The cigar box

CIGAR BOXES ARE elegant and prettily made small objects, more common once than they are now. They are made of thin slices of wood, and their labels may show a certain rose and gilt baroque splendour. They have a delicious scent that has nothing to do with cigarettes and the smoking thereof. When one day I found a cigar box tucked in the bookcase, I thought it was just the thing to keep small treasures in. When I looked in it, I discovered that someone else had had the same thought: it was already full of small treasures.

They are my mother's, and together they are the bones, incomplete and disordered, of a narrative. As though a skeleton has been disturbed by small or large predators, and bits scattered or even stolen. They need to be recomposed. A lot of them are small clippings from newspapers, thin and frail now, but still clear. From the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, as it was then, a distinguished broadsheet that the locals read like a novel of their daily doings; or the evening tabloid Sun, which seemed to be mostly racing and sport, and was read by people on the bus after work.

Some of the clippings are death and funeral notices: my mother's mother, Louisa Emily; her father, William; her brother Stanley Byron; her sister Muriel Louie, always called Lou; her aunt Minnie Caroline Ella. I always thought Louisa Emily fared better in the naming lottery than her sister Minnie, but I did not know about the Caroline Ella part. I thought it was perhaps the rhythm and the elegance of Louisa Emily that got her married and mothering six children, living into her nineties, a beloved and independent matriarch. Whereas Aunty Min, despite the euphony of Minnie Caroline Ella, never married, and spent her life as a companion in the houses of rich people, like the Gartrell Whites, who were cake makers of national significance, and another family called I think Armati.

I often wondered about Aunty Min's job. She wasn't a nanny, or a maidservant, and she was very sharp about the things she didn't do; perhaps she poured the tea, changed the library books, possibly a little light dusting. I suppose she fetched things. She was supposed to fetch me and take me to Sunday school, and when I was not quite five she failed to come – I have never found out why – so I went on my own with a note written by my father. It was the Anniversary, when everybody got a book prize; they found one for me: The Rocks of Han, by Pixie O'Harris, perhaps the most important book in my life. It was a magical story about a man who fishes a mermaid, a merrow, out of the sea and steals her little red cap so she can never go back; he goes through various vicissitudes, proving himself a good man, until finally all is well. The narrative is a powerful one, and the pictures, for a change, are just right. I spent my childhood worried by pictures that were so evidently wrong for the stories they were supposed to illustrate.

Aunty Min, as I remember her, was grim, and outspoken, and evangelical. After my mother died I found a letter Min wrote to her, a long complaint about the nursing home she was living in, especially about the woman who shared the room, who was always whingeing. She only had one leg: the other one had been cut off. Aunty Min said she thought she ought to have a more spiritual approach, considering that she already had one foot in the grave. This is the sort of blackly humorous moment that tidying up after a death reveals.

Aunty Lou never married either; I always supposed that it was because of the Great War – that her fiancé, whether or not she had yet met him, was killed by it. She was the right age. I have written stories about this, fictions, since I don't know any facts. I can't think now why I did not ask my mother these things, while I could.

The clippings mark daughters engaged and babies born. Some are fragments from the social pages. My wedding in Canberra is written up in some detail, and finishes with the news that the couple left by air for a honeymoon in Sydney. I don't know why we didn't drive, since buying the rings and those airfares left us penniless. Later we – Mr and Mrs Graham Halligan – are sailing for Europe with our baby daughter, Lucy, to 'be farewelled in Sydney by several friends from Merewether'. Several friends! The whole family came down.

This social pages stuff is a sort of news. You don't pay for it, whereas the death notices you do. Engagements may be gossip and so free, or you might pay.

My father's death gets eleven notices: the family announcement of his death, and of the funeral; all the rest are requests from his lodges for their brethren to attend. They are held together with a pin, worn but not rusty.

There's the birth of a daughter to the cousin who married and went to live on a sheep station in New Zealand. There's a school award for citizenship and patriotism, notice of a scholarship, Leaving Certificate results. My sister Rosanne is one of three children selected from her primary school to write messages of loyalty to the Queen, via the Royal Empire Society – how I will tease her about that when she gets back from zipping round Languedoc! But not everybody is there. The births of my children, for instance: those cuttings must be somewhere else, or lost.

Underneath the clippings are old pages, rather thick and blunt, but flimsy and faded, though still legible, written in a most beautifully curling handwriting. You can imagine a nib dipped in ink. One is Praise Letter, from a teacher called Miss Cameron at Newcastle South Public Infants' School, addressed to my grandparents, to say that their daughter, and my mother, Milly, has acquitted herself remarkably well in the four quarterly examinations of the year. She only hopes that Milly will be able to overcome her shyness and so do herself credit. It has been a great pleasure to teach her and Miss Cameron trusts that she will do better and better. This is in December 1913. Milly would have been eight.

