Our Most Valuable Possessions, And Yours

We asked what object you would save if you could only save one thing. Here’s what you sent us.

In the book What We Keep, 150 people—including Cheryl Strayed, Hasan Minhaj and others—share the objects that they hold most dear. In response, 1A listeners and producers shared their own.

Cheryl Strayed

This has always been an object of wonder for me, but I’ve never talked to anyone about it. Even my husband didn’t know the story — and we’ve been together 20 years.

The first week of first or second grade, we were asked to bring something in for show-and- tell. I walked around our tiny apartment in Chaska, Minnesota — by then my parents had divorced, my mom was a single mom with three kids, we were poor — and we didn’t have anything interesting or cool for show-and-tell.

I decided I’d bring this murex shell. It was given to my mom by her father, who was in the army in the Philippines in the ’40s and ’50s. It was spiny and glorious. It had an air of mystery. But there was one problem: I wanted to say that I’d found it on an exotic beach. That’s what I wanted people to think. For my story to work, though, I would have to separate the poufy red velvet pincushion part — which was glued into the crevice — from the shell. I used a butter knife, and I can still see where I made some progress. My mother came upon me and told me I couldn’t do that. She said, “You can take the shell — but as it is, like a pincushion.” I remember thinking that that ruined everything. I wanted so badly for people to think I’d found this shell. I was in tears. I was obliterated. And I didn’t bring it.

The shame about being poor goes all the way back, and having a glorious shell was the opposite of that. You know, there’s what you remember now but also what you remember imagining then, and I remember that even then I had this image of myself as the kind of girl who would be walking on an exotic beach, who would find a magnificent shell like this. It was not only that I was there but that I found the shell. I wanted to be lucky. It was also about beauty, about the ambition to be venturing out in the world and in a far-off place. What I knew was that I wanted to be something that I wasn’t, that I wanted people to see me as someone who I wasn’t. I’ve come to realize that it wasn’t that I wanted to deceive but that I wanted to become.

The shell pincushion now sits on a shelf in y bedroom. Looking at it, knowing I had those thoughts of who I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live, and knowing that I’ve done it, is the most beautiful, the truest thing. It’s the core of who I am. The shell is like this present: It holds in its very being both the girl I was and the woman I became.

Hasan Minhaj

It’s just a doodle in my journal, but it changed my life.

I got inspired to keep a journal when I moved to New York and saw Chris Rock and Colin Quinn and Louis C.K., guys I admire and respect, bringing these classic yellow pads onstage. Just yellow pads, like what you’d get from Staples or Office Depot. I remember talking to Colin, and he told me that this separation happens between comedians, and it comes down to who’s gonna write the most. He said, “You just gotta write, you gotta vomit it out, what you’re thinking and why — and keep asking yourself why.” And so almost like
when you join a gym as a New Year’s resolution and say, “I gotta get in shape! I’m going to buy my new workout outfit!” I went out and got this really nice bound notebook.

In 2013, I made this doodle on a flight to India to visit family. When I look through the pages around the doodle I see some really, really shitty ideas. They’re the ramblings of an insane mind, my most personal thoughts and feelings — scarier than your browser history because your browser history is just what you searched; this is why you searched. But then there’s this drawing. I remember thinking, What would the communion of a TED Talk
meets The Moth meets comedy look like? Could I shoot a comedy special this way . . . not just a superwide shot of me standing in front of a lot of people, but bringing the camera onstage? What are the shots that would look really cool? And I started storyboarding the concept, drawing rectangles and then filling them in.

Eventually, this became Homecoming King, my Netflix special. It’s wild to think that an amazing idea that changes your life can sit next to the dumbest idea ever — What if Taco Bell combined pizza and a taco??!!! The mountaintop and the valley right next to each other. That juxtaposition is very powerful to me, and that’s what I love about the creative process. I never want to forget that. Looking at this doodle reminds me that if you’re in the middle of a terrible idea, the next one could be great, and, likewise, if you have a great idea, that others will be terrible.

Bill Shapiro, author of ‘What We Keep’

I’ve held on to this sign since 1986. Irgendwo means “anywhere” in German, and Fred and I used this to hitchhike out of East Germany . . . back when it didn’t matter where we ended up or when we got there.

