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, creatives, and design experts tell us about their most priceless possessions—real, imagined, lost, and found—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.
My Brilliant Friend, the first in a quartet of novels by Elena Ferrante, is set in 1950s Naples. Against the backdrop of a neighborhood still reeling from the war, Ferrante paints colorful scenes of ongoing feuds between the local women.
Lidia would hang out the sheets fresh from the laundry and Melina climbed up on the windowsill and dirtied them with a reed whose tips she had charred in the fire; Lidia passed under her windows and she spit on her head or emptied buckets of water on her.
Like a mid-century Neapolitan Mean Girls, the drama is a little vicious and a little slapstick. It unfolds in the otherwise neutral territory between buildings; a quiet space punctuated by occasional banter among neighbors and zigzagging lines hung with freshly laundered clothes.
Around the same time, across the ocean and IRL, my mother was living in the southwest corner of the Bronx—164th and Grand Concourse, right near Yankee Stadium, as she tells it. She remembers clotheslines hanging in the courtyard between buildings, beneath which kids would play handball and double Dutch. She remembers clotheslines dangling in the alley and a neighbor whom they called “Sally in the Alley.”
“But why?” I recently asked her.
She wasn’t sure. “Her apartment faced it, and she would sit there in the window. Maybe she wanted to get air. Or she enjoyed watching the kids play.”
I pictured my mother, a tomboy with a cereal bowl haircut—her mother administered haircuts to all four of her children using an upside-down bowl, rendering the bangs painfully short but undeniably even—skipping rope while Sally sat by the window, clothes fluttering high above.
For many, clotheslines evoke an urban skyline. Peruse the hashtag #clotheslinesofinstagram and you’ll find plenty of them hanging before cream-colored buildings in Venice and weathered patinas in Istanbul. There’s even an account dedicated entirely to the clotheslines of New York City.
But when I picture clotheslines, I can’t help seeing the countryside—specifically, where I’m from in upstate New York. In my rural town—with one traffic light, fewer than 1,000 residents, and a single store that doubles as the post office—clotheslines hang in the background of many of my childhood stories.
In one: We’re at my grandparents’ house, just down the road from ours, on a stretch of land that hugs a pond filled with silvery pickerel and lily pads. I’m prancing near the edge of the lawn, where dry, scratchy wheat brushes my legs and makes them itchy.
I spot white sheets hanging from a clothesline next to a wild, overgrown garden. I dash over and weave in between the fresh linens. I emerge at the end and come face to face, or face to beak, with a goose—and she’s mad. Before I recognize the gaggle of baby geese huddled by her tail feathers, her wings spread and rise to attack mode. I turn instantly and, heart racing, dart back to the safety of grown-ups.
At home, we had a dryer, which we were thankful for, but in the summertime, when our extended family gathered at my paternal grandparents’, the dog days were decorated with lines of garments swaying in the breeze.
In Paris, where I now live, my daughter, Mimi, has just learned to walk. The moment we leave our apartment, I clasp her tiny hand so tight that should she stumble, she’d barely touch the ground. I have become my own version of the protective mama goose.
Such is life for a parent in the city. The chasm between here and where I’m from has only become deeper during the pandemic. Those sun-warmed sheets feel so far from my neighborhood on Paris’ right bank, where there’s not a clothesline to be seen. Living in a city—in a foreign country, no less—never felt so heavy.
I miss the molasses-slow moments of admiring a carefully arranged laundry line, with shirts clasped by the shoulders and pants hung upside down, or smelling bedsheets with a hint of fresh-cut grass.
Recently, I traveled to Mallorca to visit my in-laws. At their home in the countryside, on the southwest corner of the island, the world seems unchanged: a palate of warm greens and blues, the landscape shrouded by olive and lemon trees, dotted by occasional cacti. The cloudless blue sky, smooth and clear like a rubber balloon; the dusty golden earth; the inescapable heat.
The sounds were the same as always, too: roosters crowing with the sunrise and cicadas roaring through the afternoon. Occasionally, a chorus of dogs barked in the distance.
On the second evening, as the sun crept toward the horizon and the sky changed from blue to pink, I spied a clothesline behind the house, hanging perfectly still against a celestial glow. My father-in-law, Bertrand, had clipped some of our clean clothes to dry, mixing our garments with theirs—Mimi’s cotton onesies right by my mother-in-law’s tie-dyed caftans.
Here, there were no angry geese or fields of scratchy wheat. It wasn’t my home, but it felt good to escape the city. Time slowed. I began to notice things.
Barefoot, I padded over to return the favor, slowly unclipping each item and lying them gently in a pile on the warm stone floor.
All was calm in the golden twilight. Nearby, Bertrand pulled Mimi in a tiny red wagon as they went to feed the chickens. I carefully folded each garment, taking a moment to enjoy the scent of their sun-dried clean.