Another, of the year before, is addressed:

My dear Little Milly,
So you did not forget me while I was away.
You are a very kind little girl to send me that pretty post card.
I wonder if you will think this letter better than a post card.

That seems quite a hint to me. Miss Cameron goes on a bit and ends up sending her a kiss (X) and saying goodbye.

The third letter is from August 1913. Miss Cameron is sorry that Milly has been sick, and hopes she will like to read the copy of Sleeping Beauty she is sending, especially the pictures. Nearly all the sick children are back again.

Will you give my love to your mother and tell her I'll be glad when she makes you better.
We all send you a kiss.
Your loving teacher
M. Cameron.

I think little Milly would have been thrilled with this letter. With both her letters. I wonder when she would have seen the praise letter. They are a bit from on high but very sweet. Formal, and yet loving. I can't imagine a teacher these days writing like this. And here they are, foxed and faded, nearly a hundred years on, kept safely in the cigar box. While the people who wrote them and read them are long ago ashes, or dust.

I wonder if this is the teacher who once called her Millicent. My mother told me about this. She said: I expect she felt sorry for me, having such a silly name as Milly. I said I thought it was lovely, nicer than Mildred, her name and my middle name. But I could see she felt there was something frivolous, something not serious, about the name Milly. I imagine she was a serious little girl; shy children often are. And now she has a great granddaughter of that name, though differently spelt, which we, first Milly's daughters, think is wonderful. Especially as new Millie's mother in Dublin chose the name without realising its provenance. She said to her husband: What do you think of Millie? And he said: Great; that's my granny's name. There are twenty years between the child's birth and the granny's death, but we don't forget her. Sometimes my sisters and I talk about Milly, which is what we called our mother in later years, not realising it might not be clear which one we mean.


THERE ARE NO photographs in this cigar box, but I have some. Once I found that my mother had cut off a whole collection of pictures at bosom level. Why did you do that? I shrieked. I looked like the side of a house, she said. This is not true. I know because she missed some. She is wearing a filmy dress, with lace ruffles, straight 1920s-style, the kind that needed you to bind your breasts in a bandage to keep the line. She does not look so thin and shapely as in photos from the 1930s, taken in colder weather, in fitting, beautifully cut clothes, but she looks lovely. She has silky stockings, strapped shoes, a deep hat framing her face, with slightly more brim than a cloche, perhaps. Her cheeks and chin are finely moulded and very smooth – she was famous for her complexion, so her brother's wife told me. She is standing beside my father, who is in his homburg hat, holding her flowered parasol, looking cheerful and pleased with himself. His trousers are strangely short, but that must have been the fashion – he was quite a dandy in those days.

In some photos there is a man we called Uncle Vic, who was courting my father's sister Violet; she didn't marry him, but instead a smooth-tongued Irishman, Tom, who spent his life shut up in a room writing bad poetry, long yawping verse forms like Walt Whitman gone wrong. He was a keen communist. He worked as a shunter in the railways. My father thought marrying this man was a terribly bad idea, and possibly it was. I don't know that Violet, who was called Queenie, thought so, but then it wouldn't have been in her interests. My father had to give one of Tom's daughters away at her wedding; her father wouldn't go. He had a habit of lying about in his back garden in baggy shorts, tanning his lean and muscular body. When I put him in a novel once I made him very sexy. The real one, he was charming, and handsome, with a wicked Irish sneering smile and sly eyes. He played a killer game of Scrabble full of mad erudite words, and had a habit of turning trays of food upside down. The women of the family brought him meals to the room where he shut himself to write his bad poetry, and when he didn't like the look of them he tipped the trays over.

Vic was romantic, he used to give Violet books of other people's poems, real ones. He married a pleasantly plain woman called Molly Frogley, no beauty like Violet in old photographs. There is one of grandma, my father and his three sisters sitting in a scruffy garden with a little foxy dog. One sister is very plain; one is handsome; the third, Violet, the youngest, is beautiful. Grandma looks the way I fear I look now. They are all very alike.

Once when I was walking home from school my hat blew off and into a drain running along behind the drycleaners. I was secretly pleased because I hated that hat. Uncle Vic was visiting. Come on, he said, and got me to sit on the back of his motorbike, we roared off, he climbed over the bridge into the drain, a kind of creek, and retrieved the hat. I was not happy, I was terrified of the bike, and I had to go on wearing the hat. I was about five, and it was a big noisy bike, even for the time.

