When it became clear, several months in, that 2020 would be a year we likely would all remember for a long time, the PBS NewsHour began to ask the artists and writers we were interviewing to share a memento — a trinket, a talisman, a tchotchke, if you will — that best encapsulated their experience throughout the year.
History is felt through everyday objects, in incredibly personal ways. Author and poet Elizabeth Acevedo learned to bake bread while isolating — and then her husband developed an allergy to that bread. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris told us about an old mirror that nurtured a connection between him and his neighbors. Others shared an unbloomed orchid, a planner with no certain plans in an uncertain time, and a photo of a “future matriarchal overload.”
When the NewsHour posed this question to you, its audience, we received more than 200 submissions. There were mentions of quilts that doubled as security blankets (or public health message). Puzzles, paintbrushes and well-worn shoes marked how you passed the time during lockdown (if you were able to do so).
In your own words, lightly edited for length and clarity, here are the stories behind 20 mementos that carried you through 2020.
A “precious” reminder
I was an “early adopter” of COVID in March. In the early stages of my illness, when I was well enough to cook, I made a chicken dish with thyme. To my chagrin, I ran out of the thyme. I figured I was getting a scary message that I literally was out of time! I was able to recuperate from COVID, but have kept the empty bottle of thyme on my windowsill as a reminder that life is pretty precious. It’s been an incentive, at 71 years of age, to make every minute count, whether I’m sequestered at home, or enjoying a walk with friends!
— Cindy Kraybill of Denver, Colorado
A quilt that marks time
I felt so confined and constrained during Illinois’ mandatory stay-at-home (March-May). I made “Shelter in Place” with 90 blocks (one for each day of the stay-at-home order). The fabric in each block represents things that I value — things that are “me.”
— Nann Blaine Hilyard of Winthrop Harbor, Illinois
An N95 mask
As an ICU nurse taking care of COVID 19 patients, that mask was all that stood between my patient’s breath and mine. I didn’t want to die, or carry it home to loved ones, and that mask was all that assured I wouldn’t. It may have been reused and “cleaned” for up to 25 uses, but I treated it with the reverence given to a treasured family heirloom.
— Susan Arenstam of Plymouth, Massachusetts
A Dr. Anthony Fauci bobblehead
I pre-ordered it back in September from the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame, and I received it just in time for the post-Thanksgiving COVID spike. I don’t collect bobbleheads— they just seem like novelties collecting dust. But this bobblehead pretty much sums up 2020 for me— the unnecessary and persistent suffering of so many people around us and how profoundly useless I have felt to be able to do much about. My typical reaction has been much the same— to cover my eyes with my hand. This little novelty will remind me how confounding 2020 turned out to be— and how Dr. Fauci was the voice of reason in the morass of talking heads.
— Sarah McClary of Dayton, Ohio
A symbol of persistence
I married into a Jewish family in 2018. We just inherited this antique brass menorah, a symbol of the persistence of Jewish culture, from my wife’s grandmother who passed away on Dec. 11. The loss we faced as a couple this year also includes a miscarriage. Our heirloom menorah with its patina feels like this year. We can keep the oxidation of 2020 as evidence of our persistence or we can polish it away and shine anew in 2021.
— Jesse Cooley of Puyallup, Washington
I have been a glass artist, teacher and marble maker for many years. When lockdown happened, it changed my life so much. No more students coming to the studio to learn, no more trips abroad with students to learn from glass masters, no more demonstrating marble making for tourists at a local toy store. All that I had was my husband and son and my studio. We are fortunate to have a safe space and resources, so melting glass in the flame became a focus that offered solace. Eventually I put myself inside the marbles with swirling flowers and buzzing bugs as a metaphor for our situation. There was comfort in the “bubbles” I was making every day. I felt comfortable and safe in the bubble.
— Sara Sally LaGrand of Kansas City, Kansas
A dough whisk with heritage
I restarted baking sourdough bread during the pandemic. Whole wheat (my jam with jam) makes a heavy dough that not only gets harder and harder to stir, but coats my kneading hand with a dough glove, plus the cloud of flour. In contrast, the dough whisk glides through the dough and takes seconds to rinse clean with a toothbrush. It scrapes the bowl, releases no flour clouds, and keeps my hand almost dough free. My parents were refugees from Poland. This whisk is the only memento that reminds me of that life.
— Moses Shuldiner of Toronto, Canada
Legos, and a sense of control
I had never played with Legos as a child, but the toy gave me a unique ability in this terrible year to turn disease, death, protests and anti-democracy politicians into art, into my own highly personal interpretation of the year. It gave me a small feeling of control in a world almost entirely beyond my control.
— Michelle Hudgins of Portland, Oregon
A coffee mug
I chose my grandmother’s coffee mug because when the pandemic hit, I had to leave my grad school housing, move into my grandmother’s house and watch her go on hospice care at my parents’ house. I lived in her house to quarantine and then finish out my spring semester. She’s a coffee ADDICT and drinking from her mug made me feel closer to her. When she passed away in June, she was less than a month away from turning 94. Coffee has been helping me center my focus in the midst of so much instability. We only just finished her last container of Maxwell House, but now the act of brewing coffee brings her back into my life every day.