The above three are reprinted with permission from WHAT WE KEEP © 2018 by Bill Shapiro with Naomi Wax, Running Press

A member of the 1A Text Club

I would save my diabetes bear, Kathrin. I got her the summer I gave myself my first insulin shot. I’d had diabetes for almost 7 years at that point, and was told that I would get a special surprise when I could give my own shots. Fast forward 18 years and I still have her with me in Michigan. She’s been to Rome, L.A., San Francisco, Ontario, Delaware, and every place in-between. I’ve used her to demonstrate how to give shots and pump infusion sites. She comforted homesick campers when I was a counselor at diabetes camp. She’s no longer soft and fluffy, but worn and well-loved. Her mouth is coming unstitched, her dress is torn, but she’s still beautiful, and will always be the one item I will save.

Laverne Simoneaux

In 1967 my daddy, TSgt. Odon J. Simoneaux of the United States Air Force, did a remote tour in North East Cape, Alaska on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait between the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and Siberia in the former U.S.S.R. My family did not see him for about 16 months. His actual job at that time was something he could never share with us. Outside of his work, he had to fill his time during the extreme weather and extreme sunlight and darkness. He played upright, washtub bass in a jug band with fellow non-Comms; He worked on his photography; and he did leather work. My prized possession is a clutch he made me during that year. When he got home and presented it to me, I was thrilled — thrilled with this very HIP (for the time) accessory and thrilled he was home.

Michele Graves

This is my grandfather’s circus trunk, which he used for about 35 years — first on the Barnum & Bailey show and then after they merged with Ringling Brothers. He emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s from Ireland and began on another circus in the ranks of one of the “working men” and later became Boss of Properties (in charge of all the circus performers’ props). The trunk was passed down to my father (who spent his early childhood traveling with the show) and then to me (I, too, got the “bug” and spent 7 years on the show in the early ‘70s).

My wish is it gets passed down to my grandchildren — there’s a lot of history connected to this object.

Carol Beam

This was the most exciting thing that could happen to a kid growing up in Brooklyn, a day at Steeplechase, The Funny Place. It was honky-tonk and it was gaudy: The rides were completely unsafe by today’s standards, but a when our father took us there or when I went with my big sisters, we were touching the divine. The park was torn down long ago, and my father died long before that. There’s still the iconic Parachute Jump, which I was afraid to go on. It’s all part of a world that was so sweet and simple compared to now.

They still owe me two rides. There are two punches left on the ticket. I don’t know why I didn’t use them.

Hannah March Sanders

My object is my sketchbooks, which I have all the way back to second grade (I’m now 33). They survived 7 feet of floodwater in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, left behind in an upstairs closet when my boyfriend, cat, and I evacuated last minute thanks to having gas in our vehicle.

A Member of the 1A Text Club

After saving my daughter, two cats and two dogs, I’d save this. When I was 6 or 7, I was terrified of sleeping in the dark or sleeping on my own. During the summer each year, I’d be sent to stay with my biological father who lived in the north of Scotland (where I’m from, but now I live in Austin). While staying at his house in the country one year, I was laying in bed, terrified as usual. (I should note that I wasn’t scared of any one thing in particular — it was everything: aliens, ghosts, demons, you name it.) I read all the sci-fi, horror, and other material I could get my hands on at that age, and my parents never tried to stop me, so I’d end up going to bed with my head full of terrifying stories.

One night, my father came into the bedroom to check on me, and brought me what he said was a Pict stone. The Picts were people who lived in Medieval Scotland — their influence on Scottish art can be seen everywhere. He gave me this stone, which is actually a piece of wood that can fit in the palm of your hand, and has a small carving of a man with a shield and spear, with the letter S on the shield. He said to keep it under my pillow and it will keep me safe from anything I’m scared of. So I stick it under my pillow, and it actually does make me feel a lot better. I end up keeping it for years, wearing it around my neck during the day, under my shirt, and at night keeping it under my pillow.

Mark Verschell

In 2003, my father’s house burned down. He had very little time to grab those things that are most important to him before evacuating. In 2016, after he passed, I found a box containing all of his scouting memorabilia from the 1930s and 1940s.

