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Monday, April 9, 2012

Feeling Down in Spring

With a needle and thread, I closed the pillow casing.

Down litters the lawn.

I notice myself falling back on rituals from my childhood recently.  An easy example cropped up as I started my “Spring Housecleaning.”  My mother was not particularly interested in housekeeping.  She would prefer to be gardening, antique-shopping, sewing or reading. During the week, my mother was a teacher, then, later, co-Head of a small private school.  It was difficult to keep up with the housework, especially since she did not enjoy it. However, my grandmother (raised by a German housekeeper) came to visit at least one weekend each month; she brought with her a list.  Our weekend would be crammed with chores. On Saturday nights, my parents would go out and my Nana and I would eat chicken pot pies and watch Lawrence Welk together. The work we did in the weeks after Easter generally entailed airing and cleaning the bed-linens. We waited for a sunny Saturday. Early, very early in the morning, we stripped the beds and hung the blankets outside.  Pillows were clipped to the clothesline.  Pillows that were passed my grandmother’s test were left outside to air for the day.  Nana believed sunshine and fresh air went a long way to rejuvenating textiles and people.  The pillows that, despite ardent urging, refused to pop back after being folded, needed our care.  By the end of those Saturday sessions, our backyard looked like there had been a fox in the hen house.  My grandmother taught me to use a seam-ripper in order to access the down inside the limp pillows. We would use the down from the flattest, the most worn pillows to inject life into the other, more salvageable pillows.  It was a task that was messy and hard to contain.  My grandmother and mother sat on lawn chairs with bed pillows between their knees and pins pinched in their mouths. I stuffed the pillows with hands full of downy feathers.  The feathers had a way of creeping up my arm, into my nose.  Every once in a while, I would violently sneeze. When my grandmother or mother judged the pillow offered the correct support, they pinned the top closed. All of our pillows were made of either blue and white or red and white ticking.  It was my job to thread the needles and thread.  My mother and grandmother lined up the strikes of the ticking, then whipped-stitched closed the slit.  I would take the newly enhanced pillow and beat it.  Hanging it over the clothes line, I would strike it over and over with the business end of a broom, even though I suspected that twenty minutes in the drier on high would kill any contaminant (twenty years later, confirmed by my allergist). At times, my mother would decide one or two of the pillows needed to be washed.  We would use the washing machine on gentle, add Woolite, then allow the machine to do the work.  We’d transfer them into the drier with a tennis ball or a sneaker to break up the feathers.  The slow tumble of the pillows would go on for up to two hours before they were thoroughly dry.  There was no rushing the process; to do so would leave a soggy, doggy-smelling pillow.  During the afternoon, I would iron pillowcases, a nickel a piece. When, at last, the pillows were dry, I would put the still-warm, smooth pillowcases on the pillows, give them a shake, then carry them like fragile gifts to their new homes.  If we refurbished six pillows, I always made sure that my bed was graced with one.
I continued this ritual for at least ten years after I left home.  It was when I was about thirty that I discovered a local dry cleaner would do the job for a nominal fee.  After six years or so, I went to deliver four pillows for their attention.  They informed me their price had to go up because of the high, almost prohibitive cost of down.  The fee they discussed was twice the price of the original pillows.  The task reverted to my hands.  Every five years or so, I buy new down pillows and they end up serving to boost the existing pillows.
The pillows I tended yesterday are different than those of yesteryear. The sizes come in  standards, queens and kings. There are gel, Tempurpedic-type, down, and down-alternative pillows on the five beds in my house.  A homemaker has to be a craftsman to manage the Spring renewal of pillows today. Feeling the presence of my mother and grandmother, I whipped through the pillows the other day.  My work on four pillows left me with three good pillow.  They are lofty and light.  I am proud of my ability to rely on skills passed down to me from the women in my family.  When I go to sleep, I will drift off, secure in the knowledge that they are still with me.  
All of these pillows pass my grandmother's "spring-back" test,
due to my needle and handiwork.

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