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Lonnie Bunch, Carla Hayden, and Carter Roberts Share the One Object That Means the Most to Them

Giving thanks for some unexpected old stuff.

A famous short story once showed how much the things we carry say about us. Our possessions, like our clothes and Facebook profiles, tell the world who we are and what we value; behind each thing we treasure inevitably lies a story. Writers Bill Shapiro and Naomi Wax, for example, cherish an early 20th century locket with “My Love Forever” inscribed within, which they found next to a Vietnam-era Zippo at a yard sale. Their discovery of the locket sparked the idea that became their new book: What We Keep: 150 People Share the One Object that Brings Them Joy, Magic, and Meaning.

The book features interviews with people from all across the country. “As we shared the stories behind these objects and the meaning they held for us,” Shapiro writes, “aspects of our lives emerged that we’d never talked about with each other—or even really articulated ourselves.”

As we head into Thanksgiving, here’s a quick look at the choices of a few participants who happen to live in DC.

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture

Photograph by Peter Braverman.

Bunch’s pick? A rock. More specifically, a rock painted by an old girlfriend in 1972, for his 20th birthday. “At the time, I had a t-shirt that said JERSEY JESTER and I’d wear it all the time,” the New Jersey native explains in the book. “She painted the rock to look like my shirt. It meant so much to me that she took time to do that. It reminds me of the kinds of hopes you have when you’re a 20-year-old kid, of the joy of dreaming, and of not letting life get in the way of your dreams.” The rock is still prominently displayed on Bunch’s desk.

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress

Hayden chose an old ceramic cup that her mother brought home from an after-school youth program in the Bronx during the 1950s. “She had painted the face brown because I was brown, with a little curl in the middle of the forehead,” she says. “That the cup looked like me—it was one of the earliest things I had with a brown face—well, that was something.” Over the years, she’s used it to hold pencils, makeup brushes, and pins. 

Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund

Photograph by Darren S. Higgins.

Roberts, ever the outdoorsman, chose a paddle given to him by a fisherman in Mozambique “with a weathered face who you could tell had spent his life on the ocean.” Roberts was in the country helping local communities regain control of their fisheries from foreign trawlers. “It’s not the most elegant paddle I’ve seen, but every part of it tells a story,” he says in the book. “The handle is broken in half but instead of getting a new one, the fisherman nailed it together because deforestation has made wood so scarce.” There’s also a makeshift checkerboard etched into one side of the blade, which the fishermen would use to pass the time. Roberts still keeps the paddle by his desk. “It reminds me of what’s at stake if we don’t care for the land and the ocean.”

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