I cannot vividly remember the house on North Maple Avenue in East Orange, NJ. We moved from there when I was nine years old, to Summit Avenue in Maplewood, NJ, the second house of my childhood, the house I do remember. When I think about the first childhood home I lived in, I cannot remember the color of my bedroom, or even how the rooms were arranged. But what I do remember was a drawer of my mother’s dresser that had a stack of brochures from various New Jersey tourist attractions, like the ones you’d pick up at a rest stop visitor information desk. The stack was held together with a rubber band. I remember taking them out often to look at them. The brochures detailing The Land of Make Believe in Hope, NJ. and Fairy Tale Forest in West Milford, NJ are the ones I remember most vividly.
I don’t actually recall visiting either theme park when I was a little girl. I do vaguely recall seeing photos of our visits there many years ago in old, yellowing photo albums that would confirm that such visits did take place. But what I do remember was being, for whatever reason, intrigued by the brochures that advertised them -- the layout, the photos, the words, and the nostalgic feelings they evoked. More than my own memories of visiting the place or family photos actually taken at these locations, I was captivated by those brochures.
Many years later, in my handbag, I have a Midori Horizontal Leather Folder. It fits perfectly in the back pocket, and along with my traveler’s notebook, helps to hold the many pieces of paper and mementos that I collect throughout my daily travels and adventures. At home, I have a beautiful dark wooden desktop chest inlaid with mother of pearl, that holds many of my ephemeral treasures. I’ve had the box for a long time. I discovered it in a shop in Millburn, NJ, the name of which I do not recall, and which has probably long since closed. Next to that, I have a smaller wooden Classiky toolbox. That holds smaller trinkets and such. As I go through the leather folder in my handbag and my notebook. I decide what to discard and what to keep. Some I carry in my notebook for just a bit longer. But those that I decide to keep as keepsakes get placed in my chest or my box.
Ephemera is defined as things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time. Items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.
My Beautiful Wooden Chest
I don’t know what I’ll find when I open the box.
One by one, I take out a few things. First, a sheet of paper, on which a note is written in a child’s hand. It reads,
“Dear Mom, When I was born I met a woman, and that was you. I know you’d do anything to help me grow up. turn over → You are part of my life, I will never ever forget about you. Love, Cormac. P.S. I’ll always love you no matter what happens to you.”
It is a sweet, albeit ominous note from my youngest son. What, I wonder, will happen to me? Whatever it is, I know I will always be loved and that is of some comfort. The date of the note is unknown. Judging from the writing, he must have been five or six years old, when he penned (or penciled it).
Next, I pull out a pretty, bejeweled Hallmark card. The outside reads, “IT ALL BEGINS WITH MOM,” and the lengthy message printed reads, after a sweet “Dear Mommy” salutation,
“Whenever something happens, Mom,
I always call you first --
You celebrate the best with me,
And pull me through the worst.
You’ve guided every footstep
From the day I started out,
And helped me find out for myself
What life is all about.
A close relationship like ours
Is wonderful and rare,
And every day I’m thankful
For the gift of love we share.
Happy Valentine’s Day with Love”
And then in my older son’s neat print, “You are the best mom ever! You are always there for me 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and you always seem to find a way to make me happy! Happy Valentine’s Day! Love, Aidan.” It is undated. Judging from the neat, mature handwriting, it could not have been given to me that long ago.
An ultrasound image of the little girl that would have been our daughter, Niamh Rose or Claire Rose, is kept safe in the same box. Two names are written on the envelope in my hand because we hadn’t yet decided on her name when I lost her during the 12th week of my pregnancy in 2006. She was supposed to have been born the day after Sean’s birthday on May 21, 2007, but we never met her. For quite some time, her ultrasound photo was framed and sat on the fireplace mantel in the living room. It took a long time for me to put that in my box.
Out of the same box out, I pulled a ticket from a Barry Manilow concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center on August 3, 2002, at 8PM. I would have been pregnant with Aidan, who was born in February 2003. Sean, my then-husband, was sweet enough to take me, pregnant and likely nauseous, as I had pregnancy sickness for the entire nine months, and I am 100% sure he hated every moment of it. It wasn’t his cup of tea at all. Taking me had been a kind thing for him to do, and it’s nice to remember this sweet gesture.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of all that is stored in this chest.
