The summer when I was seven, we lived on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. My parents were directing a Quaker work camp, and the high school students in the camp were helping to put up a community building. I spent the days on my own, swimming in the cold brown creek that ran behind the camp or walking the paths into the mountains. Along the creek were high smooth stones, and in the streambed curves were wide sandy shoals, where flocks of butterflies lit, their wings breathing slowly, open and shut. The paths were narrow and smooth, dark earth pounded by bare feet. They led back through the hollows and up onto the steep mountain shoulders. It was a beautiful place, glorious with woods and silence.
My mother loved wild places. She made friends with the Cherokees who lived on the steep wooded hillsides, and one evening she invited a medicine man to come and talk by the fire at the camp. I remember the darkness around us all, the firelight on our faces, and his gestures as he spoke.
There was a Cherokee celebration in nearby Asheville that summer, and it was the only time we left the reservation. In the evening there was a pageant showing the history of the Cherokee nation: a huge radiant stage, actors in feathers and deerskin. At an arts-and-crafts exhibition, my mother bought a small carved wooden deer. The deer has slender, exquisite legs and delicate pointed ears. It’s made of a hard, smooth, pale wood—maybe poplar? The sleek flanks, the long legs, the fine head, and the elegant contours show a deep awareness of a doe’s body.
At the end of the summer, my mother brought the carving back to our house in Pennsylvania. For decades it stood on the mantelpiece in my parents’ bedroom, miraculously unbroken. A few years ago, when the house was sold, I took the deer. I had been there when she bought it, and I remembered the way the deer embodied that summer: the dense green of the mountainsides, the steep earthen paths, the cold brown creek.
I brought the carving to Connecticut, to the summer house I inherited from my mother, and which she loved. Now the deer is on the mantelpiece, in the bedroom that was once my parents’ and is now my husband’s and mine. She stands quietly, one foot forward, her ears swiveled, listening, her tail down, calm, alert. That’s what I’d like to keep.
Roxana Robinson is the author of Cost ($15, amazon.com), A Perfect Stranger ($19, amazon.com), and six other books.
2 of 5Victor Schrager
My Apron (and a Bit of Ancient Fudge)
By Jancee Dunn
Should a catastrophe strike my home, there are a couple of things I could not leave behind. They’re not what you might expect: a red checked apron and a crumbling piece of candy that has been stashed in my freezer for seven years.
I should explain. I am not a hoarder. Nor am I a particularly messy cook. For 15 years, I was a music journalist. And back in 2004 I received my dream assignment: to spend a day with Loretta Lynn at her Tennessee home.
I grew up listening to Lynn’s albums, which were filched from my parents and played to death on my cheap green plastic record player. In my imagination, she was always warm, funny, thoroughly lovely. So I was thrilled by the opportunity—but jittery, too. I had learned from experience that legends aren’t always who you hope they might be.
I needn’t have worried. Looking sprightly in a purple sparkly shirt and black pants, Lynn greeted me at her door with a big kiss. “You hungry?” she asked, and hustled me into her kitchen. She pointed out bologna and mayonnaise in the fridge and a loaf of bread she had baked. As I demolished a sandwich, I saw her start to relax, relieved that I wasn’t some uptight New York vegetarian.
Then she made a suggestion. “Hon, why don’t we make some peanut butter fudge?” As we charged around, pulling out sugar and throwing butter and hefty blobs of Jif into a pot, she regaled me with tales of her hardscrabble upbringing: how she wore floursack dresses and went without shoes. How dinner could consist of a possum, caught by her mother. How she didn’t see a flush toilet until she was 13. She was so absorbed in the telling, and I in the listening, that we lost track of the candy, and the concoction boiled over. The fudge came out in crumbly nuggets, but Lynn just shrugged and got two spoons. We sat barefoot on her couch and ate it like cereal.
