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Illustrations by Alex Fine.
When my mother handed me the journal, it was as if she were divulging a secret. I was 18 years old; in a few months, I’d be moving thousands of miles away for college. I did not yet feel ready to grow up, and she knew it.
“What’s this?” I wanted to know. Excitedly, a little bashfully, my mom explained that she’d kept a journal when I was young — a series of letters to 2- and 3- and 10-year-old me. It was all the moments she never wanted us to forget. And now that I was feeling the pangs of early adulthood, she wanted me to have it.
I looked down at the green journal, whose thick pages had been wrinkled by a water spill, and felt the weight of the world in my hands. All I could do in that moment was hug my mom hard, then retreat to my childhood room, where I peeled back the cover and began to read.
Jan. 29, 1997: “Lena — you are two years old now and you are quite the character. When you’re in a good mood, you are an incredible joy, so loving, sweet, funny, but when you’re upset, you hurt our ears,” the very first entry reads.
Feb. 2, 1997: “Today we went to the beach to do some tide-pooling. You love the sand and water. You held a hermit crab.”
March 13, 1997: “Today is Daddy’s birthday and you said, ‘Lena’s birthday too, Mommy. Everybody’s birthday.’”
May 4, 1997: “I’m so happy that you are so determined, because it will serve you well when you’re older. Sometimes it is difficult because you are such a loud screamer. … But, I know you will be a strong, powerful woman when you grow up. Mommy sees myself in you. I think I was spunky like you when I was younger and I was, and am, incredibly sensitive, as you are.”
The entries get fewer and farther between after I turned 4, but there are notes when I was 5, 8, 10.
The final entry is dated May 13, 2013, just weeks before I’d graduate high school. In 20 or so pages, my mom reflects on the first 18 years of my life, filling in the gaps she felt she’d left along the way.
“Dear Lena — how incredibly fast time flies. There is so much in my heart I want to tell you, so much to say,” it begins. “I will try to set down here my love for you, my hopes and dreams for you and some strength for you to carry with you as you walk whatever path you choose in life.”
When a co-worker recently asked what my most cherished object from childhood was, my mind went straight to this: an object quite literally filled with my mother’s memories, her love, her hopes and dreams. I can’t imagine ever possessing anything more important.
The question got me thinking, too, about what happens when objects cease to be things. When, whether because of longevity, or love, or comfort, their value begins to feel incalculable. Maybe it’s a quilt your grandmother made, or a teddy bear you told your secrets to — whatever it is, these items bring us back to another time and place; they remind us of who we are, and the people we love.
So we asked you: What’s the oldest object from childhood that you still own? And why does it matter?
Here’s what 10 of you said.
Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Where it came from: “When my parents brought me home from the hospital, I was wrapped up in a soft, yellow blanket — a baby shower gift. That blanket became Bee Boo, my lovey. I slept with him every night as a child, and I still sleep with him today (my husband swears he doesn’t mind). Bee Boo is now a rather disgusting-looking rag, but he is filled with so much love and so many memories that I could never part with him. (I don’t know why Bee Boo is a ‘he’ — he just is.)”
Why it matters: “Bee Boo brings everyone comfort. My kids (12 and 16) are known to sleep with him when they need a little extra love.”
Where it came from: “I received my hair straightener as a gift in sixth grade and I was so excited. As a frizzy- and curly-haired nerdy girl, this was all I had asked for for a year. It felt less to me like a way to tame my hair and ‘fit in’ than a chance to finally take some control over the way I looked and felt.”
Why it matters: “This straightener has stuck with me for 15-plus years now, without fail. We have gone through periods of hair-straightening every day — whether to practice self-care, fight that Houston humidity, impress a boy or try on a new personality. We have also gone through periods of non-use and self-acceptance, depression and lack of caring. My straightener is the one tangible piece of my childhood that I physically carry with me much of the time, and every time I look at it, that’s what it reminds me of.”
Where it came from: “It used to hang on a chain on my father’s motorbike. I stole it when I was 6, when we left my father’s country, India, for good. (I was being sent to school in my mother’s home country of Austria.) It is the only thing I still have from before I was 20.”
