The Void is Always Filled

by Mary Ellen Ryall

Lepidoptera Tithorea butterfly chrysalis copyright Alex Wild Copyright Alex Wild

I received a birthday card for my 28th birthday, on April 30, 1970, from my beloved Aunt Ellen. I have always loved the words.

What shall we wish thee,
what can be said
Bringing the sunshine
all the year round?
Where is the treasure lasting and dear
That shall ensure thee
all through the year?

Faith that increaseth
walking in the light
Hope that aboundeth
happy and bright.

Love that is perfect
casting out fear
These shall ensure thee
a happy year.

As Patrick Tayor, the Irish storyteller would say, and this is what it was. When I was a child, I used to pick Lily-of-the-Valley and give posies to my grandmother. I remember, in junior high, gram worked as a live-in domestic for Miss Margaret and Josephine Sullivan, retired school teachers. A previous essay titled Memories Submerged in a Poem, about that time, is available at

In 1964, a year after graduating from St. Peter’s Academy, I was stranded at the family farm in Rock City Falls with no opportunities whatsoever, when providence stepped in. I saw an article in Seventeen Magazine recruiting youth of America to come and work at the World’s Fair, in New York City, for the summer, and I applied. A businesswoman Barbara James had an apartment to share for the World’s Fair season. I wrote about the experience in Born Under a Lucky Star. Learn more at

Photo: World’s Fair Post CardNew_York_Worlds_Fair_1964-1965_Postcards copyright Joschik

After working at the World’s Fair for the summer, I knew the season would end, and I was desperate to stay in the City, and not return to the farm and a nothingness existence. Barbara had a literary career working with an editor, at Time and Life Magazine. What a beautiful office she had on Fifth Avenue, on an upper floor overlooked the Hudson River. My roommate arranged an interview for a position at Time and Life, under the pseudo name of Betty Brown, in the subscription department. Thanks to Barbara, my adult life could begin in earnest. It was my first real break into the world of publishing. It was unwittingly because I never dreamed I would become an author. Everyone else thought I was a writer, but I was a late bloomer as gram would say. To celebrate, I bought my grandmother, Ann O’Grady Sullivan Cunningham (July 7, 1892 – November 25, 1979) a china teacup and saucer set, by Royal Albert, Bone China England, decorated with the beloved Lily-of-the-Valley.

lily of the valley tea cup

PHOTO: teacup

Recently, I have been thinking about Aunt Ellen’s and Gram’s heirlooms. The question begged, who will carry the memories forward after I am gone?

A butterfly cup has its story. I was 33 in 1978 when I moved to Venezuela for six months. I assisted Dr. Jorge Armand with cataloging books for the Archeological Museum, at the University of the Andes, in Merida, an Andean Town at 7,000 feet altitude.

Merida Veneuela copyright venzolannosPhoto: Merida Venezuela

History of Dr. Armand’s work follows: “In the year of 1972, the anthropologist Jorge Armand founded the Archaeological Museum assigned to the Department of Anthropology and Sociology of the School of History of the Faculty of Humanities and Education, with headquarters in the same Department. Due to the growth that the Museum had, it was achieved in the year 75, although without receiving official recognition from the University Council. At this stage, the museum consisted of two research areas: Archeology, coordinated by Professor Armand and Ethnology coordinated by Professor Jacqueline Clarac de Briceño.” Source: When Dr. Armand returned to India to complete a Ph.D. in Anthropology, I returned to the United States.

Back home again between assignments, I was just in time to take a position at Skidmore College, Alumni and Publications Department. I lived at the Annandale Mansion, 245 Clinton Street, Saratoga Springs, New York. My great uncle Owen James Reynolds (June 5, 1852 – September 23, 1920) was an Irish immigrant and stonemason. He and a team of craftsmen built the Annandale Mansion.


