One of the broken cups
Houston, Sept. 13: As we walked through Shirley Hines's flood-battered Houston neighbourhood on Sunday, we passed pile after pile at the curb - the soggy, ruined contents of people's homes, mixed with floorboards and insulation.
I suddenly felt a tinge of embarrassment. My 8-year-old son carried a box containing small, pretty things: three red-striped cups, fragile and ordinary kitchen-cabinet objects. In a place where everything was broken, what good was something so shiny and little and whole?
The three cups were a gift for Hines, from a stranger in Maryland.
I first met Hines a few days after her neighbourhood was flooded by Hurricane Harvey. The inside of her house was outside at the curb, in a tall messy mound. I was asking her and her neighbours one question for an article I was writing for The New York Times: amid so much loss, what did you manage to save?
Her granddaughter had answered the question for her, pulling a trash bag from the pile and digging through it until she found them - a collection of damaged cups that had belonged to Hines's late mother. Hines was getting rid of all of the cups, and she was having a hard time even talking about it.
After I spoke with her for a while, about the cups and what they meant to her, Hines changed her mind: she decided to keep a few that were not as damaged as the others.
A woman in Frederick, Maryland, Ann Dahms, read the story in The Times and saw the picture of one of Hines's broken cups. Dahms found three identical cups online, bought them and shipped them to my house in Houston. She asked if I could deliver them to Hines.
And there I was on Sunday, back on Hines's block, this time with my wife, my 5-year-old daughter and my son.
Hines, seated outside on her lawn with friends and neighbours, was stunned. She unwrapped the Bubble Wrap around one of the cups and fought back tears. She had kept three of the original cups, but had gotten rid of three others. Now she had three new ones.
I told Hines that I had started to feel awkward bringing her these little gifts amid so much devastation.
"No, no," Hines told me. "This has really made my day, really made my day. It's unbelievable, the identical cups. It's very touching. Oh, my God. That is wonderful."
Hines asked for Dahms's address. She wanted to send her a thank-you note.
Dahms sent me an email explaining why and how she did it - and she gave me permission to publish it.
I was reading The Times over breakfast Wednesday morning and while drinking my morning coffee, I saw the photo of Hines and her broken coffee cup, one of the few she saved after her mother's passing. She had said, "When I was really feeling down, I'd get one and drink me some coffee." I went to the Fitz and Floyd (a ceramics and dinnerware brand) site and sent a note to them asking to buy a cup, and included a link to the NYT article.
Fitz and Floyd replied within a few hours. They sent a link to an eBay site selling the particular mug, and noted that because the coffee cups "were manufactured before 1979, it can be very difficult to track down some of our vintage products, but after searching online, we were able to find 3 of them available for purchase, the only place where more can be purchased at this time". I clicked the link, bought all three available, and wrote the vendor asking that the treasured little cups be sent directly to Texas.
I desperately wanted to replace that broken cup. The world is a broken place, but also a place of great strength, dignity, and personal courage. That's what I wanted to honor. Also, I figured that the cups could also be from her mother, just a long way around, hopping a few decades in the journey.
New York Times News Service