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.
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.