A week after I came home, I received a package in the mail. Inside was a cheery apron, a box of fudge, and a note. “I hope you like this fudge better! I wanted to send you some to show how it’s supposed to be! Love you, Loretta Lynn.” I felt tingles.
It’s rare to have your idols live up to your outsize expectations, and it’s not fair to expect them to do so. But I felt grateful that I didn’t have to disappoint that idealistic nine-year-old part of me. I ate all the fudge except the one small chunk, but I never use the apron—what if it got stained? Though I’m guessing that Loretta would probably laugh and tell me to put the dang thing on, already.
Jancee Dunn is the author of Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask ($14, amazon.com).
3 of 5Victor Schrager
My Long Underwear
By A. J. Jacobs
Until the age of 20, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in these clothes. Undergarments, I thought, should not stretch over your entire body. I continued to hold this belief even as I grumbled about the brutal winters at my college in New England. My mother, tired of hearing my gripes, did something logical: She bought me a pair of silk long underwear.
I was not thrilled. First…silk?! I’m a cotton and wool guy. The only type of man I could picture wearing silk was a Belgian aristocrat with a fondness for exotic birds and pince-nez. Second, not being eight, I wasn’t keen on the idea of my mom buying my unmentionables. She wasn’t sympathetic to my protests. She explained that my dashing grandfather used to wear silk long underwear and found it so warm that he could forgo an overcoat even on the nippiest days. So I tried it. And my mother, like always, was right. I’m now on my 50th pair.
Allow me to gush: Silk long underwear is warm, lightweight, and soft. You can see why the Chinese kept silk-making a secret for hundreds of years. I have several pairs of long underwear in black and white, nothing racy. I wear mostly bottoms, but sometimes tops, too. I wear them all winter long, but also in the fall and spring and, yes, sometimes in the summer.
If friends spot the telltale white fabric peeking out from the bottoms of my jeans, they may raise their eyebrows. “Are you wearing long underwear in April?” they ask. Well, yes. Yes, I am. And you should be, too. Why do Americans find it sensible to wear three layers on top (shirt, sweater, jacket) but a single measly layer on the bottom? It’s irrational, inefficient, and unfair to the legs.
Look, I have a demanding internal thermostat. Unless I’m warm, I can’t function. All I can do is think, Damn, I’m cold. Without long underwear, eight months out of the year, I’m useless—unable to do work, make conversation, anything.
Last July my wife and I went to a wedding in Napa Valley. I considered wearing long underwear under my suit but ultimately demurred. I told myself, It’s summer. In California. It’ll be OK.
It was freezing. I could almost see my own breath. I couldn’t concentrate on the beautiful vineyard or the lovely couple. Instead, all I could think was OK, got it. Groom loves bride, bride loves groom. Love is patient, love is kind. Can you kiss already?
I was hoping the groom would toss his new bride’s garter to the crowd, because I would have hip-checked all the other guests in order to grab it and put it on. It would’ve been better than nothing.
A. J. Jacobs is the author of the upcoming book Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection ($26, amazon.com).
4 of 5Victor Schrager
My Treasure Chest
By Diana Abu-Jaber
Adults don’t always notice it, tucked against the wall of the dining room, but it’s always the first thing children run to. “What’s in there?” they ask, playing with its clasp. “Can I open it?”
Fifteen years ago, I was strolling through the ancient Khan el-Khalili souk, in Cairo, with my friend Aida. She lived in Jordan, and she had convinced me to fly out and meet her for a getaway vacation. We passed stalls filled with damasks and gold bangles, girls selling jasmine, and boys balancing teacups on trays. Then we entered a shop filled with boxes, each decorated in an intricate arabesque pattern. There I spotted the treasure chest, its lovely curved top, meticulous wooden inlay, and crimson interior—the stuff of fables, of camels and royal caravans. Nearly two feet high, it weighed about 20 pounds—an inconvenient souvenir. I wanted it, and yet…I couldn’t afford it.
