I met Judy four years ago at the first women’s event I attended after moving to Alexandria. Here was this sweet, white-haired woman selling these amazing mittens. You know – the kind you see someone wear and are compelled to ask where they got them, the kind that when you slip your hand in they feel like a cozy warm blanket. From that day on I wanted a pair! Off and on I would hear her tell stories of the mittens and the more I got to know her, the more I wanted to know.
This past October, I took Judy out to dinner simply to hear her story. As I sat there listening to her talk about the mittens, I realized there was an even greater story to be told. You see, when I met Judy, her husband Larry was already very ill with leukemia. She began making mittens to help make ends meet and found it was a fun way to earn a little income. It soon turned into so much more.
A store in Buffalo carried her mittens and the owner informed Judy that word was spreading and people would come in just to purchase them and would then shop for other items. Additionally, Judy learned that her mittens helped keep the store open for another year during a very difficult time financially. This new knowledge gave Judy greater purpose.
One day Judy remembered some special ties she had from her father. At first, they didn’t seem like anything more than that. Judy didn’t realize how special these ties were to her until she had an idea to appliqué them onto some mittens. As she was doing so, she recollected that even during the ten years he spent on dialysis, her father would still get up on Sundays, put a tie on, and work as an usher at church. It occurred to her that these were her dad’s identity. As she was sewing the mittens, she was amazed at how it made her feel. To be able to transform an object of memory into something entirely new was a miracle.
She has many stories of transforming personal mementos into mittens for others that then become treasures for these families. One story in particular touched me. A woman had lost her service dog. She had a fleece blanket from the dog’s bed that Judy made into mittens for her. Because she was blind, Judy wanted her to be able to feel various textures of all she had incorporated into them, so she made ears on the mittens and added other raised items to give it texture. The thought and love that goes into her memory mittens speaks to my heart.
She shared another story of a woman whose mom died of cancer. According to Judy, the mother’s maiden name meant “strawberry” in Bohemian. She had a cotton throw with strawberries on it that had become pilled and faded; it was quite a mess. Judy spent days scraping the pills off and turned out 21 pairs of mittens for the woman’s family, each one with a strawberry on the thumb. Once finished, nothing appeared faded. It was as if the throw was reborn along with those memories.
A friend of Judy’s had a pair made from some of her mom’s sweaters and told Judy that it was the first time she didn’t have to buy men’s mittens because of her larger hands. She explained to Judy that taking pieces of the arms of sweaters and making mittens out of them made her feel like she had the arms of that loved one around her!
It is results like these that excite Judy about making mittens. We all have memories; we all have stories. Stories of seeing God orchestrate the details of our lives – they are not accidents.
Other women continued to breathe life into Judy and her work. When given a pair of mittens, one woman proclaimed, “It’s a ministry!” This seemed silly to Judy at the time, but as God continued to orchestrate events, it became clear to Judy how true this was. God began to use more and more people in her life to further develop her ministry, including a friend’s sister, who was also a graphic designer. After seeing a pair of mittens in a movie, she looked into purchasing them, they were over $100. She offered Judy a proposal to make her mittens in exchange for designing Judy’s business cards. As a result, she came up with the memory idea for the cards: “Memories Reborn, Warming your heart while warming your hands.”
These “silly” mittens, as Judy called them, also provided a valuable outlet for Larry. Although a well-known and respected farrier, his battle with cancer meant that he was no longer able to do what he loved. She would ask what he thought of colors, fabric, of this cuff or that cuff. His opinions were good and it gave them something to talk about apart from his health. He again had something to offer.
Just as Judy has seen transformation through her mittens, she has experienced transformation in her own life. When she and her husband Larry first married Judy never thought this would be her life. She married a younger guy with the idea that he would take care of her but she, in fact, ended up taking care of him. When Larry and Judy were married, he told her not to speak about church because he would no longer be going. He said he was so sick of hearing what you could or couldn’t do that he was just not going to do it. Then Larry and Judy moved up north and met some friends who invited them to church. It was through attending a Bible study, meeting their pastor, and all the years in between that Larry made his decision to accept Jesus one Sunday morning. Her faithfulness and love toward her husband drew him in and the relationship that was built with their pastor made him see things differently than before.
It was over a year ago that Judy said to Larry, “I think we should get water baptized.” She expected to hear opposition, but instead his response was “that sounds like a great idea.” That was a miracle! Larry passed away this December having accepted and knowing his savior. This is by far the most victorious part of Judy’s story. Someone she loved, who seemed beyond reach, hard, not wanting anything to do with God and to some would seem a lost cause, but not to Judy. She saw what God could do to transform a life, much like she does her mittens. I think that it takes a very special person to see new life in something that is used up. That is a gift, a ministry. What I see now is how God has provided. He’s given purpose and a means to provide for a woman that just didn’t see herself in her current circumstances. She’s an inspiration to me. She is a joy to be around; so thankful for the smallest things in life and has truly learned to see the potential of the useless things around her.
I am happy to report I now own a pair of her mittens! A gift from her this Christmas. I have no doubt God has greater plans yet for her and this ministry where memories are made into mittens, as she embraces this new, unexpected journey of life. I know my God is able to do beyond what she could even imagine. I know Judy believes this too. She’s lived it!
So I challenge you to ask of yourself and others: What do you have that you feel is silly, is “just” a hobby or seems too small? What do you see around you that is broken, worn, useless, or only worthy of being tossed aside? I encourage you to take those things, lay them at the feet of Jesus, and see what he will do. He’s more than able; he’s waiting for you to take a step of faith, to let him do what he does best. Make something old into something new!