My hat was floppy lemon-coloured linen, with embroidery on the front. That becoming hat in my mother's photo would have been made by Lou, who was a milliner and worked in Winn's Department Store. My mother was trained as a dressmaker, like her mother, who was apprenticed for three years without pay to learn the trade. My mother went to Tech, where she learned to draft, to cut, to shape; she was already a fine embroiderer. But she never went out to work, she was too timid. She stayed at home and kept house while Louisa Emily did elegant needlework.

I'm fascinated to look at the photographs of the two girls, Lou and Milly. They are slender, with long necks and sharply curved hair, in the bobbed style of the 1920s. Their clothes hang beautifully on them. I am imagining them at home in the old family house, looking at magazines, poring over patterns, sewing ambitious clothes, shaping them to one another's bodies. By the time of the '30s the clothes fit, not tightly but elegantly, like gloves, they are superbly sculptured with a band or a stripe emphasising the line, their hats complement them and so do their shoes, their legs are clad in silky stockings. In the '20s they have necklaces, and tiny handbags, and gloves. I have only just begun to think what fun they would have had, working out and clothing themselves in the latest fashions, and all on shoestrings, whatever they are.

When I was a small child the odd luxurious things in my mother's life came from Lou. Fine stockings. Scented soaps. And Milly made all our clothes. My sisters, in their teens (they were among the first teens ever), had big fights over the tightness of things. My mother liked them to fit easily, they wanted skin-tight, especially round the waist.

There had been various pretty necklaces, I remember from my childhood: carved coral beads like roses, ivory-coloured ones, some painted with flowers, one mint green and white, and I recall that a lot of these got broken. I was going to a birthday party and I begged to be allowed to wear one. My mother said no, necklaces in my hands always ended up broken. I carried on about this, and my father said: Why not let her, it can't do any harm. I knew my mother didn't want me to, but I played on my father's persuasion. I set off for the party, just up the road, with my present, and the necklace, one of the ones painted with flowers, hanging low round my neck. I was five, on my own. I'd hardly got round the corner when I felt a horrible slow cool trickling against my skin. The necklace had broken! I hadn't touched it. I grabbed at the string and caught a few of the beads before they slid off. I scrabbled round on the ground and found some more, but not all; I knew enough about numbers to see that I did not have nearly enough to make up the length of the necklace. I got hot and bothered and worried. I didn't have anything to put them in. I clutched them in my hand and when I got to the party handed them to my hostess with some incoherent story. I didn't enjoy myself at all.

I took them home to my mother, babbling about how I had done nothing, they had just broken, I was just walking along, being good, not even touching them, and suddenly – broken. She didn't say anything, just looked sad. That made me feel even more miserable. I knew if I hadn't fussed about wearing the necklace it would still have existed, whole and beautiful. I still feel bad about it: my mother's pretty thing, lost; she didn't ever wear it, but that wasn't the point. It does occur to me that she might have guessed how fragile it was, the string old and worn. Just the same, I look back upon myself as a monster child.


THE PHOTOS OF my mother with my father and Vic were taken on a wreck. It was a boat called the Adolphe, one of the many ships to founder on their way in to Newcastle's dangerous harbour, and it was stuck on Stockton Breakwater. There is a long rusty hole on the deck in front of their feet, and you can see bits of riveted wall behind them and above are beams that look as though they would have supported the planking of a deck. It was a favourite outing, to take the ferry to Stockton, walk out along the breakwater, and explore the wreck. One false step of my mother's pretty shoes and she would have fallen through the rusty hole into the oily water beneath. You can't do this anymore: the wreck has broken up, and even if it hadn't, imagine anyone in this litigious age letting you do such a risky thing. It is charming to see how beautifully they are dressed for this rough expedition.

My father is courting my mother in this picture. That sweet, rather conscious smile she has; his cheerful happiness – things seem to be going well. In fact, they weren't. He asked her to marry him; she refused. She told me she thought he was too high-toned and arrogant, and that his family had ideas above their station. They'd met because his sister Ivy and her sister Lou were friends, Lou the milliner and Ivy the nurse, the handsome sister, who later changed to her middle name, Mary. Milly must have been firm about it because Jamie went away and eventually married someone else.

This story none of us children knew until the night before father's funeral. I find this amazing, because the family was full of people who were there at the time, but never a word was let slip. We knew about Thelma, that she was a young woman in his life, that she'd knitted him a cream silk dress scarf and she certainly didn't do as good a job as our mother would have done; there were flaws in its pattern, one called I believe blackberry stitch. We gathered that she disappeared from the scene and Milly took her place. But that funeral eve we found out he had married her, and she had died of tuberculosis. Milly produced Thelma's diary and said: Tell me, should I burn this? Of course we all shrieked no, having a great respect for words on paper, even before we knew what they were.

