My father kept an odd selection of bits and pieces in a simple little wooden box that he referred to as his Ditty Box. I was so accustomed to the term that it never occurred to me to question where it came from or what it actually meant. It was Dad’s little treasure chest, containing the chain from his grandfather’s watch (his older brother had had the actual watch, and sold it, much to Dad’s chagrin), some letters, old photos, and I don’t know what else. It was his box, utterly private, and neither my mother nor I would have dreamt of looking in it without his permission.
So when Dad died, and we had to go through his effects and sort out what to keep and what to get rid of, we eventually came to the Ditty Box. We had left it as long as possible. Both of us felt the same about opening it, very reluctant to trespass on holy ground. This was Dad’s most intimate possession, its contents accumulated and treasured over his lifetime. There was still something of the little boy in my father, and we half expected to find bits of string with intricate knots or a matchbox with a dead caterpillar in it. That was not the case, but it was a most uncomfortable feeling, like going through his pockets while he slept: more than an intrusion, a violation of his privacy. It was like opening the Ark of the Covenant. Nothing in it was of any great intrinsic value, so we put back all the treasured memories, locked the little box and returned it to his bureau.
Today I thought of Dad’s Ditty Box, and for the first time decided to discover the etymology. Dad was fond of versifying, dreamed of writing songs in his youth, and produced many little poems in the course of his long life. Was a ditty box intended as a receptacle for writers of doggerel to keep their verses and ditties?
No, not at all: a ditty box was where a nineteenth century sailor kept his personal valuables: letters and photos from home, precious souvenirs, a lock of hair from his sweetheart. It was in fact intended exactly for the purpose that my father had used it for. But Dad was never in the navy and to my knowledge had no seafaring connections. So where did his ditty box come from? Had he inherited it or found it in a second-hand shop? He had friends who were sailors during WWII, and possibly one of them had given it to him. They are all long dead and gone, so there’s nobody left to ask. I don’t think we will ever know where the box came from. It keeps its secrets well.