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.
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 . . ."
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.
Keep it free!
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