Three years since my father’s death. Being with him when he died, having that close experience of a parent’s death, started a tremor that continues to pulse through my life. The reverberations are positive. He was not sentimental about death; he’d embraced the idea of it early on.
He liked to fish, and he liked to work with wood; he self-deprecatingly called himself more ‘wood butcher’ than carpenter. He made his children and grandchildren wooden chests, many of which had secret compartments. He showed me how to access the secret compartment in mine: via a peg in the floor, hidden beneath a velvet lining, which when lifted out released the drawer in the plinth. One of the first and largest boxes he made was to house certain family treasures such as his family bible – a huge volume with a leather spine but missing front and back covers, allegedly destroyed in a bomb blast during the second world war. This chest was rumoured to have a secret compartment, but one for which access had not been detailed, and none of us knew if it really existed.
As short-notice plans for a lunch to mark the third anniversary grew, I decided to find a last-minute flight to England and join in.
It was a great gathering, almost complete in close family members, and we decided once and for all to investigate the bible chest. Two keys fixed to the base behind the decorative plinth looked intriguing but were decoys, sawn off at the ends. The decoys – a very Dad thing to do – raised our expectations. We knew then we were on to something. A suggestion of space between the interior and exterior of the box’s base was promising. We fetched screwdrivers and tackled the interior compartments, unscrewing and gradually freeing them until we could pull them out. There it was: in the shallow base of the box lay newspapers, special issue stamps, packets of seeds, a John Donne poem, a self-penned poem and an envelope – ‘This letter will have some interest if left sealed before the year 2000’. Since we were sixteen years beyond that date, we opened it.
The letter, dated 22nd Aug 1985, began: ‘Welcome to the past. I hope a considerable period of time has elapsed since I closed this compartment . . .’
It went on: ‘I offer you seeds in the hope that they may germinate. A living piece of my present, to your present . . .’
I brought these seeds home to Portugal to plant in our garden: pennyroyal (poejo), oregano (oregão), dill (aneto), caraway (alcaravia). Wish me luck because I’m not the best plant nurturer. One can only learn.
It ended: ‘I wish you good health and the wealth to enjoy it, and bid you a distant farewell.’