ephemera: a carding chronicle

Amos Handy stands out among the plentitude of readers and recyclers in Carding, Vermont. He swears that everything he knows leached into his brain via paper and ink.

So rescuing books from the waste stream would seem like a natural fit for him.

Hmmm, maybe yes and maybe no.

This weeks, Amos is joined in his rescue operation by Edie Wolfe. The two of them have bonded over the varied bookmarks left behind in the volumes they put on the shelves of Carding’s Swap Shed.

Let’s walk through the open door to join them, shall we?

Amos Handy smiled at the calendar hanging on the inside of his closet door as he slid his arms into the sleeves of his bright tropical shirt. It was the third Thursday of the month, Edie day at the Swap Shed.

Before the Swap Shed was built, Amos cursed every time he saw books thrown into the dumpsters at the town transfer station. One day, he finally got mad enough to lobby for a little money to establish a shelter where people could exchange old books for new.

It didn’t take long for the book-swapping business to get too big for Amos to handle by himself. Fortunately, Carding has a number of voracious readers, and they were happy to help Amos sort the good from the musty, dusty, torn and tortured volumes that arrived in cardboard boxes and plastic bags.

After a while, they chose to make Thursday the weekly sorting day with a revolving cast of volunteers. Edie Wolfe always showed up on the third Thursday.

Amos would never admit it out loud but he’d developed something of a sweet spot for her. He’d never met anyone else who could discuss the finer points of Mary Oliver’s poetry, whether A.S. Byatt’s Possession deserved the Booker Prize, and the inherent misogyny in the Nero Wolfe mysteries.

They debated which Shakespeare dramas had the right to be called great. He was partial to Othello while Edie swore by Macbeth.

It was still quite early in the morning when Amos stopped at the Coop for the whole milk and honey that Edie liked in her tea while she picked up muffins from the Crow Town Bakery. Not long after that, the two of them converged at the Swap Shed’s front door.

“Oh jeez,” Amos muttered as their movements triggered the motion-sensor light on the outside of the shed. Its glare revealed a pile of book-filled boxes damp with morning dew. 

Amos took book abuse personally. “The least they could do is put them in plastic bags. We’re gonna end up throwing most of these away.”

Edie’s nose twitched, and then she sneezed hard enough to fumble the muffin box, barely rescuing it before it hit the ground. “From the smell, I would guess we were going to throw most of that stuff away no matter what. How many years do you suppose they’ve been in someone’s attic?”

Amos peeled up one of the box flaps up so he could look inside. “Hmph, there’s nothing here but 1950s hardcovers printed on that horrid paper that turns brown. But look at this.” He reached inside to extract a bookmark from the topmost novel. It was a faded Red Sox ticket stub.

The two book sorters grinned at one another. “Ooh, ephemera,” they cooed together.

Now I’m sure you’ve used all sorts of stuff to mark your place in a book—greeting cards, paper napkins, dollar bills, ribbon, grocery lists, letters, coupons, toothpicks or whatever is at hand.

When Amos and Edie first started sorting together, they tossed the stuff they found in books into a pile that was pitched into the wood stove that heated the Swap Shed. But occasionally, one of them would find an interesting postcard or photograph that was just too good to throw away. They nicknamed these finds “ephemera,” and set them aside in a small wooden box for readers in need of a bookmark.

It didn’t take long before the ephemera box developed a cult following. A summer resident named Theresa, who billed herself as a mixed media artist, regularly plundered it for collage materials. She was especially fond of postcards that had been used, oohing over descriptions of long ago travels.

She even brought one of her pieces into the Swap Shed to show Amos how she used her finds. He later told Edie that he wasn’t too impressed with Theresa’s art but at least the woman recycled.

Edie and Amos became quite vigorous in their ephemera hunting, shaking every book by its spine to be sure that nothing remained unfound. At the end of the day, they’d debate whose find qualified as “the most unusual” and the winner treated the loser to lunch.

“Does anyone really believe that someone would take these books home to read?” Edie asked as they lugged the damp boxes inside.

Amos shrugged. “I remember before I started doing this that I looked at books as sacred objects that I couldn’t throw away. Now,” he pinched one of the offending volumes between his thumb and forefinger, “I see them as just so much ink and compressed wood pulp.”

He threw the book in the recycling barrel where it landed with a satisfying thump.

Edie was just about to do the same with a mildewed copy of Peyton Place when a letter dropped out of it. She and Amos lunged for it at the same time but he got there first.

The paper was thin, crackling with age, and covered with spidery handwriting that had faded from black to gray. Amos carried it like a delicate Fabergé egg to the counter, turned on a bright light, and the two ephemera aficionados examined their prize.

“Oh my, look at the date.” Edie pointed to the top of the page where it read “November 13, 1864.”

“This was written during the Civil War,” Amos said. “This is the oldest thing we’ve ever found.”

The letter was short and they struggled to make out the words on the paper.

“‘My darling,’” Edie began to read, “‘A woman who helps at the hospital writes this for me as I am unable.’ I can’t make out the next words, can you?”

“Wait a minute.” Amos yanked open a drawer and came up with a magnifying glass worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

He re-angled the light, studied the page and then read: “‘I don’t think I’ll be back to see our new baby. I am glad it’s a girl, and I know she’s as pretty as you.'”

“Oh dear,” Edie murmured. “This doesn’t sound good.”

“‘I’ve got the water fever,’” Amos read on. “Water fever? What’s that?”

“Typhoid maybe?” Edie said. “Though nobody knew back then that it was caused by bacteria in unclean water.”

Amos resumed reading. “‘I want you to know, my darling, how dear you are to me.’” He cleared his throat then passed the letter and magnifying glass to Edie.

“‘I hoped to see the green hills of Vermont again but that is not to be.’” Edie flipped the paper over to read the last lines. “‘I love you, my darling. I always will.’”

The two of them stood silent for a moment before Amos asked: “Is there a name on it?”

Edie raised the paper closer to the light, straining to make out the last marks on the page. “I think it says Samuel but I can’t be sure,” she said.

“What do you think we should do with it?” Amos asked.

Edie shook her head. ”Well, it seems a shame to give it to the historical society because no one will see it there.”

Amos raised a finger. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll be right back.”

And that’s how Samuel’s letter, as it came to be called, became a star attraction at the Swap Shed, commanding pride of place between two panes of glass held together by a frame.

At first, purists tried to argue that it belonged in the historical society. But judging by the reactions of people who came to read Samuel’s letter, displaying it in the Swap Shed suited most folks. Parents read it aloud to their children. Older people argued about who could have written it.

And somehow, it made the past feel a little closer, a little more human.

Because love is never ephemeral.

Sonja Hakala lives on a river in Vermont and is the author of the Carding, Vermont novels and the upcoming Red City mystery, The Deadly Noose.

The Carding, Vermont novels, in order of appearance:

The Road Unsalted

Thieves of Fire

The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life

Light in Water, Dancing

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