Thirty years after my Mom left me her cedar chest with love letters between her and my Dad written in the 1930s and 1940s I answered her call to write something of our family history using the revelations contained in the letters. Why did it take 30 years? What stopped me from tearing into them after she died in 1984? What specifically did I have to do “get at it” and immerse in the task of exploration, analysis, distillation and reflection in order to write of their experience and the memories awakened in my own life? That is what I have written of here. Their story is contained in a book I wrote titled Love Letters in the Cedar Chest. This piece is about my journey in getting there and my thoughts after I told their story as it came to me through their letters.
I hope the sharing of my journey is of use to those of you who may be struggling to work with and tell the tales contained in your families’ artifacts. Be aware that the work is demanding, sometimes emotionally draining and occasionally boring. However, nothing can replace the satisfaction from getting a deeper knowing of the struggles and victories faced by your family members in times long past and how those struggles and victories echo through your own life.
In the end I am deeply grateful for facing the challenge, for diving in, for “getting at it”. I feel I have honoured my parents and my past. I wish the same for you.
Beginning the Journey
Mom treasured the chest of cedar made for her by her father, Daniel Carroll, in the 1930s. He died just 3 months after I was born in 1945 so I never knew him. Mom always spoke of her ‘Dad’ with warmth as she dusted the cedar chest carefully and gently stroked the swirls of darker brown decorating its lacquered sides. I remember well the whiff of cedar mixed with moth balls that would drift over me when Mom unlocked the chest to get out the soft cream coloured blankets stored there.
Love Letters in the Cedar Chest
“Love-letters from Daddy are in that cedar chest and If you girls try to read them it will be a mortal sin!”, said Mom sternly and often to my older sister Carroll and I through our growing up years. Since I was not the rebellious type and the thought of Mom and Dad writing love letters to each other was a touch creepy I was not tempted. Besides, committing a mortal sin would bar entry into heaven, so I did not want to chance it.
When she needed to get into the chest Mom would retrieve the large metal key kept hidden from us. The key scraped as she jiggled it to find its place in the lock workings. With just the right pressure she’d turn the key to the right. A soft click announced the release of the lock that held the chest fast. Truthfully, I was tempted to peek down inside to get a glimpse of those letters when she opened the chest in my presence but blankets were all I was allowed to see.