Occasion For Questionable Taste In Objets

When I was in college, my Great-Aunt Priscilla and Uncle Bill lived about an hour away. In New Jersey. They had no children, and treated me like a refugee. Which, having moved from Northern California of the early ’70s to a newly co-ed Princeton University, I probably was.

They’d show me upstairs to the little room where I slept. I would nap until dinner. We ate High WASP food of the era. Mostly grey, except the vegetables. I believe they once served canned fruit cocktail for dessert. I ate it. Then we’d retire to the library to watch Mary Tyler Moore. They let me have the good spot on the loveseat. Priscilla and Bill would argue, in the way of long marriages, over when this or that had occurred in 1936 or 1938.

Priscilla’s house was very sedate. Classic, an exemplar of the understated. White, two-story, black shutters. Inside, celadon predominated, windows were paned, walls white, or lined with bookshelves. She loved to needlepoint, so every inch of every sofa was covered in pillows. I do not think she had curtains, they were not necessary. Who was going to see? They lived in the middle of a lot of land, and the driveway must have been at least half a mile long. Or so I remember.

When I would tell guests at the club, their social circle, how much I appreciated Priscilla and Bill’s hospitality, they would whisper back to me, “No, it’s really you doing the favor. They love you to visit.”

In that first year, Priscilla made me a pillow. A really ugly pillow. You’ve heard of Go To Hell pants – in the traditional male fashion world? This is a Go To Hell Pillow.

I have learned, just now, to Photoshop out the background of my light box. The pillow looks exalted, floating in the Internet sky.

In retrospect, I imagine Priscilla really loved me to make something so gaudy. At the time, I was appalled. Granted, Princeton’s school colors are orange and black, but the pillow goes over and above. I pretended to like it. That much about manners, I knew.

Here’s the thing. Those people who whispered to me. “You’re so good to visit Priscilla and Bill,” they were wrong. Oh, even though I was only a teenager I knew I was taking care of them. That was true. But they gave me the chance to experience generosity, and restraint, to feel love in the sounds of small rituals, without much said. I was going to say learn generosity and restraint, but, of course, actual learning didn’t happen until much later. I keep thinking about how it feels to find a featherless baby bird on the ground at your feet, that shock of something at risk. Fragility uncovered, and respected. It’s such a favor, when someone lets you take care of them.

I don’t use the pillow on my sofa, but I’ve kept it in my closet, or my father’s garage, for more than 30 years. I didn’t know until now that I was someone who could have had something in a closet for 30 years, but there you go. One of the requirements for being human, something really ugly that you’ve got to keep around for love.

Have a wonderful weekend, at home or out and about.

*For Go To Hell Pants, go to Maxminimus.

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  • Oh come on–that pillow is–well, it's insanely over the top, but in a good way! And anyway, who ever heard of tasteful school spirit? It's an oxymoron.

    At the very least, bring it to your next reunion. I bet a lot of your classmates would love to see it.

  • It is sooo very 1970's – again, in a good way!

  • That cushion is absolutely FANTASTIC! It may be the best pillow ever! It's too good to be closet-bound!

    (They're also the colour of my hometown's football team. Hull City – aka The Tigers!)

  • jonathan adler and i would fight each other tooth and nail for that pillow. (and i would win.)

  • Aw, Lisa, I love this post. It's so poignant. For a blip in my history I did needlepoint, and it truly is an act of love to do something like this for someone. I know exactly what you mean by being allowed to see someone's frailty and care for them when it doesn't look that way on the surface. Of course you kept the pillow. That's why I love you!

  • what a lovely story! I imagine them anticipating your visit and how different a co-ed would seem from all their friends, how fresh and exciting and best of all, their's!

    I did a needlepoint pillow in the 70s that was so ugly, I keep my own pillow in the closet ;-)

  • I am way behind in my readings but glad I started with this. Having crossed stitched all my bridemaid's gifts to be displayed under glass in a tray and a few other needlepoint gifts, I know your great-aunt thought of you with every pull of the yarn. What a meaningful keepsake. :) xoxo

  • Hi Poppy! Hi Doc! Hi Caroline! So you guys love the pillow? Shows how uncool I am, right? Lauren, dear lord, Jonathan Adler. I want to have him to dinner right now. Semiotics and irreverent luxury indeed. Maureen, aw, that comment is why I love you:). Patsy, take your pillow out and celebrate it!

  • Wow, 'tis a funky cushion for sure! I love orange, but I hated my Dad's Princeton scarf. Ugly! Horrible shade of orange alternating with black segments. Didn't like the brolly either. (His Cambridge muffler was in much better taste, naturally.) At least your pillow has some mitigating gold in it…I think that helps. I actually like the tigery striped border.

  • At this point, it qualifies as vintage. Display it proudly. I'll have to pick up a few things with my class logo at my 30th Brown reunion this year.

  • That needlepoint pillow comes with such a lovely story that I'm surprised you haven't found a way to sneak in on a sofa somewhere.

  • Needlepoint anything is not for me. For a wedding gift we received a very small needlepoint, bible inspired small `thing´from my hb´s godparents. It was so awful, but we saved it in a box along with other odd things. As we moved from one place to another, the `thing´followed along. But, one time, when we were again packing, the box, where the ´thing´was accidentally (!) thrown away. I saw it happen, but kept my mouth shut. It was the most horrible piece of handwork I have ever seen, with the bible text and all.

  • For me this post wasn't about the pillow or needlepoint at all. It just made me smile to think of how much this couple anticipated your visits and how delightful it must have been to have a young person in the house. I love your detail about their giving you the good spot on the love seat. Wonderful post.

