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Pickle Me This

March 16, 2007

Ephemera is forever

You’ve got to wonder about ephemera. How a word whose Greek root means “lasting only a day” could be used to classify the bits and pieces of printed matter we cherish as our keepsakes. And I mean letters, theatre programs, postcards, ticket stubs, brochures, greeting cards, and all such various things which stuff my drawers and cupboards. That these items we save forever could possibly bear an etymological link to the mayfly— any insect of the order ephemeroptera, of course, and noted for its life span of just a few hours— is yet another example of the English language’s perplexity.

But then I have to wonder also about ephemera on my own terms. Because my drawers and cupboards are truly stuffed, and chances are that I’ve got a few good years before me still. From time to time I grow concerned that my desire to keep everything will one day find me buried up to my eyes in printed matter.

In particular, I have a big box in my closet filled with cards of all sorts— birthdays, anniversary, Christmas, Valentines, engagement, bridal showers, wedding etc., as well as a fat stack of postcards I’ve acquired over the years. And I cull this box from time to time; whenever I find a card from a name I no longer recognize, I force myself to toss it in the recycling. But in spite of these efforts, the box’s contents continue to amass at an alarming rate. I rarely even look through this box, but I can hardly bear to part with anything inside it.

I do pity the poor somebody who is left to sort through my ephemera once it has outlived me. Sometimes I wonder if I should just toss the lot of it now to make it easy later, and whether perhaps these things were meant to be ephemeral after all. Did I miss the point, going through my life-so-far hoarding such an abundance of stuff? Maybe there is another word for ephemera, and that word is “crap”, and my suspicions will prove correct that none of it is of interest to anyone but me.

But then I was recently gratified to have it confirmed otherwise. To learn that ephemera can be forever.

When my grandfather passed away recently at the age of 94, of course all of us who will miss him were terribly sad, but there was some relief to be had. In an end to his suffering, and that he would no longer have to live without his wife— she had predeceased him in 1998 after 63 happy years together.

But for us there was further consolation, as the extended family went back to my Aunt and Uncle’s house to visit together following the funeral. And we spent a wonderful afternoon sorting through black and white photographs of familiar faces, and also a box of cards, notes and letters which have lasted much longer than only a day. Some of them were over 70 years old.

I never knew that my grandmother had collected postcards, just like I do. And some of the postcards she saved were truly works of art, with “This is a real photograph” stamped on the back as proof of authenticity. Many of the postcards we found were purchased as souvenirs and never sent, shut up in a box all these years so they still look brand new. Beautiful black and white images of British seaside towns, presumably collected by my grandfather while he served in the navy.

One postcard is labelled “A Rough Sea at Brighton”— a photo of waves crashing up against the long-gone but once-spectacular Palace Pier. The night shots are tinted in reds, yellows and blues for a carnival effect. Some of the postcards were sent through the mail with just a brief note. Usually my grandfather apologizing to his wife that it had been too long, but a letter was to follow. During the war he was away for six years.

The greeting cards in the box were equally fascinating, and not only for the notes they held in store, but as objects in themselves. As with the postcards, there seemed to be a superior quality compared with contemporary cards. They were either very elaborate, with fabric pieces, pop-ups, ribbons, bows and gorgeous art, or they were hilariously cheeky, and just so much more interesting than your average happy birthday.

But the messages inside were what won our hearts after all, whether it was the hastily scrawled signature of someone who hadn’t been remembered in years, or that my grandmother was called “Mom” in quotations in her baby shower cards because momhood was still weeks away then. A third birthday card for my aunt from her dad, or a message from my own dad to his mother pencilled in a shaky childish hand.

It was amusing to see the number of belated-occasion cards exchanged between my grandparents, with their humble notes of “Sorry, I forgot.” Though forgetfulness never undermined the sentiment these cards were expressing.

How amazing to find a card from my grandmother dated 1935 with “Happy Birthday to my Boyfriend” on the front. All the cards from the years they had to spend apart during the war, making clear that they were counting down the days. I especially adored the card my grandfather gave my grandmother for their third anniversary in 1939. He noted that if the rest of the years were as good as the first three had been, then he was a very lucky man.

And he was.

And then so too are we, for having all these treasures to remember him by.

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