An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.
James J. “Jack” Barnes was just Papa to me. To everyone else, he was a legend. When he walked into a room—his barrel-chested physique barely contained by his suspenders—people would all but line up to talk to him. Bigger than life was an understatement.
But this story isn’t about Papa, even though most are. This story is about Gigi.
While I got my entrepreneurial spirit, my bunny cheeks, and my bluntness from my grandfather, it’s Gigi who taught me how to make a home feel like home. And as someone who’s had many, I know now what a gift that is.
She also gave me a dozen sterling silver spoons.
Doris Ethelene Pleasant first fell in love with antiques after graduating college, when she moved in with a woman who owned several of her own, and taught her the joy of seeking out the stories they told. This became Gigi’s lifelong passion, a constant treasure hunt—with Papa as her faithful accomplice, driving her to fairs and auctions up and down the East Coast.
She passed her love on to my mother, and I grew up in a home where we wrestled on Oriental rugs, ate our cereal cross-legged in Chippendale chairs, did our homework on an old kitchen farm table, and quickly learned the Staffordshire dogs were not our pets. It was my normal, but the older I got, the more I realized it was anything but.
When I got my first apartment after college, my mom gave me an English spooner that once belonged to Gigi. A spooner, if you’re not familiar, is a patterned glass vessel that was used in Victorian society to, not surprisingly, hold silver spoons (not to be mistaken for a celery vase, as Gigi warned). They were also a symbol of hospitality: middle-class families didn’t usually have enough silver spoons to go around when setting a table, so they would leave their spooner out with what they had for their guests. There's a timeless lesson in there for me: Don’t let feelings of inadequacy stop you from giving someone your very best.
Naturally, Gigi gave me the spoons to fill it with—a dozen sterling silver spoons she picked from her carefully curated collection. What I loved most was that each spoon was different—some engraved with names and initials (who are you, Nellie Montgomery?); others with floral bouquets tumbling down their necks.
Giving spooners and spoons became a family rite of passage. Just last year, Gigi gave me a collection of demi spoons after discovering, and disapproving of, my contraband of mini tasting spoons “borrowed” from an ice cream shop that will not be named. My mom and two older sisters are proud spooner owners too. These sit by the coffeemakers in each of our households—like a little hug from Gigi each morning.
Nobody has taught me how to make a house a home like my mom has, and the invaluable lesson that the better days start with coffee and quiet time. At her house, we swirl our half-and-half in with her sterling spoons—ones just like mine but with stories of their own. We joke that her thick, dark roast makes them stand upright in the cup. She offers to water it down, but the truth is, we wouldn’t have it any other way. We plop down at her round pine table and lose ourselves for hours watching the birds and talking about the stuff of our hearts. Those moments, they always start with Gigi’s spoons.
Four Thanksgivings ago, mom took my two sisters and me to Northfield, the farm where she grew up. We drove past the familiar old Williamsburg-style house, its patina peeking through the pines, and pulled up to the warehouse where Gigi was waiting for us—Gigi and her life’s collection of antiques. As far as the eye could see, it was a maze of chinoiserie and corner cupboards, milk glass lamps and wall cabinets, stacks of art prints and gilded frames, cherry trunks and pine desks and oak side tables, and...
Gigi handed each of us a different color pad of Post-its and said we were to put them on anything we wanted. “They're yours,” she said.
At the time, I was a newlywed living in a studio in Brooklyn. I walked around in a dream-like state, dizzy from Gigi’s generosity, picking valuable, beautiful things at will, and without a spare square foot to put them. On my return, I put everything in storage. But through those three long, homesick years in New York, there was always room on the counter for Gigi's spoons. They reminded me to give my best, to others and to myself—and when the time came, to find my way back home.