My grandmother brought some interesting stuff across the ocean. Arriving from Hungary in New York City in 1916 and, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of packing light, she brought many things from her old home to her new. One thing that made the trip is still in daily use by me today—the down in my pillow.
Hungarian down, like other things Hungarian—our tempers, good complexions (except in my case, thanks for nothing, DNA) and our ability to follow you into a revolving door yet, somehow, come out first—is very famous. The down must have been considered precious even then because it made its way across the ocean, safely packed inside my grandmother’s steamer trunk. This trunk, by the way, was built to last. It looks like something from a movie with its huge domed lid and exaggerated hardware. I could use it when I travel but pirates would think I was hiding my doubloons in it and this might cause a stir.
Down can have a very long life if treated properly. Until several years ago, I would make the trip back to my old neighborhood of Boro Park in Brooklyn and hand over my pillow, drool stains and all, to a stooped gentleman who would remove the down from its case, put it into some sort of magical machine, sterilize it and return it to me in a fresh ticking. I have slept on that down since I was old enough to sleep on a pillow. It knows more about me than any living human, having faithfully absorbed my pre-sleep thoughts from tiny-hood to today. I have a hard time sleeping on anything else. God help poor Seth if I come to bed and find that he has mistakenly fallen asleep on it. I will pull it out from under his head and laugh cruelly as he blinks in confusion. It’s my pillow, get off.
Pillows matter. Without the proper pillow, a bad night is confirmed. Hence, upon arriving at a hotel recently in Washington DC, I eyed the pillows on my bed suspiciously. Artfully arranged in a white pile of fluffiness, I knew that their style would outweigh their sleepability. I had forgotten, in my haste, to bring my pillow along and had little choice but to try each one before making my selection. One was too firm, others too soft, too small or too square…none were right and as a result, I was not good company at breakfast.
I usually remember to bring my old friend with me. It gets all dressed up in the pillowcase I keep just for such occasions so that it can feel proud when it meets the other pillows and not be embarrassed in the elevator. If we stay for a few nights, I always fear that the maid will either mock it or, depending on her ability to discern fine Hungarian down, steal it. After all, I have known this pillow longer than my husband or children.
Once, I left it in a hotel and only realized it was missing when I got sleepy in the car. It was all I could do not to call the local police and demand that the hotel be put in lockdown. Instead, I called the front desk to alert them, describing it in detail (“it’s delightful and fluffy and soft and lovely”) lest it be mistaken for a pillow of lesser importance. Indeed, they located jt and it was waiting for us, sealed--heartlessly-- in a plastic bag. And it only took us four hours out of our way.
I realize that nothing lasts forever. The man with the magical down sterilizing machine has disappeared like so much else from a bygone era. The day I say goodbye to that pillow will be a sad one. Its contents started out on the tummy of a white goose from the Carpathian Mountains in rural Hungary and traveled across a turbulent ocean in the trunk of a dark-eyed 16 year old girl who had no idea what awaited her in America. It eventually cushioned the dreams of her granddaughter who has held fast to not only the physical comfort it has provided but the intangible comfort of continuity, family and the determination to survive a trip from the old world to the new. Lofty concepts for just a pillow, I know…..but it’s not just any pillow. It’s seen the world.