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Mittens that heal

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It all started with a simple black and white tie.

Judy Oatman of Lowry found herself grieving her father's death. When she traveled back home from his funeral in Washington, she brought along a few of her father's ties he wore as an usher at church on Sundays.

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Her grandmother was a seamstress and passed on those skills to Judy at a young age. "God and my grandma taught me to sew," she remarked.

She made herself a pair of mittens and put a strip of her father's tie across the top of each mitten in memory of him. Not only did she feel like the sadness somehow disappeared, but she now had a new memory to keep close to her heart in remembrance of her father.

MEMORIES BECOME HOBBY

In 2005, Judy started making mittens for her daughter, granddaughter and daughters-in-law. Her daughter, Holly, was so "smitten" with them that she decided to bring them to a gift shop near her home in Buffalo, Minnesota. The owner agreed to sell them on a consignment basis and soon everyone wanted a pair of these special mittens.

This was just the beginning of "Smitten with Mittens." Word of these mittens reached Amy Hennessy, owner of the Wild Bohemian Boutique in downtown Alexandria. She was delighted to sell them in her store.

Judy is very detailed when it comes to her sewing, which served her well during her career as an interior designer. Each pair is made with steady hands and the best material she can find. The inside is made of polar fleece and the outside is made of different wool blends. The material goes through the washer and dryer before any sewing begins, so that it's clean and easier to manage.

The average time put into each pair is about four and a half hours. These aren't just any old mittens; they come with a special touch. For each customer, Judy will incorporate anything from sweaters, ties or any material that was once important to them or their loved one. She will also sew them to fit hands perfectly.

It is guaranteed that no pair of mittens will be alike.

LOVE OF HER LIFE

Judy's fondest memories are the times spent with her husband, Larry, sitting in their living room with piles of fabric, picking and choosing different combinations to make those "magic mittens." A smile came across her face as she reflected, "We would sit for hours and I would haul in more and more stuff. He'd say, 'Oh, I really like that; that is really wonderful.'"

Larry and Judy came across a run-down farm in Lowry about 28 years ago, and even though Larry wasn't particularly thrilled, Judy was convinced it was meant to be theirs.

They managed to turn an old shanty into a loving home. Along with raising their three children, they also raised horses, which were a passion of both Larry and Judy's.

When asked what Larry thought of his wife making all these mittens, Judy beamed and said, "Oh my goodness, he was so proud of me."

Everywhere the two went, Larry would tell everybody, "Judy makes mittens for everybody else in the whole world and I don't have any." So Judy let him pick out his favorite materials for his own unique pair of mittens. To this day, Larry's mittens lay front and center on the dashboard of Judy's car.

Today those mittens bring Judy comfort. In 2005, Larry started to experience weakness. He soon became unable to do the things he was used to doing. It took doctors four years to determine the cause of his symptoms.

In 2009, Larry was diagnosed with leukemia.

In the fall of 2012, he underwent surgery in St. Cloud and was then admitted to a hospital in Minneapolis.

Doctors advised Judy he should no longer live at home. This didn't sit well with her. "No, that's not gonna happen, I can do this," she replied. Because of her determination, Larry was able to spend a week at home.

Choking back tears, Judy said, "I am so glad I was there; we could still talk about mittens... that time was incredibly important."

The day before Thanksgiving, Larry was admitted to the hospital for the last time. He died in December of 2012. The couple would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this April.

The money Judy raises from making and selling her mittens now goes to help pay for the medical expenses incurred.

HOBBY BECOMES MEANS OF SURVIVAL

So far, Judy has received letters and articles of clothing from places like California, Denmark and Norway, just to name a few, all from people wanting to enjoy a pair of her hand-made mittens.

Just as she transformed that little, rusty shack into a warm home 28 years ago, she has somehow managed to turn a pair of mittens into memories reborn again. When talking about her mitten making journey, she repeatedly says, "It is such a blessing."

Motioning to a pair of mittens, she said, "I don't even know how to describe these... It's like, this is a lifeline."

For Judy, this is not just a hobby but a means of survival, which has helped her give back in countless ways. Not only will these mittens warm hands, but they will warm hearts as well.

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