My Life in Throw Pillows

When I moved into my first apartment in San Francisco after college graduation, I didn’t have much in the way of home accessories, let alone plain old furniture. I hauled my childhood bed, dresser, lamp and bright blue bean bag chair from Denver to my new city, in my dream neighborhood, half way between The Golden Gate Bridge and crooked Lombard.  My parents came to visit me a few months into my new arrangement.  When my mother, Betty, walked into the second floor, two-bedroom apartment on Greenwich Street, she was a little disturbed at the condition of the place.

“The floor is slanted,” she balked. “I feel like I am falling into the kitchen.  And what’s with all the black mold in the bathroom?”

“That’s mold?” I asked.

My interior designer mother looked around the rest of the drab apartment. “Goodness gracious, Lisa.  Whatever happened to light, bright and cheerful?”  Then she leaned out the hallway toward my father who had gone back out to get something from the car.  “Bob,” she called, “bring in the pillows.”

In walked my father, like a pizza delivery man, arms stretched out, transporting the stacked gifts that my mother ordered up. I was hoping for a new pair of Amalfi pumps, a silk dress from Alcott and Andrews or maybe some cash.  No such luck.  My father presented me with a pile of poufy pastel sofa accessories in cotton candy pink, daffodil yellow, sea foam green and baby blue.  My mother arranged them lovingly on the off, off-white sofa that my roommate, Chris, had contributed to our sparse living room.  Then she sat the two of us down, flanked by the pillows, and took a picture.

“There,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Much better.”

Some people say “I Love You” with two pounds of nuts and chews from See’s Candies. Some say it with a fragrant bouquet of California Wildflowers.  My mother says “I Love You” with throw pillows.  And I can count every single one that I have ever owned. I can see them, the throw pillows of my life, categorized by contour and color, pattern and piping, matched up in my mind with the good, the bad and the downright ugly chapters of my life.

My first set of pillows punctuated my Colorado childhood and matched the homemade bedding that my mother had created with happy swaths of blue and white, micro floral print. The bedspread was a patchwork quilt made from scraps of her many sewing projects, and the complementary pillows provided a most heartening headrest as I listened to the dreamy sound of Shawn Cassidy on Q103 while staring at my clock radio.  I used those pillows to prop up my badly broken leg in seventh grade, my toes peeking and wiggling out of my full-leg cast, while my soccer team visited me in my room and signed their names with hearts and smiley faces on that life constricting plaster.

Through the years, whatever pillows my mother did not make on her own, she farmed out to her “fabricator.” I grew up hearing my mother say things like, “My fabricator is working on that,” and “Hmmm? I’ll have to check with my fabricator.”  Most kids would have imagined the fabricator to be someone in a hard hat, sweating away with metal in a factory in Pittsburgh or a middle school fibber formulating a story for the history teacher about what happened to his homework.  Not me.  I knew that the fabricator was the person sewing the next collection of pillows that would be lovingly tossed into my life.

When I left for college, I took my blue and white bed spread and pillows with me. At school those pillows got literally used up, absorbing the drippings of colds and flus, broken hearts and hangovers.  When I came home for Christmas one year, my room had been re-done in some sort of crazy water lily theme.  The pillows were uncharacteristically store bought (I could tell by the tags). And while the look was serene and probably comforting for the visitors who slept in my bed while I was away, I never really connected with it.  The pillows were too fluffy.

I graduated and moved to San Francisco where the pile of pastels carried me through four years of single living and upward mobility. Throw pillows were not my priority. I hardly noticed them – not unlike the black mold in the bathroom.  But later, Betty swooped in again, to help my new husband and me set up our newlywed house in Davis.  I welcomed her design expertise, truly, and loved her round pillows of blue floral on a light yellow background with the sweet ruffle that matched the window coverings.  Those pillows, together with my hopes and dreams for a perfect life, lit up our family room.  We were lucky enough to inherit the modular sofa that had previously lived in my family’s basement in Colorado, the basement that my father had meticulously finished and tricked out and that had sustained me and forty of my closest friends though every winter leading up to high school graduation.  We covered the beige and brown in a solid raspberry with white pinstripes.  Betty had a few matching pillows made up, square ones with no frills, that served as crash pads when my husband passed out at night and that I laid my head on as I began to question if this was how marriage was supposed to feel.