It is the saddest little story. Thelma so loves her Jimmy, her Brown-Eyes, she calls him; she is sure she will be well, she is trying so hard. Milly said: Jamie really believed he could save her; he'd read a whole lot of books and thought that they could beat the disease.

Thelma wrote in her diary that the doctor says she can get married provided they practise 'BC'. And marry they do. She tells her diary how she loves the smell of him. How happy she is. So much better. Six months later she is dead. Our father was devastated, ran away up north, had a miserable time. It was 1930 that she died and the Depression didn't help. I think he started writing again to Milly after a while, and eventually he came home and asked her to marry him and this time she said yes. I expect he wasn't so high-toned and arrogant after all that had happened, and also I think that my mother might well have thought that since she was keeping house for her own parents, her mother spending her time as a lady doing needlework, maybe it would be pleasanter to keep her own house instead.

In 1937 they were married; she was thirty-two. She was very old not to be married; I think young people these days possibly don't know how invidious was the situation of single women; it was never considered a choice anyone might have wanted to make. My parents had a little general store at Adamstown that struggled along, but when I was two they gave that up and father went to the state dockyard as an accounts clerk. He used to say that if they had stayed through the 1940s in the shop they'd have made a fortune, but it was no life for a family.

Tucked in Thelma's diary there is a photograph, sepia, or possibly just yellowing with time. It shows a grave in Sandgate Cemetery, a wide grave, with a marble book for a headstone. On the left-hand page is written Thelma May, beloved wife of Arthur James. The right side is blank. Waiting for her Jimmy to be buried there. But by this time he is our Jamie. The next day we cremate him; his ashes are buried beneath a yellow rose bush, and a decade or so later our mother's join him.

We are not filial, have not been to see them, as good daughters should, do not make pilgrimages when the roses are blooming, do not take our children to see where their grandparents lie. I think of them sometimes, when I think of the ashes of my husband and my daughter, still in my house with me; my son James says we should scatter them, and I suppose we will, one day. I would like to go and see if we could find Thelma's grave. This unlucky young woman who lost the life she so passionately wanted.


VIOLET'S FIRST DAUGHTER got married shortly after I did. She was considerably older than me, so it was a late marriage. One of the clippings in the cigar box is the announcement of her engagement, very pleasing for her because everybody thought it would never happen. We slowly lost track of her after that. I think she deliberately drew herself away, although she had been in the habit of coming to our place just about every Saturday or Sunday; she'd stay for tea and go home on the bus. She carried a pale Orlon cardigan in a plastic bag, both of these things being new and exciting at the time. She was a tall and statuesque woman, usually stout; her father and her brothers were big-boned, tall people. We children rather liked this visiting, though my mother was sometimes irritated by the casualness of it: she never knew if Judith was coming or not. She taught me to sew on the Singer treadle machine; she observed that what was going wrong was my failure to co-ordinate the spinning of the wheel by hand with the peddling of the footplate. My mother had despaired of my ever getting the knack.

One day Judith and I were fiddling about in the laundry, and for some reason were talking about men carrying women over puddles. Well, Marion, she said, you and I will just have to get used to the idea that it won't happen to us.

I knew she wasn't just meaning being carried over puddles, she meant all the things men do with women, and I was irritated by this. I was twenty-two and was by no means supposing that such things were passing me by. I knew she thought this for herself, and wanted my company in this bleak place she had in mind. So I didn't say anything. And in fact quite soon after a man did carry me over a puddle, a man I had only just met, and in six months more I was married to Graham – not the man of the puddle, I didn't see him again for another forty years.

We three sisters got in touch with Judith a quarter of a century after her marriage, when our mother died. She invited us for lunch and made bacon sandwiches. She didn't eat them, as she was dieting so she could have a hip operation. Both husband and wife had got very large. The husband's favourite dish, which he liked to cook, was chips and battered fish, deep-fried. They were very good. When we visited they had just had the door of the lavatory re-hung so it opened outwards, in case one of them collapsed while they were in there.


THE BIGGEST TREASURE in the cigar box is three letters. They were written by my father to my mother, just after my daughter Lucy was born, when he would have been sixty-two and she sixty-one. I had rung him up and told him that my mother had to come down to Canberra and stay with me, that I couldn't cope on my own.

