Chinese Camphorwood Chest
I couldn’t wait to read more and every spare moment I typed. Thank goodness for spell check.
His letters were detailed. I could sense my father missed home but he also seemed happy which must have been a comfort to my grandmother.
He explained proudly about the purchase of a camphorwood chest from a Chinaman. He described it in detail, the markings, the size and the cost. He had bargained for the first time and boasted at how cheap he had acquired his prize.
I looked up from my typing and glanced at my shelf. There was the camphorwood chest, holding letters and photos of a lost time.
It was the same one. I was sure of it.
Pinnacles on Ocean Island
As a man, there are things you can write to your father that you don’t write to your mother.
The next letter to my grandfather was different and the tone changed.This was a man to man letter. The language was looser, less formal. He described the hardship; hacking at bush; of sweat and dirt; the mining and how it worked; of cableways; crushers, dryers and storage bins and pinnacles of phospate. It was a dry, harsh landscape and it sounded less than tropical island idyllic.
In contrast the next letter to my grandmother talked about his broken watch which he was sending back to her to organize repair. He told her of listening to the amateur hour and about his housemate. He mentioned that he’d cut his leg falling on some steps some weeks prior; that it had become infected and that he had gone to hospital for a few days. He told his mother not to panic, “The leg is quite ok now, so don’t go worrying.”
What a bombshell that must have been. She found out well after the fact.What must she have been thinking. Like most mothers she would have worried. Isn’t it built in as soon as you’ve conceived? If a child tells you not to worry, that’s when you worry. I’m surprised he confessed. But was this because there were bigger issues brewing on the island?
This was a pattern in his behaviour that I recognised. Even when he was sick and in his last days he didn’t want any fuss and tried to hide the reality of his predictament from his family.
I wondered what else he was leaving out.
It had been a few days before I could get back to the letters. I’d been emotionally drained after thinking about my father. Perhaps it was part of the grieving process – I don’t know. I decided not to think too much – get it down – read and think later.
The third letter was to my grandfather – interesting. I had thought all the letters were to my grandmother. I had never known my grandfather – he had died several years before my parents had even met.The date was 30 June 1948 and my father had been away for a whole month. He had finally arrived on Ocean Island. There was a hand drawn diagram of his house and a photo of it (displayed above). Could that be him, shirtless? I wasn’t sure. There were no drones so someone must have climbed a tree to take this shot.
The next paragraph made me think this was no idyllic island paradise. He explained that the natives had gone on strike; some natives were speared; and Europeans had armed themselves with guns. I wasn’t expecting this. What had been going on? Then he talked about how hot it was, what his job was like and detailed descriptions of his meals. I re-read the part about the strikes and firearms. He was matter of fact. I tried to read between the lines; was he scared, anxious,homesick, excited? He ended the letter by advising his father to take his mother for a holiday to Brisbane to see his sister – nice touch. I’m sure alarm bells would have been ringing for his parents.
I couldn’t wait to get to the next letter, dated a week later and was frustratingly short – half a page. It mostly explained that he needed to write the letter quickly to catch the boat. There was nothing more about the strike. What was really going on that he hadn’t put into his letters? He ended it by promising to write a really long letter later that night. Lucky for me I could read his next letter in an instant. How excruciating it must have been for my grandparents to wait weeks for the next instalment. That wouldn’t work now in our age of instant gratification.
As I typed the next letter quickly, I wondered if he would update about the strike. There were descriptive passages about the weather, the people he met and his daily routine. He mentioned his boss Mr Allen, who he described as “quite a decent chap”. He joined the Rifle Club and learnt some local phrases from the natives. He seemed to be getting along well. No updates on the strike. Was he keeping that to himself so as not to worry his parents?
Here was the hard part. I wanted the letters and the story to reveal itself to me. But I knew that if I read ahead then my discipline to type it all would wane. I knew myself too well.
I hadn’t looked at the old camphorwood chest since I was a kid. But now I examined it, as if, for the first time.There was a large butterfly carved into the lid and other designs on the side with old scratches across the front of it. I carried it to my desk and opened the lid. Inside were piles of envelopes containing old photos and letters. One envelope was neatly labelled Ocean Island. I flicked through the photos, the handwriting on the reverse named places and dates. Thank goodness there was no digital photography then.
Then I found what I was after. The letters were folded neatly inside a large envelope. There were three piles of them. I opened the first pile and glanced at the top right hand corner; ‘C/- BPC Ocean Island, 6 June 1948’. The letter was addressed, ‘Dear Mum’; my grandmother. The letter was yellowing yet crisp in my hand; I began reading the cursive writing and imagined the excitement of the writer and the reader. The letter told of the ship’s voyage from Melbourne to Newcastle; what it was like on board; the crew and the food. It was just a typical letter home from a travelling son. Only he wasn’t on holiday – he was on his way to Ocean Island to start a new job. I looked at the date again; my father had been 18. I imagined what it must have been like back then. The war had ended a few years before and for some reason he decided to go to a small island somewhere in the Pacific. What did BPC mean? I didn’t know.
I ran my fingers down the page. I’d never really taken much interest in his story. My childhood was peppered with vague memories of his adventures in the tropics and I remembered the name of Ocean Island. I knew phosphate had been mined there. Like most kids, I half listened to my fathers stories or not at all. I read somewhere that interest in family history reaches us in our older years. Now it was too late to ask him anything as he’d passed away four years before.
I’d finally found the time to help my mother clean out his things – he had a lot. My mother and I had sat on the carpet of his study pulling out things that he should have thrown away years ago. We laughed as we binned the old cheque stubs from the 1960’s, his handwritten to do lists, business letters in carbon, receipts for things which had long since become landfill. And that’s when I found the letters – tucked away in a small camphorwood chest. My grandmother must have saved them and given them back to him a long time ago. I wondered why he’d never mentioned them. Even my mother hadn’t remembered seeing them before.
I made my decision that day not to let the letters wallow for another sixty years – I was going to type them up and publish them so that my family and future generations could read his story. I looked at the dates of the other two piles of letters – 1949, 1950. There were three years of history in more than 100 letters.
This is the story of what I did and what I found out. I hope you enjoy it.