Storytime – another Writing Exercise “The Old Desk”




The moving van is gone now, and the old desk, actually a type of desk called a secretary, is now in your den. Many times over the years you had seen your grandfather at that desk, working on correspondence or household finances, and it always seemed to be a thing of mystery – all those little pigeon holes, all those bits of rolled-up paper. The other kids liked running and playing on the old tire swing, but for you it was sitting at the desk, imagining great things. And, now…. it is yours.

Now, the mystery has come home to roost, because you have found a small secret drawer containing tantalizing pieces of a family puzzle. There are a few pages torn from a diary, where the writer, an unidentified young woman, describes a secret rendezvous with her lover. Also, there are a few old photographs, perhaps from the 40’s, of a young man, perhaps Grandfather, in various poses. There are no photos that might be Grandmother – was Grandfather perhaps indiscreet? Did Grandfather remove the diary pages? And, what is the significance of the locket in the drawer?

I decided it was time to put on my ‘detective hat’ to try to unravel this enigma. Surely there was something in the diary pages or perhaps there in the photographs that could point the way. And, that locket – it resisted my initial efforts, but finally it opened, revealing a small woman’s ring, with a French postage stamp stuck to it, wrapped around the band. Inside the gold band, I could just make out the inscription, “To my Effie”.

For now, the ring could wait. I laid out the photographs, three of them in all, and used Grandfather’s magnifying glass to examine them closely, trying to locate clues. The first photograph was the worst of them, poorly exposed and somewhat out of focus. I leaned down and peered at it, section by section, but was unable to find anything of real interest. It was the image of a young man, but it would be difficult to say who it might be, due to the poor quality of the shot. There was a large structure in the background, but even though it was evocative, I could not place it. I pushed Number 1 aside and pulled Number 2 over for my perusal.


The photo showed a young man, again, and this time I could see certain characteristics that led me to the assumption that it was indeed Grandfather. His high cheekbones and distinctive ‘widow’s peak’ hairline was pretty much proof positive. He was posed with one foot placed upon the step of a small conveyance, oh what was it called, yes, a rickshaw. How had I not noticed it before? Perhaps the thing blended in too well with the background, so a casual look wouldn’t reveal it. A rickshaw – now where could this have been? Somewhere in Asia, most likely. The photograph was a street scene, with buildings crowding in all around, with only a few in the distance sticking up to form a skyline. One of those had the look of a pagoda, but very tall and slender. Shanghai, or Hong Kong? Not enough evidence to say. Enough of Number 2, now for the last.

Number 3 was the best of them, and I was prepared to spend even longer with it, slowly examining every square millimeter. The same man, presumably Grandfather, was seen seated at a table of an outside cafe, or bistro. I leaned down once again, squinting and slowly moving the glass. After an hour or so I was rewarded with my best clue. In the middle distance was a sign in French that read, ‘Something something Indochine’. From my limited knowledge of that language, I deduced that the photograph must have been taken in Indochina, perhaps in Tonkin, now known as Hanoi, or in Saigon. The French stamp in the locket was certainly a good link, since that part of the world was under French rule at the apparent time of the old photographs.

Well, now I knew the approximate time period, and I knew that the man in the photos was Grandfather, but who was the author of the diary entries? It was likely Effie, but who was she, really? Time for some more modern research, so I pulled out my laptop and started punching in questions. I wasn’t having much luck at first because I didn’t know my grandmother’s full name. Hmmm, how could I figure this out? Was she Effie?

Then I remembered a family Bible that had been inside one of the drawers of the secretary. The first page was pre-printed as a family tree, with blanks for all the relatives. At the top there was space for two names to represent the start of the tree, and there I found Grandfather’s name, right alongside his wife’s full name, “Anastasia Euphenia Archambault”. His birthplace had been filled in as “Vienna, Austria”, and hers as “La Rochelle, France”. I had no idea that I was part of such an international family!

I tried again to use the internet to tie some of this together, and I learned that “Effie” was a nickname for many given names, one of them “Euphenia”. Bingo! It was her ring! I was quite happy, but I still wanted to know about the diary pages.

I re-read the torn-out pages, but still could not find any link to the ring or the photographs. I resolved to read them one last time, slowly, measuring each reference to place or person. It was then that I finally realized that the young woman had been using a secret special name for her lover, and I had thought it was the name of a place. She had written several times that she loved “Renault”, but at first that meant nothing, since I assumed it was a village name, but I could not locate such a village in my researches.

I went back and looked again at Grandfather’s full, legal name, “Auguste Renoir Baptiste”, and then I realized that Effie had twisted his name slightly to keep her references guarded within her diary, in case someone came snooping. Grandmother was the author, and there was no mystery woman!

I decided not to share any of this with family, lest they come to a different conclusion. I honored the memory of Grandmother and Grandfather by keeping it to myself and cherishing the thoughts of their love that spanned the world.


One response to “Storytime – another Writing Exercise “The Old Desk”


    Makes me want to go poking in MY grandmother’s old secretary, which I have inherited and have in my spare room.

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