Why it matters: “It is a symbol of defiance and freedom, simply because I stole it. It made me feel like I was in control of something. My childhood wasn’t a happy one, and my father took many things. This was one thing I took back.”
Where it came from: “At Evarts C. Stevens School in Wallingford, Conn., the completion of kindergarten was commemorated with a graduation ceremony and mortarboard hats made of manila paper. I wore a dress with crinoline and a massive smile. In photos, I stand out as the tallest child in the class, positively aglow.”
Why it matters: “My mother kept the diploma as a harbinger of the life she would give me, to be filled with the educational milestones that she, as a Depression-era child, never had. I keep it as both a testament to the fulfillment of her dream and her profound will to launch me into something more.”
Where it came from: “I got it in a Burger King kids meal on Dec. 5, 1995.”
Why it matters: “I got him the night my great-grandma died. She lived with us, and we were very close, and it was the first non-pet death I experienced. I was so excited to get him in my kids meal; when I got home, I went into her room and showed off my brand-new toy with gusto. That would be the last time I saw her. I kept him ever since and made sure to bring him to my wedding in October.”
Where it came from: “My mother sewed her for me at the height of the Cabbage Patch doll craze — when parents were literally fighting over the dolls and paying exorbitant prices. I wanted one so badly. My mom was not able to buy me one, so she made one herself.”
Why it matters: “I’ve had the doll for nearly 35 years, and my love for her has only grown over time. As an adult, it signifies the lengths my mother went to make sure that I didn’t feel left out from my peer group. She even gave it to me dressed in one of my baby outfits. My mom was a teacher who also worked nights at Sears. The fact that she took the time to make this doll for me, so I could have what I wanted, means the world to me.”
Where it came from: “I was born in Australia to an Aussie dad and an American mom. It was customary to put a fluffy sheepskin rug in the crib with an infant so that they could safely sleep on their stomachs, so Sheepie was given to my parents as a gift before I was born.”
Why it matters: “Having lived in the United States for the majority of my life, Sheepie is one of the only tangible connections I still own from the country where I was born. I don’t have many memories from that time in my life, and seven years ago I lost my Aussie father. It reminds me of my parents, their families and friends and all the love they wanted me to feel when I was born.
I’m not really into fur for ethical reasons as an adult, but I knew that I needed to buy a new one for my child to continue the tradition. Before we started trying to get pregnant, my husband and I bought a new Sheepie (from an ethical seller) on a trip down under to visit my extended family. Our first son, Ben, was born almost exactly nine months after the day we made that purchase.”
Where it came from: “My grandmother — who had returned from overseas as a young military wife, with a baby and an adopted toddler — gave me the doll. I was her oldest grandchild, and my children were her oldest great-grandchildren.”
Why it matters: “The doll, Lullabelle, now sits on my dresser with her new clothes and a repaired wooden leg. Lullabelle reminds me daily of my grandmother’s love. And it is a reminder of how fragile life can be and how quickly it passes. It seems like just yesterday I was listening to my grandmother’s stories of family and resiliency, all while hugging that precious doll.”
Where it came from: “I remember watching it several times as a child with my older sister.”
Why it matters: “I watched it on my way to my grandmother’s funeral. I never remembered my mom’s mother, also known as Grandma Barbie, quite well. But all I do recall is how, as an autistic child, a cartoon helped me connect with my older sister.”
Where it came from: “I don’t remember getting it. But I remember it always being a fixture in my room when I was a child and then a teenager.”
Why it matters: “For some reason, it often ends up in my bed. My husband and I live states away from our families, and when I hug onto it, I’m reminded of my childhood home, my sun-dappled bedroom with the sloped ceiling and the smell of lilacs blowing in through the window. It’s a totally different time that I am, on the one hand, glad to have behind me. On the other, I wish I could go back to the chaotic yet familiar scenes of my youth in rural Wisconsin. Delaware is nothing like the Midwest, and sometimes I yearn for the comfortable familiarity of home.”