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 www.maryjanemaffini.com
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.