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After every natural disaster, as people pick through the remains of their homes, we hear them tell reporters that what is important is that they and their families are safe. They are overwhelmed by their material losses, but they know their family’s survival is the most critical fact.

And yet, our material belongings are important. Most of us have at least a few possessions that matter to us, because of the memories they bring to mind. Photographs. Mementos. Childhood treasures. We come back to these things over and over, and we grieve when we lose them. These things – and the stories behind them – remind us who we are and where we came from.

IMAG0616For my 18th birthday, my grandmother gave me a pair of aquamarine earrings from Argentina. In addition to the aquamarine drops, each earring had a tiny diamond in it. I still have them, and I smile every time I look at them and wear them.

Why do I smile? Not because the earrings are beautiful, although they are. No, I smile because they make me recall myself as an 18-year-old, and because they bring to mind my grandmother.

My 18th birthday was the first birthday I spent away from home. I was a freshman at Middlebury College, 3,000 miles away from where I grew up. My birthday, which is in early April, occurred during spring break, but even though classes were not in session, I couldn’t go home – it was too far, and too expensive.

I was fortunate that a good friend at Middlebury invited me to visit her home that spring break. She and her family gave me a wonderful birthday celebration – a special dinner, a cake, gifts – as nice as if I had been at home with my family.

But it wasn’t my home, and I was homesick that birthday. My parents and siblings and grandmother sent gifts (including these earrings), but I missed their presence on this milestone birthday.

When I see the earrings today, I remember the hospitality of my friend and her family, but I also remember my wistfulness. The earrings are a symbol of my growth into adulthood, but also a reminder of family left behind as I grew.

And the earrings make me remember my grandmother.

She bought these earrings and many other gifts for family members on a six-week cruise to South America that she took a couple of months before my 18th birthday. It was a monumental event in her life – the first international trip she had taken as a widow. Her gift seemed exotic to me – a present from another hemisphere.

My parents and I laughed all that year, as my grandmother delivered gift after gift she had purchased on the trip. We joked that she must have felt guilty for spending her money on the cruise, because she was making sure we all shared in her bounty.

But my grandmother always lived life fully. She gave of herself, her time, and her belongings to friends and family. Although the story we told that year was that she bought the presents out of guilt, in fact we saw her generosity as just one more example of how she always treated those around her.

And that’s why I smile every time I see these earrings. They are a symbol not only of my growth, but of my grandmother’s love, thoughtfulness, and adventuresome spirit.

Which of your possessions make you smile, and what memories do they evoke?

(I put the thimble in the photograph of my earrings to give perspective on their size. The thimble also came from my grandmother. It brings to mind another story, one I’ll tell another day.)