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“We have to use time wisely.” I heard that.

 

(About 1973: Santa Fe Spring Art Show.)

The pillow’s story started for me with a 14 year-long leather crafting career. But it was not so for the pillow. No, the pillow had another story, one that found its way into my heart and mind to never forget. How could I ever forget?

 

I traveled to art shows in the southeast for the Southeastern Hand Crafter’s Association for about 6 years, between 1978 and 1984ish…Thing is, I was scratching to make a living back then—every dollar was counted and hard-fought to earn.  It was back then a plumber we would use at home for the next forty years told me, “I’ll charge you the lowest rate: you children are barefoot.”

 

That plumber was right.

 

Simply put, I was determined to make it and no amount of cramped fingers or sore arms could stand in my way of earning a buck. Unlike most exhibitors, I kept busy actually doing my leather work during show hours, making a racket hammering out belts while selling them to those who stopped by.  The noise from me tooling leather belts peeved some exhibitors—I don’t blame them. Perhaps, this is why an exhibitor, an elderly women, who sat stitching pillows as I walked through the exhibits caught my eye!

 

It was in the Bradenton Mall, Florida…

 

She sat behind her table piled high of hand-made pillows just stitching away.  Her head covered in grey hair mostly turned down to watch her stitch as she spoke; her fingers never stopped nimbly pushing her threading needle in and out of fabric she held tightly in hand. I felt an instant kinship with this fellow worker and struck up a conversation.

 

“How did you learn to make such beautiful pillows?”

 

There was a twinkle in her eye but also a soft , maybe sad smile of remembrance as she laid her work down in her lap and looked to my face.

 

“You’re the one tooling leather, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes. I can’t see wasting all my time just selling.”

 

She laughed, sighed and moved her head left and right. “Of course, we don’t have time to waste; we have to use our time wisely.”

 

The woman proceeded to tell a sad tale I hadn’t expected. She said she and her family had been rounded up by the Nazi’s and put into a concentration camp—Auschwitz—I recall her naming the place. It is perhaps the only name I would’ve recognized of all the concentration camps. She quickly added that her entire family, sisters and parent had died in the camp—she alone, a young teenager, had been strong and able to survive the torture of the camp. Her younger sisters and older parents were either too young or too old to make it through.

 

It seemed were it not for this woman’s stitched pillows she might be alone. Silence fell between us, then she spoke again.

 

“I was freed and located in a home of sorts but there was rent to pay and I had little money and no jobs were to be found.”

 

I flashed on a town filled with rubble and debris just after the war had ended. I’d seen pictures of so many European towns left in ruins in my dad’s set of World war ll encyclopedias.

 

“The only thing I had was the memory of mom teaching me how to sew by hand with needle and thread.”  Her words flowed easily and set me adrift as though on a stream. She picked up her material again and started to stitch. “I had nothing but that memory, then. I searched through discarded materials throughout town and collected pieces of fabric and anything to use as stuffing.  My first pillow sold on the street for an amount equal to one week’s rent.”

 

“That must have been tough.”

 

“Well,” the woman smiled my way once more, “I heard my mother teaching me how to stitch as I worked, so pillows gave me comfort.”

 

“I’m sorry you had this happen to you and your family.” I thought my life had been difficult up to that moment-Ha! What a laugh !

 

“It’s not your fault.” the women sighed briefly. “I never stopped collecting thrown out fabric to use until I’d gained enough to buy new or used materials to fashion more pillows.  There was a furniture factory nearby; thrown out stuffing was to be had.”

 

At the time, I pictured her as a child of twelve when she was in the Nazi Camp. I tried to imagine what that must have been like…

 

Pillows in her finished pile varied in theme but ones with birds drew my attention.  My dad had a particular love for birds and knew their names and songs. The pillows were not cheap. I traded two 12 dollar hand-made leather belts for two matching bird pillows.

 

I never saw the woman again, but gave the pillows to my mom and dad who placed them on their living room couch for 25 years. Finally, one of the two became very worn and was thrown out.

 

My mom died in 2011 and one of the few things I kept from her home was this pillow. I stashed it in my bedroom closet where I saw it for six years every time I opened the closet door . Time to time I would pick up the pillow and hold it. I’d think about the woman who had made this pillow, about her life, her struggle, her beautiful art work and her success.

 

Then, I’d hear the pillow come to life. “I was a young girl; my family all died.” Silence. “The one thing I had was my mom teaching me how to sew.” I’d hold the pillow close. “There was a furniture factory nearby; thrown out stuffing was to be had.”

 

One day while holding the pillow it came. There was a flash, and I knew that I had to give this pillow to a lifetime friend, Marc, who’d spent much of his adult life working in Jewish affairs in the NYC area. He was the one this pillow had to find now.

 

 
“We have to use our time wisely.”

 

I got the pillow to, Marc, as soon as I could. And it’s good. I believe it’s now in a holocaust collection, safe, still well made, still there, speaking for its maker, a survivor.

 

None of us should ever forget.

 

Franque23
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