By Patricia Anne McGoldrick
I took out the little red Old Spice box today. It's my Dad's birthday, you see, and I was feeling nostalgic as I opened the cabinet door of the antique cedar dresser that my parents had bequeathed to me.
That dresser, with the wooden casters and dovetailed drawers had always held a certain kind of magic for me because I knew--I knew about the secret box that lay inside. That humble red box bearing the Old Spice insignia held the story of my parents' courtship during the turbulent 40s.
Although I was never allowed to peak at the contents of the box while my parents were alive, I knew that it was there. I had been told by my Mother about the 6"x5"x2" red vault and was vowed to secrecy in one of our mother-daughter chats.
The correspondence began when my Mother, Anne, left her small town home in Simcoe County to go to Ottawa to write the Civil Service exams. Daughter of a teacher and gentleman farmer-township reeve, Anne had dated, and agreed to marry, a somewhat older, shy farmer, named Francis, from down the road in Tecumseh, a parish away from where Anne grew up.
With the departure of Anne, Francis busied himself with settling into their future home. As Mother told me, they planned to announce their engagement on her return from her lonely days in Ottawa and successful completion of the exams.
Although my parents are deceased, it was not until several years after the death of my Father that I could dare to pry open the lid of the Old Spice box and to unfold the yellowed, manila notepaper.
Dad's letters are written in a firm hand that seems lighter than I remember from his later days when he signed his name, carefully, in big, bold letters. His letters are a window into the heart of a man whom I knew and loved as an older-than-average Father.
Looking back to his thirty-something days, I read what he wrote to his Anne, my mother...
Dad writes of the fierce snowstorms that closed the roads. Eventually, they were opened by persistent snowplows; in the meantime, Francis and his brothers had taken the cutter and horses to Sunday Mass.
In weekly letters, he writes of the progress of crops and garden on the farm, as well as visits with his new neighbours. My Dad, whom I knew only to calculate barn and crop measurements, actually, measured windows for my Mother's future kitchen curtains.
Soon to be ending his bachelor days, my father went to neighbourhood euchres. He had strong ties to his country origins and was disappointed when more prizes were awarded to town people rather than some of the host rural residents. Local parish dances were another social event patronized by his brothers, cousins, and neighbours.
It turns out that he was an avid hockey fan. Although I can only remember my father grumbling about the wisdom of removing a goalie in the dying seconds of N.H.L. games, Dad's letters shed a whole new light on this man who was my father. They also cast a glow on his later comments to my four older brothers as they set out for their own social events.
From his letters, it was evident that Dad was concerned about making a good impression on his future in-laws. He hoped that snow-filled roads wouldn't be the cause of his future wife's parents feeling ignored by their prospective son-in-law.
The local priest questioned Francis about his intended's return for Easter but Dad replied that the distance was too long to return home and then go back again as the Ottawa venture would be finished by the end of the summer. "What an understanding man is Frank!" the priest must have thought.
Although I always thought that my Mother was the one most closely tied to her Catholic faith, my Father's letters demonstrate a strong social tie to the parish and an observance of the liturgical seasons as well as the crop cycles.
By now you might be wondering about my Mother's replies. Well, you see, they had a pact; these two shy people in love had agreed that their letters would be destroyed lest anyone read about their most private hopes and dreams. This was the idea of my mother who had learned a strong degree of Irish reserve from her parents. True to his word, Dad destroyed my Mother's correspondence. Fortunately, for her children, Mother could not bear to destroy the letters of love received so many years ago.
Ironically, I guess that the red Old Spice box tells me just about as much about my Mother as it does about my Dad who wrote the letters.