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Katherine Fleming

The provost and Professor of History and Hellenic Studies at NYU opens the doors of her Magic Cabinet and shares its evocative objects and meaningful memories

How wonderful it is to open the double doors of my magic cabinet, which is really almost more like a wardrobe, and peer inside to see what hides within its depths. And this is what hides within:

Three glass paperweights, in a row, like Goldilocks’ beds: Each one smaller than the next. Coloured bubbles and mysterious swirls run through their depths, bright blue and red and green and gold. They are my grandmother’s, and used to sit upon a shelf beside the front door of her home in the East Sussex village of Rye. I see in them the Camber Sands, the beach at Winchelsea, Fair Light Cove – the windswept coasts and long, brisk walks of my childhood.

A bottle, half consumed, of sherry – amber and luscious, my mother drinks it sometimes in the evening as she plays her violin. The color is like the rosin my mother uses on her bow. Surreptitiously I uncork it from time to time to smell its sweet, rich scent. The satisfying “thock” as the cork comes out is like the sound of a well. I would never dare to taste it!

A lump of pink quartz, as large as a grapefruit, given me as a girl by my mysterious Hungarian next-door neighbor, a philosopher, whose home was full of objets and peculiarities. It is smooth to the touch and feels cool in my hand. When I hold it I feel wiser.

A silver spoon, engraved in loopy, 19th-century cursive: Cora-Louise. This is my youngest daughter’s name; it came from my father’s grandmother, as did the spoon. It is tarnished, but I never polish it thoroughly – age is part of its beauty. To hold it is to hold hands with my great-grandmother.

A set of leather coasters, marbled with swirls like the marbled paper loops and curls of the endpapers of old books. Pink and orange and threads of green remind me of my father’s extensive library. They are so lovely and so useful that they alone of all the items in my cabinet come out often. With the wet sweat of cold drinks their leathered marble surface grows deeper in color and ever softer to the touch.

A large shell, found beside the sea in an era when one could still find large shells beside the sea. This is an Atlantic shell, thick and white and prickly with spikes. When you hold it to your ear you hear the surf pound against the shore. It reminds me of trips to the beach in childhood, the water always too cold, the sand impossible to get off one’s toes – but all lovely nevertheless.

A small, rough-hewn silver pot, with a curlicue stopper, crafted long ago in northern Iraq by an Iraqi silversmith. It used to hold kohl, to use to line one’s eyes. A gift from my husband’s grandmother, it conjures up a long-lost world of simple beauty.

A bell, from the neck of a Cretan goat, made by Minas Milliarakis, one of the last traditional bell-makers of the island. Each hand-made bell has a different ring, and the shepherd who gave it to me knew each of his goats by the sound its bell made as the flock roamed across the mountain.


Katherine Elizabeth Fleming is New York University Provost and the Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization in the Department of History at NYU.

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