Trinkets are defined as a small ornament or item of jewelry that is of little value.
My Classiky Toolbox
The contents of this box change as my needs change, but right now it displays a card that advertises The Strangers Project at Fountain House Gallery, an exhibit that we visited this past January in the paperclip in its lid. The Strangers Project collects handwritten stories from strangers all over the world and shares them with the public. It was a beautiful experience.
Business cards, which I still collect, despite the ease of adding contacts to my smartphone and searching for business information on my smartphone. On more than one occasion, I have fallen in love with the design of a business card or label or sticker from a business, and feel compelled to keep them. After all, someone went through all the trouble of designing them.
A little tray compartment inside the box holds trinkets, mostly pins and buttons, that I’ve collected from businesses or museums. But some things are even more precious, like the red enamel motorcycle pin that my Harley Davidson-riding Dad gave to me when I was just a little girl of around 8 or 9 years old, and which I remember proudly wearing on the bib of my Catholic school uniform. I’m surprised the nuns let me wear it, I think to myself. Of course, it’s possible this never happened, and that I wore it on the weekends on my coat. But the memory often makes up much better stories than the ones that actually happened, and probably for good reason.
There’s an enamel butterfly pin in the tray, as well. It belonged to my great-grandmother, who died when I was a teenager. Or was I in my 20s? My sister and I both had a pin. My mother gave them to us when she was going through Grandmother Martin’s things after she’d died. Years later, I wore mine to the butterfly exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. I was an adult at that point -- married and responsible. It was the first and only time I’d dared to wear the pin, but I thought -- Why have something so special and not use it? And so, I did. Much to my horror, upon returning to the car after our zoo visit, I discovered that it was missing. I’d lost it somewhere in that enormous zoo. I was so sad. In the weeks that followed, I called the zoo several times, but it was never found or turned in. Some time later, I confessed my carelessness to my mother, whose grandmother it was and who had given the precious butterfly pin to me. It turns out, the pins were not that precious to her. There had been a third butterfly pin. She gave me another one without hesitation, and somehow that second pin made its way to that box.
My Midori Horizontal Leather Folder
It fits perfectly inside the back pocket of my favorite handbag. I suppose the back pocket could, itself, hold the various items that are inside the folder that is inside of it, but then I couldn’t take the folder out and have the tactile experience of looking through it and putting it back in. Like other things I do, it’s a ritual, that means little and everything, providing further details for my stories and memories.
The undyed leather has not yet patinated much, as the folder stays mostly tucked away, but still beautiful, as are all of my containers. I am, unapologetically, of the firm belief, that if I have things, they can and should be beautiful things, things that I love. Otherwise, why have them?
It contains a postcard-size poster/announcement of the “Beyond the Streets NYC 2019” art exhibit that we visited in Brooklyn this past August, a lively and colorful display of street art by some of the most renowned street artists and fine artists, including Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
There’s the small, navy blue paper folder that served as the hotel keyholder. The solid blue cover bears only the logo of The William Vale. The small tri-fold folder reminds me that we stayed in Room 1714. What an amazing view we had from the balcony. Inside the key folder, there is a map of the surrounding area of Williamsburg. I love maps, so it’s no surprise that the NY MTA Subway Map is also in my leather folder. I don’t need the subway map every day, or even every month, but I love having it. It makes me think of traveling and journeys and The City, as we suburbanites call New York, and that makes me feel just a little bit edgier and metropolitan than my suburban life entitles me to feel.
Amongst quite a few other things, I find a postcard, button, and brochure from the Brooklyn Art Museum, home of the Sketchbook Project, where we went, while in Williamsburg, to visit and see the notebook of my dear friend, artist RH Mohler. I must send those to her. I picked those up to give away, not to keep. I must write myself a reminder to do that.
If something were to ever happen to me, I wonder what my boys would think of all of this stuff. Without context, they are just postcards, maps, and enamel pins. Meaningless stuff. But I wonder if they would find the many little slips of papers and trinkets to be treasures or of some strange interest, the way I found the brochures in my mother’s drawer to be, so many years ago. Sometimes the simplest of things carry the most meaning.
What kinds of stories do your ephemera, trinkets, and curiosities tell?