations he made in margins of songs. He also had the words to some songs just written out on scraps of paper. I will be keeping those.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks so much, Maryann. What a wonderful legacy that music must be. Something to treasure forever I am very glad to hear about that.


Charlotte Adams mysteries

Anonymous said...

What an interesting tale! I can't wait to read your novel inspired by it. --Brenda

Julia Buckley said...

What a great post, Mary Jane! My parents had a box of old letters, too--and come to think of it there's one in my house that my own children might find one day. :)

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

What a wonderful story, Mary jane--and great pictures. Lovely website, kaye!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hail Hail the gang's all here (almost!)!

Hey Shane - you & Mary Jane are sharing a "new book birthing day," I do believe. Yay! And you're the next guest up at Meanderings and Muses, I do believe. Yay!

Jonathan, I had forgotten you found these letters! I'll be interested in hearing more when you're ready to read them and share your feelings about them.

Vicki - I thought of you immediately when I read MJ's piece!

Maryann - finding your dad's music is lovely!! what a treasure.

Julia! To think about your boys reading the letters you & Geoff have written to one another just made my head spin. wow. Wonder if they'll write about them??! what a thought, huh?!

Brenda & Donna, Welcome!!!!! I'm so glad to see you here, and hope you'll both come back often.

Mary Jane - love you, honey!! It is FUN having you here!

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Brenda. Please let me know if you like it. You can reach me through my website!

Julia, what a lovely treasure trove for your children. Gives me shivers.

Nice to see you here, Donna. I see your name in lots of fun places.

Kaye, you are such a great hostess. I may never leave.


chskyridge said...

Mary Jane - that is a marvellous story. Thank you so much for sharing it. It is sometimes difficult to imagine how our parents were in their younger years and you have this wonderful treasure of your Dad's personal feelings. It reminds one to leave a small amount for our children as that is a real treasure.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thank you, 'skyridge' (oh I know who you are!) You are so right about making sure we leave the right kind of mementos for our children.

So, not my collection of grim reaper cartoons.

Hugs, MJ

Bobbi Mumm said...

Mary Jane, thanks for a wonderful story that reminds me so much of my own parents. The same era, too! I will definitely seek out "The Dead Don't Get Out Much" at my local bookstore.
Kaye, excellent choice in guests!

Dru said...

Hi MJ,

What a beautiful post and a lovely tribute to your dad. I'm glad you got to learn more about your dad through his writings.

Letter correspondence is a loss art that will be missed.

Paul said...

What a fantastic find and great piece of history for you and your family to pass on to! Sometimes its the untold stories that mean the most.

Mare F said...

Darn it. You've made me all weepy at work. What a great story. I'd treasure the box also.

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Bobbi, Paul, Dru and Mare! I love running into my friends here and I am glad you share my emotion - I think we all imagine our own parents when we read something like this.



Ladybear said...

Mary Jane,
What a great post. It left me teary but a nice kind of teary. I didn't find letters after my Mother died but photos I'd never seen. With the help of older cousins on both sides, I was able to identify all the people. I know my daughter appreciated it because she never knew a lot of these people. I loved a picture of my Mother when she was young and at the beach. Thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

What a beautiful post, MJ! I've felt the same way about old letters--reticent to read them in case the emotions get overwhelming. But you've really expressed so well the insights you've gotten into your parents' lives--I may have to open some of these old letters of my grandparents up. :)

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks, Mary C - nice to see you here. That's wonderful about the photos - we still have some that we'll never figure out. The one of your mother at the beach sounds lovely - what a memento.

Elizabeth/Riley - yes, sit down someday with a lovely southern drink, and read those letters. Keep sunglasses handy. BTW, I am very excited about your book Delicious and Suspicious! Have mine on order!


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Thanks again to MJ and to all of you who dropped by. Come again, please - and come often - you make it lots of fun to meander and muse.