Blowin’ In: Ephemera
By Susan Mangan
Lately, I have retreated into the past, pouring over old photos, letters I have held onto for decades, ticket stubs from plays and concerts, playoff games and art exhibits. Stasis has that effect on me. Tomorrow is an unknown.
Through this ephemera: bits of paper that manifest fleeting joys from the past, significant only to the owner, I like to remind myself that I am modestly adventuresome, that travel will again be in my future, that I will be able to read to my students unmasked. I like to predict that the course of my children’s lives will not be forever altered.
On summer days when lilies blaze orange and the air fills with the sweet smell of sudden rain, we seem to move forward. Nature reminds us that she is in charge. Night lasts only so long. Willingly, we accept her guidance, but then we are pushed back a step, a mile.
Ironically, if you allow yourself to journey back to joyful, sad, or challenging times, it can help steady you in the present. Suddenly, we are not paralyzed by fear or seclusion, but rather find contentment in the moment. We begin to cling to small goals, and perhaps, if we are brave, begin again to plan for the future, even though there are no guarantees.
My mother called wild orange lilies that spring randomly and with persistence alongside country roads, ponds, and plots of unused urban soil, ditch lilies. Though she moved from southern Missouri as an early twenty-something, her country wisdom always remained.
“You see,” she would instruct, “when the ditch lilies bloom in the July sun, the height of summer has arrived.” Ubiquitous, the flowers grow aside every daisy, black-eyed Susan, and frond of Queen Anne’s Lace that crowns the summer earth. The lilies are not aware of the plainness in their petals or the unkempt quality of their narrow stems. They radiate sunshine and soft rain, corn on the cob and white cabbage moths.
All too soon, their flowers fade and the crickets begin to hum. Summer is beginning its slow retreat into autumn. Spent ditch lilies leave behind muslin hued seed pods, their leaves turn into parchment – ephemera of lazy summer days.
At the first hint of a sudden storm, the drying stalks bend in the wind, the seeds cast hope for hummingbird days and firefly nights. Ephemera becomes indelible when the past, present, and future entwine like silken spider threads holding fast to clusters of wild ditch lilies.
My mother enjoyed both nature and traveling. She would book trips with anyone willing and able to join her. Only comfortable if he could fly the plane, my father would not travel abroad.
Fortunately, my father’s cousin and his wife were travel agents and had an unquenchable thirst for journeys near and far. My mother and I enjoyed a trip to England, Ireland, and Scotland together before I began my graduate studies. We met up with my father’s cousin and his wife.
Together we traveled across England’s Lake District and into the Highlands of Scotland. Our rented red Ford Fiesta was filled with groceries for spontaneous picnics, souvenirs, pamphlets and Polaroid photos – ephemera that my mother treasured. Even though I inherited the suitcase filled with her memories, I wish that I could remember the exact ring of my mother’s laughter at the sight of the loaded clown car, and if the ditch lilies grew along the River Tweed.
A certain gene for wanderlust has surely been passed down through the women on my maternal side. My grandmother Mim did not start traveling abroad until she was widowed. She raised her five children through the Great Depression and remained frugal, practical, and intelligent; these traits enabled Mim to actualize her travel dreams. Once her responsibilities as a homemaker, mother, farmer’s wife, and teacher lessened, she visited all 50 states, rode elephants in India, camels in Egypt, and the gondolas in Venice. At almost 102 years of age, Mim had seen the world. During her impromptu “tour talks,” she regaled us with her adventures: sipping white wine on the lawn of William Wordsworth’s home and her first vision of Ireland’s Forty Shades of Green.
Upon my grandmother’s death, I was given old journals, family letters, photos, and yes, entrance stubs to museums. My collection of ephemera continues to grow.
During our time in quarantine, my daughter and I sifted through the hoard of postcards and paper memorabilia that I collected during my autumn trip to London; she was fortunate to study there during the fall of 2019. Her appreciation for this unique opportunity is recollected with gratitude that she was able to have this unforgettable and lifechanging experience before the world as we know it changed.
For me, my trip to London was the first time I traveled alone internationally. I could people watch in airports and sip coffee or mimosas in the bustling airport cafes without fretting or fussing over my family. For once, I enjoyed the freedom to wander art galleries and museums, outdoor markets and independent booksellers.
My daughter patiently indulged my every academic whim, making sure I never lost my Tube pass. Together, we enjoyed leisurely glasses of red wine in Covent Garden and sought out the oldest pubs in Seven Dials – the haunts of Dickens and Shakespeare. My daughter and I wandered aimlessly throughout the holiday glitz of Harrod’s and mused about what we would buy if we had gobs of money.
In truth, I do not need one scrap of ephemera to conjure the beautiful memory of my daughter and me strolling among the Christmas Market stands in Trafalgar Square sharing hot cider, while late November mist sprinkled our dark hair. Perhaps the worth in ephemera lies not in the conjuring of memory, but rather in its capability of preserving one moment of fleeting time.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.