A few years later, we moved that sofa and those raspberry pillows, along with my hopes for something better, to Piedmont, where we would add one and then another new baby. That fabric was sturdy while still holding its light, bright and cheerful theme.  It served as a good cover up.  I propped nursing babies on my lap with those pillows, on that couch.  I read Goodnight Moon and Pierre and Arthur sitting there.  And James and Julia giggled and had pillow fights and built forts with those pillows while I waited and wondered as my husband stayed late at work and forgot to call home.

Betty helped us make the kitchen sparkle with the array of pillows that sat on our built in breakfast bench. The green and white checked squares and rectangles and the fuchsia florals with the blue candy cane piping, hidden zippers and covered buttons made just sitting in the kitchen a cozy experience.  And although I left almost everything else, I ran back into the kitchen, that day, and grabbed those pillows and stuffed them into the trunk of my white Ford Taurus before I drove away for good, with James and Julia safely buckled into their car seats behind me.

I started over again a couple of times, and each time Betty was there. The innocence was gone, but the throw pillows kept coming.

When the kids and I moved to our rental, Betty presented us with two giant floor pillows, green and white checked with fuchsia floral trim (left over fabric from the kitchen pillows) for James and Julia to lounge on in front of the TV, on the floor, while the collection of pillows from the kitchen took up residence on my bargain basement, navy futon. My mother went to work on new bedding, too, providing the necessary shams and dust ruffles that she hoped would smooth out the oversized bumps that came with my new life as a single, working mom.  At the very least, they gave me a soft and colorful place to fall.  Sometimes that was all I needed.

When I moved hither and thither rebuilding my life, I carted all those pillows around with me – almost as many moves as throw pillows. Down the road, the outgrown floor pillows would become beds for my new husband’s Black Lab and German Shorthair.  The worn out kitchen pillows would be gratefully accepted by the shelter kitties at the East Bay SPCA as part of their own new beginnings.  I purposefully kept one of those kitchen pillows, the square one with the blue and white watermark pattern, fuchsia piping and floral bow tied around the middle, all 90’s style. It is a token of – well – everything.  Those were hard times, but they made me into who I am today.  Those years were my personal fabricators, adding contour, texture, interest.

I made a few throw pillows of my own during that time. I needlepointed a pillow for Julia and had it backed with the blue and white micro floral fabric from my childhood that had miraculously survived in a box for 35 years. Is it normal to save old fabric like that?  If you are Betty’s daughter, the answer is yes.  I started that needlepoint project when I found out I was pregnant with Julia.  I finished it on her tenth birthday.  Some things take a decade or more to figure out.  Today that pillow sits on a chair in her room between one inscribed with the words, “Hugs and Kisses,” and another one that says, “No Outfit is Complete Without Cat Hair.”

When I eventually remarried, I was happy to have Betty there to help us decorate our Tuscan style home. She suggested deep reds, light golds and olive greens.  Rich and warm and so different from everything before.  They complimented the hard woods and natural stones.  When the family sofa was installed, the one that would fit all six members of our blended family, Betty delivered pillows of every configuration in plaids and velvets and tapestries.  She gave my husband a golf themed pillow for his office.  We scrunched and squished ourselves in and amongst those pillows while we watched The Princess Bride, played Catch Phrase and opened Christmas presents. My people and my pillows; My sofa runneth over.

It has been yet another decade since the Tuscan theme, and although all the kids but one are gone, the dogs have passed, and the cats are guaranteed to retaliate with aggressive shredding, the living room needs something new. The neutrals are so in vogue:  putty, cement, taupe, champagne.  I’m just not sure.  Whatever happened to light, bright and cheerful?  Well, whatever I go with, I know what will follow.

I have a friend whose mother told her that once she got married and had children of her own, she would no longer be giving her gifts. I am certain that her mother expresses her love for her daughter in some other way.  But I cannot imagine life without my mother’s presents.  Are there times when I want to scream, “Enough with the throw pillows already”?  Yes. But then I remember that my mother had her own mother for only 16 years:  breast cancer.  That doesn’t equate to very many throw pillows. I am blessed to have a mother who has been with me through all of my 50 years, through every chapter of my life, arms full, always with a tangible pile of comfort.  She is telling me that she sees me, that she sees what I am going through, that she is behind me all the way.  I love my throw pillows.  Thank you, mom.  I love you, too.​

James and Julia and three blond friends

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