— Carol Felicio of Winfield, Pennsylvania
Being home through the pandemic, I’ve rediscovered the joy and magic that books have in allowing us to escape to other worlds. This bookmark, a gift from my daughter when she was a little girl (she is now 27), has been my daily reminder that brighter days are ahead!
— Pamela Zarrella of Red Hook, New York
A melon baller
I met with my sister in July to move Mom from her assisted living home to another with more support. We hugged. My first hug since it all began — it was a BIG DEAL to me. We had such a short time to get the job done. Memories everywhere, but as I was working on the kitchen, I came across a double-sided melon baller that had been in a drawer in every kitchen my mother occupied. I grabbed it, showed it and we both “awwwww’d” at the same time. We threw out/gave away SO MUCH STUFF, but I kept that little melon baller. When I look at that melon baller, I will always remember that day — moving from one elderly living center to another during a pandemic and a vital hug from my sister.
— Hal Miles of Sacramento, California
A quilt for comfort
My mother made this quilt as a wedding gift for me and my wife. [My mother] passed last year after a brief and painful battle with pancreatic cancer. Now that she’s gone, sleeping beneath that quilt every night brings some degree of comfort and connection, which is so very necessary and so very rare this year.
— John Wheatley of Sedona, Arizona
Pen and ink drawings
Making the little drawings helped me make meaning of the daily news. This is the way I processed information. Sharing it on social media especially Instagram helped me connect with others during these lonely lockdown times.
— Krina Patel of Boston
A county map
Large, Canadian-bordering, St. Lawrence County in New York state has a wealth of rural territory. Armed with a thermos of tea and PBJ sandwiches, we set out each spring afternoon to explore its backroads. The area’s geology and beauty lifted our spirits each day.
— Barbara Lee of Canton, New York
A decades-old photo
Just after the pandemic shutdown began last spring, my mother who resided in a nursing home 400 miles away suffered a massive stroke. Given travel and hospital restrictions, I was not able to be with her in her final hours. Doctors and caregivers facilitated FaceTime goodbyes. The funeral director held up his cellphone for a FaceTime burial ceremony. Family gathered via Zoom for a remembrance. Unable to properly grieve, this vacation photo taken in the Gulf of Mexico 33 years ago has been a talisman to see me through. I focus my thoughts on my mother floating happily on a raft, eyes closed, smiling, warmed by the sun and with one hand trailing in the warm ocean. I am deeply comforted remembering her like this.
— Carol Wolfe of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
A black notebook
When I was overwhelmed with my emotions, writing them out in my notebook helped me work through them. I was alone for the majority of the pandemic, so I found myself feeling less lonely whenever I wrote out my thoughts and feelings. I also got a better understanding of who I was through writing.
— Andrea Sagun of Los Angeles
Chip ‘n’ Dale toys
When the classes I was teaching moved online, my parents wanted to do something to support me even though we live hundreds of miles apart. They started texting me pictures of a set of Chip and Dale toys dressed up doing funny things that also had a really positive message. I started sharing these uplifting images on social media with my circle of friends and their kids just loved them. They’ve been used to send birthday greetings, celebrate holidays, and now they are receiving gifts in the mail from our friends that get used in future images. They represent the best of humanity and the willingness to show and share joy when we all need that extra reason to smile.
— Amanda Sheffer of Alexandria, Virginia
Turning to opera to learn Russian
In 2003 and 2008, I had tried to learn Russian, but gave up. I had bought several Russian grammar books and other materials, but recently I got the idea that the grammar of opera libretti surely would be be easier, so I found a book with the libretti in Cyrillic and word-for-word translation. With so much time at home, due to COVID having nixed my business plans, this book is becoming my go-to “treasure” in helping me to learn Russian (in addition to grammar books and dictionaries, of course) and for sure, will become my memento of the year 2020. Now, after two months of daily studies, I completely mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, have a vocabulary of about 400 words, and am nearly ready for everyday conversation.
— Sonja Staron of Dallas, Texas
A pair of running shoes
Every morning since March 16, I lace up my shoes and head out the door. Once a long-distance runner, and now a walker, I have walked every day, rain or shine. I average about 5 miles a day and explored all my neighborhood parks and trails. Some days, I shared my explorations with my husband or a friend, and other days went solo. Despite the pandemic and mask-wearing, I saw spring arrive, summer bake the city, fall and all of its glorious colors, and now winter and snow arrive. Day in and day out, I walked with deliberation, amazed at the day-to-day changes and what I missed when not walking. To date, I have logged over 1,000 miles and I will keep walking. My shoes provided me with an important outlet and a sense of freedom during the pandemic lockdown.
— Enid Eckstein of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Empty toothpaste tubes
I’m interested in the ways we perceive, measure, and remember time. After I finished my first tube of toothpaste in April, I thought, “Hmmm, well, this should all be over by the time I finish the next one.” Well, needless to say I’m working on tube number five. As the vaccines begin their gradual rollout, I wonder when it will end. What will mark the end of the pandemic? When my family gets the vaccine? When I can go to the grocery store without thinking about it? When we can go to a movie theater? Until then, twice a day, I’ll just keep squeezing out a little splotch of toothpaste and putting one foot in front of the other.
— Helen Curtis of Seattle, Washington