Photo: The Annandale 1880’s

I never entertained visitors at my resident. I was surprised one evening when I heard a knock on the door, and it was Aunt Ellen. I invited her in, and being Irish; we settled down to a nice cup of tea. While delicately arranging dried petals on paper, my Aunt Ellen silently watched and asked about the blossoms, especially Venezuelan orchids that grow wild in the Andes Mountains. I learned about native plants and butterflies while stationed in Peru, Venezuela, and later Colombia, and Ecuador, between 1974 to 1980. Sometime after this encounter, the butterfly cup came to me. Aunt Ellen knew about synchronic moments.

butterfly cup

Photo Butterfly Cup

After Gram passed away (July 7, 1892 – November 25, 1979), Aunt Ellen returned the tea set. I am grateful that the china will go to Kara. Who else would keep the ancestry stories alive, but Aunt Ellen’s beloved granddaughter?


Photo: Misahualli – Number 88 butterflies and Chrysalis

I was out of the country, in Misahualli, Ecuador, at the time of Gram’s passing, (November 25, 1979) and without contact with the outside world because I was in the Jungle along the Napo and Misahualli Rivers. Note: Douglas Clark was a personal friend of mine in the 1970s, a famous butterfly collector and jungle tour guide in Misahualli. Following butterflies became a passion in South America, and Misahualli was my first exposure in the world of Lepidoptera, the study of butterflies.

San Agustin copyright Lonely Planet

Photo: Archeology site

I didn’t receive a telegram about Gram’s death until I returned to San Agustin, Colombia, in January 1980. There was a telegram office in the Andean village with a famous archeology site, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Preserve in 1995. Learn more at  At the time, my friend Ann Fry and I rented a house in San Agustin. It was a great adventure.

My beloved Aunt Ellen walked on February 27, 1982. To attend the funeral, I flew in from San Francisco, California, where I worked for the St. Mark’s Historic Lutheran Church, which survived the Fires of San Francisco in 1906. Learn more at

St. Mark's Luthern Church

Photo: St. Mark’s Church

At the funeral home in Ballston Spa and while standing in front of the casket, I noticed a card with a poem and dried pressed flowers. I was touched that my cousin Kathy thought about what the blossoms and writing meant to her mother. Kathy wrote, on April 3, 1982, “Thanks so much for being here and for your lovely note and kind thoughts.” She continued, “Hope you’ll call or drop in when you’re in Saratoga – Mom always loved your surprise visits from the far corners of the globe – our many happy memories sustain us. She dearly loved you – carry her thoughts with you always.”

southwest-waterfront-00 Madison Marquette

Photo: DC

In the early 1990s, Kathy occasionally visited me in Washington, DC. We enjoyed time in the penthouse overlooking the SW waterfront, with views of the Tidal Basin, Lincoln’s Memorial, and The War College in south-west DC. Kathy loved culture and art as much as I did. Both of us were artistic, creative, and a bit eccentric. We could spend the whole day at the Smithsonian Museums, which were within walking distance from the penthouse. Then the season passed as they always do, and we went our separate ways. In 1994, my husband Will DeJong and I moved to Southern Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay, and Kathy settled into life in Upstate New York. We didn’t keep up with each other during her married years because I traveled and worked afar.

After retiring, Kathy lived with her daughter because she needed extra help. Cousin Ellie told me that Kathy had developed Alzheimer’s Disease. I felt a loss knowing that this is one disease that can’t be put back together again. Kara was doing family research on the Internet, she looked for connections to her past, and discovered the essay, “Born Under a Lucky Star,” about Aunt Ellen, her grandmother, and she sent a message. Learn more at

Again, it was as if Aunt Ellen had a hand in this serendipitous moment. Now I realize the butterfly cup and a few other small pieces of China are intended for Kara. Kara’s Great-Grandmother handed down an antique English serving platter decorated with roses made by L. Straus & Sons, in Carlsbad, Austria. Now, this is an heirloom for Kara.

Straus and Sons platter

Photo: Straus Platter

NOTE: In 1865 Lazarus and Isidor Straus formed the whole importing firm of L. Straus & Sons. They were importers of Crockery, China, and Glassware. The three sons of Lazarus and Sara Straus were Nathan, Oscar, and Isidor. Courtesy of the Straus Historical Society Source: Historical Society at

There are always stories, and today I remember I just flutter by, after all my name is Memengwaaikwe, in Ojibwe, which means Butterfly woman. I am grateful to have these stories and treasures to pass into the future. God Bless You, Aunt Ellen. Thank you for bringing Kara into my life. She is helping to ease my heart with the loss of Kathy to a devastating disease, and hopefully, I can bring some comfort also.