Ephemera [originally posted April 12, 2011]
ephemera. (1) something of no lasting significance (2) paper items that were originally intended to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles
Do you collect ephemera? I still have a folk music program with signatures of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary. I used to follow the Blackhawks and have kept a program with players’ signatures. Though these represent nice memories for me, I hardly ever look at them. But I especially enjoy looking at postcards my grandparents, parents, and aunt sent me over five decades. Not only do I vicariously enjoy their adventures and penned personalities, but I also smile warmly at their thoughtfulness—while they were away from home, they thought of me.
Lately I’ve pondered ephemeral acts. Some people have asked me why I drive more than an hour to drop in on my dad in the Alzheimer’s unit of the nursing home when he won’t remember my visit, my words, my touch, and sometimes, not even my name. His face still lights up when he sees my face, but I know that won’t be the case much longer. And who knows how much he truly enjoys my reading jokes, prattling about my dog’s antics and family members’ travels, and mentioning little things I appreciate about him? Does his not remembering my visit negate its value? Certainly time spent with my dad has value for me. But what about my visit’s contribution to his life? Do 30 or 60 minutes matter?
My mother’s 30- and 60-minute meal prep times during my childhood laid the foundation for my quality of life 50 years later. Though I do not recall a single specific meal, I do remember feeling family warmth around the table. My grandmother’s 30-minute tea-and-cookie chats sent cozy and clear messages: I love spending time with you. Teachers—whose names I do not remember—who spent 10 seconds scrawling “excellent work” on my paper made a difference in my life. These few examples of positive influences encourage me to continue exchanging smiles—no matter how short-lived—with my father. His brain wires may be crossed, but his heartstrings are straight and true. That he might feel loved for 30 minutes that day is motivation enough.
Of what value is ephemera? The picture I get when I hear the word is of a child blowing on a dandelion seed head. White, feathery filaments fly away, never to be seen again. Or are they? Each filament is in fact a parachute transporting a seed that will produce another yellow flower. (For my metaphor to work, you have to think of a dandelion not as a despised weed, but as a bright, pretty flower. Maybe picturing a child surprising his mom with a dandelion bouquet might help.) Although we lose sight of the seed floating on the wind, we can be confident it will land, planted.
Visiting someone with Alzheimer’s fits both Webster’s definitions of ephemera. It may seem to have no lasting significance. For the visitee, fleeting significance may have to do. And for the visitor, each visit to the visitee becomes a precious collectible, an experiential postcard reminder of a loving connection.