This essay was part of Emma’s grad school application to Columbia’s School of International Affairs, where she specialized in transitional justice–what happens after the genocice, the civil war, the overthrow of the dictator. Vanessa has worked in over 70 world cities, lived in Niger, Kosovo, and Rwanda. She is the bravest woman I know.
You are to be photographed with one of your personal belongings. What is the object and why did you select it? Three days after I was born, my father’s mother presented my nervous new parents with a gift: a baby blanket. Loosely woven out of fuzzy white acrylic yarn, interspersed with strands of pale blue, pink, and yellow, and bordered with a satin ribbon, it soon became a permanent fixture in my crib. The earliest black and white photographs taken of me–so early that my newborn legs had not yet uncurled–feature the blanket. There is a photograph, a favorite of my father’s, that shows an infant Emma just learning to hold her head up, sprawled on the blanket with a fledgling copy of Ms. magazine propped over her back.
When I learned to speak, I started calling the blanket “Favey,” a name that baffled my parents until they realized that it was two-year old shorthand for “favorite blanket.” My parents, I now realize, were unusually accepting of security blankets and dependency needs in general. When I was four, there was a famous incident at a dance recital when the teacher refused to let me perform in front of the parents with my blanket. My mother defended me, and I sat out the show. The teacher prophetically warned my mother that I would “make mincemeat” out of her. I prefer to think Emma eroded my old self and help me grow a much more understanding, gentler one. She was not entirely wrong, but I soon learned that there were negotiations in store when I grew older about where it was and was not acceptable to bring Favey: the New York City Ballet was out, but the babysitter’s house was perfectly fine.
I hung on to Favey long after the point that most children give up their security blankets. The blanket suffered its share of wear and tear over the years–the satin border disintegrated, the colored stripes faded, and, most horrifically, my little sister cut a strip out of it to get back at me after a fight–but it stood up remarkably well. It became a standing family joke that I would bring Favey to college. Of course, as I grew older, I developed new and revealing uses for my blanket: I started sleeping with it over my eyes in order to block out the light that I was too lazy to turn off when I had fallen asleep reading in bed; in junior high, I tied it around my wet hair when I went to sleep so that it would be manageable in the morning.
I outgrew these uses for the blanket, but I never seemed to outgrow the blanket itself. When I started college, Favey came with me. I didn’t always sleep with it, but it was always there. It became the only superstition of my life: getting rid of it seemed equivalent to changing your routine when you’re on a batting streak. When I finished college and started traveling around the world as a cost of living surveyor, I brought it with me for good luck, even if I didn’t always remember to unpack it from the suitcase. One of my favorite moments of surveying came when I returned to my hotel room in Hong Kong after a long day only to find that the hotel maid had artfully draped my tattered blanket across the pillow with a mint. When I packed my bags to spend the year in Niger, the blanket came with me. At some point it will need to be retired before it disintegrates completely. I would like to preserve it and hand it down to my own daughter some day.
I have had the opportunity to do amazing things in my life. I have seen some of the truly wondrous places in the world, from the Sahara desert, to Machu Picchu, to the Mekong River Delta. I have jumped out of a plane in Maine and been seventy feet underwater in the Caribbean. I have witnessed one of the poorest countries on earth usher in a new era of hope and democracy. I hope to have a long life in which to add to this list of memories and accomplishments. But ultimately, I believe it is the quality of the love we have shared with others by which our lives should be measured. I can think of no better witnesses to my life than my family–mother, father, three sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins too numerous to count
I love and admire my family for more reasons than I could possibly enumerate on this page. They have always been the most important part of my life: the context in which I first began to define myself as well as my safe haven. That one shredded bundle of acrylic yarn, more gray now than white, is a repository for my memories and a reminder of where I came from. My parents, who respected and trusted a child enough to let her hold on to a security blanket long after others thought she had outgrown it, gave me a valuable gift. I learned from an early age that my own judgment could be trusted, and the confidence that this trust brings has granted me the freedom to strike off in directions that others fear.
Favey at the moment rests at my house. Apparently, now that she is a mother, Emma doesn’t need favey. Perhaps she thinks it is a better favey for a daughter. When her son seemed to be getting attached to a burp rag, everyone tried hard to convince Michael to get attached to an adorable light green textured bacon and eggs blanket. My family took the question very seriously. Michelle argued that a hotel maid in Hong Kong might be appalled by a 27-year-old burp cloth and Michael would be deprived of his mint. Michael became obsessed with the ballet, The Nutcracker, and a toy Nutcracker became his favie for about a year. At 3 he seems to feel that dressing like a pirate or a witch offers more security.