The “If it can happen to Leon Klinghoffer” pillow.
When I was in college, in the 1980s, my roommates and friends would occasionally get care packages from home—chocolate-chip cookies, an Easter box, a scarf, earrings, a new coat, or whatever it may have been. But my mother, who is deeply loving and irrepressibly creative, has an ironic sensibility (which she transferred to me in my tenderest youth) and is also a workaholic, so I never expected to receive a box of maternal Rice Krispie treats from her; and I never did.
Back then, she and my father were overwhelmed with responsibilities at home in Oklahoma: team-teaching a course at Oklahoma State University on the United States and the Soviet Union, chauffeuring my younger brothers to their high school classes and practices, and struggling to make my tuition. Our long, roving, hilarious weekly phone calls were all I needed as proof of love.
But in my sophomore year, unheralded, a package slip arrived for me at Yale Station. Going to the pick-up window, I found a brown cardboard box. In it was a throw pillow, on which my mother (who sews, knits, cooks, and plays piano and violin) had embroidered a quote that had convulsed her from that autumn’s evening news. In lavish colors, and in a highly ornamental script, it read, in full: “IF IT CAN HAPPEN TO LEON KLINGHOFFER IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE.” —MEMENTO MORI - TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS - OCT. 9, 1985.”
Many of you may not remember this tragic incident from the warmup days of the current, prolonged “War on Terror,” but on October 7,1985, Palestinian hijackers took over a cruise ship called the Achille Lauro that was sailing outside of Alexandria. The next day, one of the hostages, a wealthy wheelchair-bound man named Leon Klinghoffer, was shot by the hijackers, then pushed overboard. (One news report claimed he bit the thumb of one of his captors, but I am not sure that was true. Other reports said he was singled out because he was Jewish.) Reporting this event on the 9th, Tom Brokaw had delivered the line in his such a grave, rueful tone, that my mother felt it needed commemoration: in red blue and green embroidery thread.
This relic is precious to me. It has traveled with me from dorm rooms to three different New York apartments, and is now faded, stained with paint marks, and slightly flattened from the attention of various cats. My friends who have never met my mother, look at that pillow, and feel they know her to the core.
My mother and father moved out East in the 1990s with my brothers in tow, and now are retired, living in the Shenandoah Valley. Though she’s been retired for almost a decade, Mama still routinely does all-nighters, feverishly painting basset hounds and small animals for Virginia art fairs, and writing a humor column for a regional paper. The remains tirelessly inventive, hounded by the desire to create. My father has been co-opted as her manager, which is kind of a full-time job.
Last year, Mama and Papa visited me in New York, bringing my six-year-old nephew with them, to indoctrinate him in love of NYC. Seeing how besmirched and pale the Klinghoffer pillow had become, Mama, I later realized, hatched a plan. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and she can no longer do embroidery—even though she painstakingly paints, hour after hour, in the sunny studio she and my father built for her (it’s hexagonal, in loose imiitiation of the octagonal studio of the Russian painter Ilya Repin). Threading a needle is just too hard for her these days, given the motor skills inhibition caused by her disease.
But this spring, in Virginia, at Easter, Mama surprised me with another unexpected care package. In it I found a newly embroidered version of the Klinghoffer pillow. On Etsy, she had found a craftswoman who could do what my mother no longer could, and give her gift a longer life. The woman could not transmit the whimsy of Mama’s lettering, but the words were brilliantly there, clean, bright and fully legible.
Today, both pillows are on display on my battered sofa in my sunny living room. They still make visitors marvel, and they still make me laugh, and shake my head at my mother’s dauntless energy, and capricious spirit.