My father’s desk

Posted on December 18, 2012

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I AM  SITTING at my father’s desk, writing letters. It is a small desk, only 75cm wide. Just enough room to open an A4 spiral notebook. Just enough room for pen and paper and thoughts.

The desk is more accurately described as an escritoire – a desk with a sloping front door, hinged at the bottom edge, which is opened to provide a writing surface. Behind the sloping door are pigeonholes and shelves for filing small documents. To write at this desk, then, you have to open a door; not a bad metaphor for writing itself.

The word ‘escritoire’ derives from the French verb to write, ‘écrire’, which harks back to the Latin word for writing, ‘scriptum’. And the word ‘scriptum’ leads to ‘scriptorium’, a room in a monastery set apart for the writing or copying of manuscripts – which pretty much describes a study or an office. Or, in the case of these contemplative moments of letter-writing, my father’s desk.

The desk is in what was my parents’ bedroom, in what was my parents’ final home, a beach house beside the bush.

The door-come-writing-surface also includes a drawer, which is perched just above my knees. Inside it I find scraps of a life: a Parade College school badge my father wore in the 1940s (with the Latin motto ‘Tenete Traditiones’: Hold Fast to Traditions); a name tag for my mother, Margaret, handwritten in red Texta pen; a single white leather bootie that might have been worn by myself or one of my five siblings. (Or, in fact, by all of us over the years, from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s.)

The drawer also contains golf tees, pennies, paperclips, snooker-cue chalk, a five-cent stamp, a picture hook, corks from wine bottles, tap washers, a ruler, a caravan park brochure from Queensland, a personalised leather wallet for ‘Mr Maskell’, a personalised booklet of matches for ‘Ron’. Things. Stuff.

When pausing between writing paragraphs or pages of my letters I gaze at the pigeonholes and shelves. Within these compartments are some of the documents of life, the paperwork of living, the statements of a family’s facts.

Bound by a brown rubber band are six maternal healthcare booklets with grey-blue covers and neat cursive handwriting recording the weights and heights and health of six infants. The booklets are small, the size of the palm of a parent’s hand, but the pages inside are full of details – ounces and inches and illnesses.

Near the booklets are certificates recording births, baptisms and first holy communions. The certificates are more elaborate in turn, starting with plain facts on plain paper and then getting more ornate at each stage of the young lives, with the communion certificates adorned with drawings of Jesus, Mary, a priest and angelic children kneeling at an altar. The final flourish is the signature of the local parish priest, formalising the children’s graduation, so to speak, into various sacraments of the Catholic Church.

We were a typical Catholic family: attending Catholic schools, eating fish’n’chips on Fridays, going to church on Sundays. I was even chosen, along with second-grade classmate Bernadette Fitzgerald, to lead out the first holy communicants.

But one by one, as each of the six children grew into their teens, they drifted away from the church. I suppose this can be attributed to boredom or antipathy rather than raging teenage rebellion. I never confronted my parents about this change; I just started sleeping in on Sundays.

Were our parents disappointed? Presumably so. Angry? I don’t know. Now that I’m a parent myself, I wonder what the equivalent action of my three children might be, given they have not had a religious upbringing. I’d be disappointed if they became carnivores. I’d be angry if they drank to excess. (My wife and I do not drink.) I’d be surprised, and curious, if they believed in a god.

THE DESK also contains two death certificates – for my dad’s father, Clarrie, who died in 1966, and my oldest brother, Mark, who died in 1974. But there is no paperwork – in this desk, anyway – recording my parents’ deaths. They both died in this house of worn-out hearts: Mum in November 1993, just metres from the desk, in bed; Dad in June 2000, in the kitchen. They were both relatively young: Mum 65, Dad 70.

As well as the lingering love that they left behind there is this house, where I’m sitting writing letters during a weekend visit, the morning sun shining through the bedroom window and onto my pages.

I look up from my writing and find old postcards and Christmas cards. They begin “Dear Ron and Margaret”, or “Dear Ron and family”, or simply “Dear Ron”.

There are also stubs of chequebooks, receipts from charities, letters from superannuation funds, some school reports from the 1970s, and two of my father’s Parade College school certificates: ‘First place Sub Intermediate [Year 9] 1943’; and ‘Second place Intermediate [Year 10] 1944’.

Like the drawer, the compartments of the escritoire include bits and pieces: three orange Textas, sunglasses, wood glue, an airmail envelope, a small white porcelain elephant, a letter rack with a black cat, some pegs, a small steel crucifix on a chain. And a brass nameplate saying ‘Mr Maskell’, on which my father added ‘Ron’, in black Texta, between ‘Mr’ and his surname.

This last object dates from his banking days in the 1950s, which preceded a long career running a TAB, taking bets on horses and greyhounds.

My dad was a numbers man. If he wrote at this desk it would have been to write cheques and to fill out documents, to work on his taxes and the family finances, on his superannuation and on his pension and bills. He might have written a few birthday cards, but I imagine he concentrated on interest rates and funds and percentages; on juggling dollars and cents.

I’ve always thought of the desk as Dad’s; not Mum’s. If she wrote letters – maybe to some of her seven siblings – I guess she wrote them at the kitchen table, with a cup of tea at her side and a view of gum trees and parrots.

My view from the desk can be of gum trees and parrots, too, but mostly my gaze is upon the page and upon my hand as it guides the pen.

When I finish writing my letters I close the sloping door of the desk and return the old documents to darkness. As I push in the drawer, I sense the paperclips and golf tees and pennies and maybe Dad’s old school badge shifting ever so slightly.

And then everything is still again.

This story was first published in the Christmas 2012 edition of The Big Issue (Australia)

photo of old desk

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Posted in: Family, The Big Issue