The Pieces of Us
By Erynn Gutierrez & Sarah Firshein
Do physical things mark the passage of time? What we hope to reveal is that these seemingly mundane objects have lives beyond the obvious—and that they’re filled with love, pain, stress and hope.
Sarah’s Crab Socks
Much of the postpartum period is about loss. Sure, you’ve gained a baby; maybe you’ve gained a new title—mother, parent—as well. But you’ve lost things, too: your body, encumbrances, money, freedom.
Some of us also lose our ability to reason, which explains why, a few weeks after my son was born, I found myself on hands and knees, furiously overturning the apartment in search of a pair of tiny, light-blue baby socks stitched with illustrations of crabs.
After scores of hormone shots and hours shuttling to appointments on the Manhattan-bound R train, I got pregnant. Diapers and changing tables be damned: What my future child really needed was a pair of overpriced novelty socks. They were the very first baby-related thing I purchased, an emblem of all that was to come.
One afternoon, when the minuscule crab socks fell prey to the crevice between the washing machine and the wall, the exhausted new mother in me spiraled. What would happen if the socks were lost?
They weren’t; I found them. And babies, I soon learned, grow anyway, whether you want them to or not. My son, as it happened, wore those socks exactly once.
Sarah’s Delta Wings
Most travel writers boast about highly impractical things: scouring an entire nation on foot for a single bowl of soup, for example, or taking a Twenty-Three-hour flight across the world and not feeling an iota of jet lag.
My braggadocio had always been about underpacking, about how far the very little I stuffed into a suitcase could take me: Vietnam for three weeks, a road-trip across France, a lazy, sun-dappled honeymoon split between Portugal and Morocco.
Then I had a baby. My packing became a study in maximalism; my suitcases, a sea of specialized “just in case” items for all manner of ailment: rashes, bug bites, fevers, teething pain. There was formula and purified water; supplements and purees. The wheeled, hardshell suitcases that had, in my twenties, filled my passport book—and, in doing so, launched my career—were suddenly overstuffed shrines about worry.
But we were determined nonetheless to travel with our infant son. On his very first flight, from New York to Cancun, the Delta flight attendant handed us a tiny gold pin. Now they hang, framed, in his room as a reminder of his wings: wings that I hope allow him to fly.
Erynn’s Origami Cookie Tin
The red tin box sits in my closet. On it, an old ripped label remains intact: “Trader Joe’s European Cookie Collection.” Covered in dents and scratches, the box held cookies eight years ago until they were shortly replaced by paper.
Zebra print, bold red, golden tint and flowers flash before me when I lift the lid. The faint scent of dark chocolate and caramel kissed on each piece, the past folds of my youth extending their reach as I sift through the box. Origami cranes, frogs, flowers, Santa Clauses and pumpkins, folded into themselves among the lifeless pieces below them.
Taped on the bottom of the tin is a sticky note with a wish I wrote when I was ten years old (sorry, it’s a secret!). They say if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, you will become an origami master, and your wish will come true. I wouldn’t call myself an “origami master,” but my ten-year-old sister does. As I teach her the valley, crimp, and pleat folds, I can almost see myself back in my old living room, my hair dangling in front of my face as I squint at the instructions in front of me. Cher Lloyd plays in the background as I whisper the words under my breath, trying to fold 1,000 paper cranes to make my wish come true.
Erynn’s White Denim Jacket
Fur coats, an orange blazer, flared pants and a Gildan T-Shirt printed with the word “SPAM,” all lined up in hundreds of racks.
My fingertips flitted through the hangers, fearlessly tugging the multitudes of fabrics — lives that reside in this place. The space was empty; no one came to the thrift store on an early Sunday morning. It was just me, the smell of dank cotton, and the decades: 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
As I looked at those fur coats, I imagined their previous owners waltzing out of Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue and hailing cabs to soirees on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Those flared pants: a roller skater on Astor Place who’d fallen on her butt many times, but got up and kept going anyway. They peeked out the racks, ready for new experiences.
What had caught my eye, though, was a white jean jacket: ‘80s-esque with black, rounded jewel-like buttons and black-and-white polka dots lining the inside. I owned nothing like it.
Its denim radiated a clean slate, fervent to hit the ground running. So I picked it up from the rack, slung it over my shoulder and set off to tackle whatever the world had to throw at me.
The first things we worked on together were Erynn’s college application essays. For one supplemental essay for Tufts, she had written about her “balikbayan” box—where she and her family collect items to send to their relatives in the Philippines. Erynn took cues from an English-class exercise in which she had to associate objects with milestones and emotions.
That’s how The Pieces of Us, a series of short essays about small but mighty objects, was born. To begin, we thought about what had been most transformative in our individual lives. For Sarah, it was motherhood. For Erynn, it was moving from childhood into adolescence. We then chose two unrelated things apiece to write about.
Writing essays in 250 words or less is no small task, but it forced us to be selective with details and reflect on how every word either furthers—or detracts—from the ultimate goal: telling mini coming-of-age stories through things we can physically see and touch. We allow the reader to peek at these objects — and see a bit of our writing, editing, and revising process—on a companion Instagram account (@thepiecesofus_GWN), which we set up as the project’s multimedia component.
Erynn Gutierrez is a high school senior who studies vocal music. She volunteers with The Go Project, a nonprofit organization that provides supplementary education to children in underserved schools. She will be attending Tufts University in the fall of 2021.
Sarah Firshein is a columnist and contributor at New York Times Travel. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, toddler son and rambunctious King Charles Cavalier Spaniel.