Notice, rung him. There wasn't a telephone in my family house until father retired. No matter how often we girls complained that he was ruining our social lives, that we would never have love lives, because people couldn't ring us up, no matter how often we pointed out that he would never get rid of us, we would be on his hands for ever, because nobody would ever get to know us well enough to want to marry us, he refused to have a telephone put in. There was still that idea around, that a woman was on her father's hands until he gave her away to her husband. In fact, we all did get married without the benefit of his telephone, but we had to leave home first. So I had to ring him at work. I must have done a good job, though, because he let Milly come. That's how I always saw it, though when I said this to Rosie the other day she said: He couldn't have stopped her. She was coming.

Not often did my mother put her foot down, but she did then, clearly.

I had forgotten the details of that coming, but the letters recall the huge organisation required, so my father would not feel too keenly the loss of his helpmeet. Rosie was living at home, going to university; Brenda was married and living in a flat not far away. Would Rosie give up getting up at midday and staying out till all hours, in order to get father off to work and have his dinner ready? He was famous for saying he liked it waiting on the table when he walked in the door.

The first letter begins 'Dear Beautiful'. Just a note, he says: it runs to one and a half typed pages. Rosie got him to work all right that morning and when he got home she had the house quite tidy 'and had done things'. After all sorts of news and remarks like 'we are bearing up bravely under the strain and our survival is expected,' he ends: 'This is all for now, lovey-dovey.' His new Bruckner record had arrived that day and he is going to relax and play it.

The second letter begins 'Dear Precious,' and expects to be short too, since he is writing it at work, with his fountain pen, in order to catch the post that day, but he manages more than two pages. She's already written back to him. Lots more daily news. Brenda dropped in to see him, and found him sitting on his 'lonely own'since Rosie had gone to uni. She's doing pretty well. 'Made some meat concoction the night before last and put in garlic, lemon juice and sherry – it tasted quite good, but you know my reaction to high flavours.' She's cooked a decent steak and the apple pie is highly praised.

He's solved the problem of getting her up in the morning – he takes her a cup of tea and the paper.

This letter finishes with love to his sweetheart.

The third letter begins 'Dear Gorgeous'. Rosie is a great success. On Friday night they go to the pictures with Brenda and Fred, and she does dinner first. Oysters (smoked, I suppose), an excellent casserole with stuffed tomatoes, pears with jelly and ice cream, biscuits and cheese. All before an 8 pm movie. He tells her she should take over on occasion and give her mother a spell, 'but I think that is a horse of another colour.'

He tells Milly how he does his washing, and who has died, who had a baby, who an operation. There have been great storms, and the street at right angles to theirs, along the beach, has been under nearly two feet of sand again, but theirs has just a smear. Brenda got a pay rise. He's in the middle of his secretarial work for his lodges, so will wind up now, lovey. He ends with his love. And there is a PS: 'Your rose petals still had quite a perfume.' I wonder what this means, this small, almost poetic sentence.

I was full of tears when I read these letters. They are so loving, so daily, they pay so much attention to the threads that weave the fabric of their life together. And they recall to me his humour, his heavy-handed irony, his rather ponderous jokes. He remarks that Brenda dropped in again – she was having fun running round in their car, which was an Austin Healey at that time, I think, a wonderful object, and Brenda, tall and slender and twenty-three, with her straight shining brown hair halfway down her back, was the right glamorous driver of it – to borrow some knitting needles; apparently, he says, the craze is on again. She didn't stay, just glanced over his shoulder to see who he was writing to. 'Wanted to know who Beautiful was. Do you know?'

Beautiful. Precious. Gorgeous. He is having fun. But he means it. He wants her to know he loves her, he misses her, even though he is being looked after by his daughters. He knows that I need her at this time, and that is right, but he is holding her close.

There aren't many letters because they were never apart. They went away together and stayed home together. Every morning and every evening, before and after work, he kissed her. Every night we heard the bed springs rattle as he rolled over to give her a cuddle. They liked one another, liked to touch, to be near. There were other letters, I realised; when I was a child collecting stamps my mother took some envelopes out of the back of her wardrobe and cut beautiful 1930s stamps off them. She had them safe and whole there, and much later I worked out that they were the letters Jamie had written before they were married, after Thelma's death, when he wanted to renew his connection with her. She wouldn't show me the letters, and I didn't go and look when she wasn't there. She trusted me not to do that and I couldn't have betrayed her. I don't know what happened to them. Perhaps she destroyed them, as she had thought of doing with Thelma's diary, this time not asking us our opinion.

She was shy, and private. She wouldn't like her daughter writing about her like this. But this is what I do, with stories that I find, or invent; I write them down for others to read. That cigar box, with its narratives, she left it for me to find.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review