I had no idea that he had any of this, just as he probably didn’t know that I had the most important items from my time in scouting. Scouting has always been very important in our family. One of my proudest moments was when my father and I attended my son’s Eagle Court of honor. Both of my nephews are both Eagle Scouts. Finding these objects meant so much to me at a time when I was feeling a loss of my father so strongly. One day my son will have three generations of Scouting mementos. I hope he treasures them as much as I do and his grandfather did.

Frank Elfring

Like a “Boy Named Sue” the only thing I ever got from my father was my name — Elfring. I have used that name shamelessly throughout my life.

In 1972 as I was driving back to my duty station — Coast Guard Air Station Cape May — when I stopped at the rest area at the Delaware Turnpike. I found the first two elves (the ones in the back) I gave them to my wife on our wedding day. As our family grew, we found one for my son — wearing the red hat — and one for my daughter — the one on the right on the pedestal.

A long time ago, we were asked what one thing we would grab if we had to leave and not return. My wife and I both agreed it would be our elves.

Sally McCullum

In fifth grade, we had to draw a country and write a report on how they celebrate Christmas. I chose Russia, and this is what I came up with. My mom and I made this ornament from a blown-out eggshell. It survived a day at school, daycare afterward, and countless moves. I store it in the same butter mint box filled with cotton balls from 36 years ago. I lost my mom 17 years ago. Every year when I get this out, I love remembering how, when we decorated our Christmas tree, we marveled it was still around. We always put it on last and at the top of the tree to keep it safe.

George A. Guadiane

When I was eight years old, my mother showed me the object in this green felt box that belonged to my grandmother. When she opened the box, I said “Oh Mommy, that is the most beautiful diamond I have ever seen.” She closed the box and returned it to its hiding place.

Decades later, after many years of dealing with jewelry, I went to visit my mother. There, on the coffee table was that little green box. When I opened it, I was eight years old again. At this point, I knew it had a very slight intrinsic value, but she wanted me to have it because we shared that memory. It sits on my dresser where I can see it every day. It is the first thing I would grab on my way out the door — and the only thing if that was all the time I had.

Kelly Logsdon

I lost almost everything when my childhood home burned down in 2014. My mom was still living there, but thankfully she was not home and no one was hurt. At the time, I had already moved out, but the majority of my possessions were still in the house.

My most prized possession is my doll, hunny, which my dad gave to me on my first Christmas. Luckily, I had taken her with me when I moved out, but everything else that was in our home, at the time of the fire, was a total loss: photos, mementos, the irreplaceable items.

Kathryn Fink, 1A producer

My grandmother decided to go to art school at age 65. Now, 30 years later, she’s one of the most prolific artists I know. These pieces are two of her earliest. They’ve hung in all of my bedrooms over the last 5 years, embodying the idea that it’s never too late to have a new beginning.

Morgan Givens, 1A producer

My wife gave me my wedding band three months before we were actually married in June. And I put it on immediately. Why not? I couldn’t wait to actually be her husband, and my hand feels too light without it.’

Gabi Healy, 1A Producer

This is my rabbit, Bun. Even at the age of 22, I rarely travel without my stuffed friend. He’s been with me since I was five. A place never really feels like home without Bun, who doubles as the perfect reading companion.

Avery Kleinman, 1A Producer

A couple of years ago, my mom gave me her class ring from Midwood High School in Brooklyn. It features her graduation year, 1970, and other little details on the side that showcase who she was as a teenager: She loved theater, and the Empire State Building on the side shows that she was (and is) a New Yorker through and through. I love wearing it as a reminder of where I come from, and whenever I do she likes to tease me that I raided her jewelry box, but it isn’t true! It was a gift, I swear.

Gabe Bullard, 1A Producer

When I was 15, I spent winter break building this guitar with my uncle. It’s made of spare parts pulled from other instruments and a few custom-ordered pieces. The racing-stripe paint job may give away the fact that this is a relic of my teenage years, but it plays and sounds great. The real value for me, though, is in all the memories I have of carting it to band practices, procrastinating on college papers, and just generally having it nearby in case I ever need to make noise.

1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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