I was an assistant professor; my salary was pitiful. The jaunt to Cairo was already a financial stretch. I shook my head over the price tag: 1,700 Egyptian pounds. Translation: hundreds of American dollars. Aida saw how much I wanted it. My friend didn’t have much money, either, but she was whip-smart and resourceful.
“Do you love it?” she asked. I nodded. “I do.”
“This is robbery!” she shouted. Her fists were on her hips. The merchant jumped to attention.
“Madame, this chest is a work of art,” the man sputtered. “It’s handcrafted!” Aida laughed, the man huffed, and thus ensued a grand power struggle. She was scornful; he was appalled. She called him a thief; he questioned her sanity. Time passed. Men squatted against the doorway with demitasses, sipping and murmuring as if at a spectator sport. Five times Aida dragged me toward the door, the man shouting, “Go on then!”—only to catch up to us later, grudgingly offering another price. In all, the negotiation took nearly three hours, and by the time they had settled on a price (80 percent off!), I realized that both Aida and the merchant had had a ball.
A few years later, my friend became ill. Aida passed away at 38, before she had had a chance to get married or have children. But now, every time kids rush to the chest and open the lid, the scents of the marketplace—cumin, silver, sweat—enter the air, and everything comes back to me: the fine fire in Aida’s face, her patience, her will. She didn’t buy the chest for me; she made it possible for me to have it—which is in some way even better. The things I value most about this gift cannot be seen, yet they exist like a genie in its bottle, private and enduring as friendship itself.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of the recent novel Birds of Paradise ($26, amazon.com), among other books.
5 of 5Victor Schrager
My Anniversary Pearls
By Anne Kreamer
My husband, Kurt, and I met on a blind date on November 4, 1977. He was 23; I was 21. It was a madcap evening: After a classical concert at Carnegie Hall, we dined at a restaurant we considered swanky at the time, played Pong at a video arcade, and ended up dancing into the morning at a disco, amid a dry-ice haze.
It still stands as the datiest date of our lives. We married four years later, in May 1981, but every year, we’ve chosen to celebrate our relationship on the anniversary of that wonderful first night together.
Each year, Kurt has been a thoughtful, careful gift giver. But on our 30th blind-date commemoration, in 2007, he outdid himself. On the public radio show that he hosts, he broadcast a love song for me that he had commissioned from a balladeer-for-hire. The lyrics, referring to our respective hometowns—“If I’d jumped into the Missouri River in Omaha when I was 17 and had it carry me down to Kansas City, I bet you would have rescued me…”—moved me to tears. Later came yet another, more private present.
On the card affixed to a wrapped box were three cryptic numbers: 10,957; 30; and 1. Thirty, I understood; the others, I wasn’t so sure about. When I opened the box, it became clear. He had given me one beautiful spherical crystal vase, filled with 10,957 miniature seed pearls, representing the number of days in our years together, and 30 full-size pearls indicating those years.
I was moved, and surprised, too. Pearls are traditionally associated with the 30th wedding anniversary. And tradition has never featured prominently in our lives as a couple: I kept my maiden name when we got married; I didn’t want an engagement ring; I refused to wear a standard wedding veil.
But soon I gained a deeper understanding of the gesture. Pearls are hard to harvest, and it can take years for the layers of nacre to form over a grain of sand, transforming it into a plump, iridescently lustrous pearl. The metaphor for a long marriage is obvious—from nothing, slowly but surely, despite and maybe because of the grit and grime a couple endures together, comes something lovely.
Today, when I glance at the vase nestled near my desk, as it dynamically reflects the changing light of the day, I smile, thinking of Kurt’s romantic, indulgent folly. Of how many hours it must have taken Kurt to count those 10,957 miniscule pearls. And I marvel once again at how poetically they embody the giddy night that we came together, and the life that we’ve shared ever since.
Anne Kreamer is the author of the books It’s Always Personal ($25, amazon.com) and Going Gray ($15, amazon.com).