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Grandma’s desk

Sometimes, words are whispered from the past

By Carolyn Pogue

Many years ago, my mother gave me a set of antique keys. They had been her mother’s. I liked to hold them and think about my grandmother. When I wrote novels about a British Home Child, I kept the keys close by. Grandma had been a Home Child and came to Canada aged 10 to work as a servant. She was among 100,000 trained children who came here between 1879 and 1937. When I held those keys, which proclaimed that she was now mistress of her own home — with furniture and doors that required locking — I imagined her as a kid dreaming about that day. I remember her as a meticulous housekeeper: polished silver, waxed floors, sparkling windows and everything in its place. She cherished her home.

Also polished to a shine was a unique mahogany desk that stood in my grandparents’ entrance hall. I believe that my grandparents bought it in Belleville, Ont., where they married and started their family. It was a Queen Anne-style spinet desk. It appeared to be a table, but the top folded up in half, revealling a lovely desk with cubicles and small drawers — one of which had a lock. Here, grandma would sit to write her lists: meticulous household accounts, diaries, bills and letters. She wrote with a fountain pen. The ink was blue.

Photo by Carolyn Pogue
Photo by Carolyn Pogue
This past year, my grandparents have been brought into sharp relief. My niece, Lara, and her partner, Jamie, have purchased land near Belleville. Holly Ray Farms is an organic market garden. At the same time, my cousin Lynn, an archivist in Stratford, Ont., put our grandparents’ correspondence into chronological order and meticulously entered them into the computer. The letters written between 1898 to 1972 shed light on my grandparents’ early relationship, World War I on the home front and grandma’s yearning to find belonging in the England she had left in 1898. It also brought Belleville to life for me.

But three of the letters especially touched me. One was from my great grandmother to her daughter, aged 10. Grandma would have received it upon her arrival in Canada. “I was so surprised to hear, dear, that you had gone to Canada. I did not get your letter till after you were gone . . .” Another letter, written in 1958, was from grandma to the Barnardo Home that had sent her to Canada. She would have been around my age now when she penned, “I’ve often wondered if children are sent out to Canada as they were years ago. I rather nope not. People with means can be cruel . . .” A third was written to me when I was 10 years old: “You write well, dear. I do hope that you will continue . . ."

This summer, my sister offered to give grandma’s writing desk to me. More than likely, it's where Grandma would have composed those letters to Barnardo’s and to me. I have placed her photo, diaries and account books in it, and have tucked her keys into a small drawer. My husband recently mused, “I wonder if one of those keys would fit the desk lock?” And it did.

Today, words whispered from the past surround me as I write.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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