  • I am so glad others liked the pillow, too. I think it would be great in a den or TV room. Loved the story behind it even more. Sure the colors are very 70s, but that is part of what makes it special.

  • I loved your story. Reading it felt like being there. They sound like they were a wonderful, caring couple – thanks for sharing.

  • I love it! :-) This just has to be in the den with all the college memorabilia! haha. We Tennessee Vols love this kind of display of school spirit!

    And what a dear your aunt was to spend that time on this keepsake. She and your uncle were very lucky to have you. xoxo

  • I think you should put it on an antique shaker-style chair and display it. It's a wonderful piece of kitsch–and love!

  • Amazing. Please know that you are an amazing writer. To write a post that had me feeling the complex feelings you had (about the pillow, about your part in their lives, about the onlookers' view of your role) — wow! I'm speechless. I'm a lawyer, so that doesn't happen often!

    Karen in Paris

  • my brother in law graduated from princeton
    in '82. i bet he would love your pillow!

    what a nice piece on gratitude, respect, and

    my grandmother gave me some china that i
    would never choose for myself, but because
    it came from her, i cherish it.

  • There are worse things than that pillow, which I rather like for its unrepentant over-the-top quality.

    About ten years before you got your pillow, my college girlfriend knitted me a beautiful scarf. When I looked at the finished product for the first time, there were our initials — "S&M" — emblazoned on the end of the scarf. I swallowed hard, thanked her effusively, and began to think of all the interesting knots I could tie to disguise that final flourish around campus.

  • Your guys are cute. Remember that fading family fortune? I've only got one sofa. Oops. Karen, a lawyer, thank you. I know some of those, lawyers. Anon, hey, it's not a status symbol to have a girlfriend knit for you? And the story, yes. I sort of wish I could tell them what they did for me, except that they would have been embarrassed, I think, to talk about it out loud.

  • I am late reading blogs today but this pillow post certainly caught my eye…the pillow is nice in it's own way,very modernist in it's colour scheme, pushes the safe envelope just a wee bit. It gets better that your dearest aunt made it and with each stitch she probably thought of how fond of you and grateful for your presence she felt.
    I think it was wise to keep it…it might not be to your current taste but it is an heirloom nevertheless. (and it beats the mauve crocheted dog head TP cover I got as a "gift" once!)

  • I remember the lessons of learning to be gracious. You accept the gift in the nature it was intended or there would be consequences. (meaning from Mom) But I can see why that "ugly" pillow touched a soft spot in your heart :)

    I also had a pillow given as a gift. But it didn't go with anything, so I did put it on my guest bedroom bed. Just in case they ever came by the house. Today….it's in my attic.

  • Orange is my favorite color and I love your pillow. But, like you, I'd probably not put it in my living room. Do you have a den? (Or what, at least in Connecticut 20 years ago, we called a "T.V/" room?)
    It looks like it should live in a den.

  • For our wedding, a distant and elderly Chinese uncle made us a wooden photo frame that is shaped like a heart and decorated with rhinestones. It's in our closet.

  • "One of the requirements for being human, something really ugly that you've got to keep around for love." Ah yes, indeed. :)

  • I too have a framed needle point picture arrangement that I keep in a cupboard and cannot expose to the light…because it was made for me by someone I really love! Loved this post- it's right up there with you nailpolish at the office one.

  • I love the pillow but then again I'm the guy with a lot of those bothersome trousers.


  • I remember someone in some blog saying, that it is polite to accept a gift or something else from someone. But afterwards, the gift is your´s. You may do whatever you wish to do with it. Having read that statement was a great relief for me. I part with everything I don´t like. Am not even feeling bad about doing what I do with the gift.

  • This post was very touching. Have you thought about removing the pillow and having the needlework framed? I think it would be lovely in a library on the wall or sitting in a bookcase. Priscilla and Bill sound like wonderful people.

  • Very sweet post! I have some "craft-y" items made by my MIL that I feel the same way about. Love in every homely stitch.

  • Hi! I think you should donate the pillow to the university. A lot of love and time went into creating the pillow. It would look great on a sofa in a hallway, or in someone's office.

    This is my first visit to your blog, you have a very nice space. Thanks.

    Peace, Stephanie

  • Hi LPC,
    As a Princetonian,I think that the pillow is wonderful. You should find a special place in your home for such a Great prize.

    Always Bumby

  • Oh my. I loved this post! Great sentiment here, who was luckier or more grateful? Hard to see. My Granny Darling needlepointed a pillow for me, too. With my prep school's shield and its mascot, a dragon, on it. It's in my closet now. I haven't had it out since I graduated from college. I think it's time to reconsider…

  • Oh I sure hope my inlaws don't see this….For love I keep a brass harpoon model from Norway. And a troll platter. And a heinous dish set with a photograph of an OWL.

  • A kindly pair- aunt/uncle (or whatever mix)- is sweet shelter. Someone on your side without the imperatives the parent lays on, inevitably. There is usually a godawful handmade gift, at some point over the years. They care so deeply, and that is the actual bequest.

  • Oh how I love this post. Such vivid imagery…this entire post is, well, cozy. I feel like I have been there visiting and I immensely enjoyed it as well.

    The pillow is such a treasure. And yes, it is Go To Hell. I cackled out loud when I saw it. I would never part with it either.

  • Thank you everyone. Lipstick, I am happy to have caused cackling. And Reggie, if anyone can come up with a way to display this pillow tastefully, it's you and Boy…

  • Love the vintage pillow, however I love anything needlepoint. So very 70's, for sure.

  • Without the tassels, it would be much improved.
    My grandmother would tell me to always remember that there was love in every stitch.