When I began to knit, I used a large plastic ring with pegs; the yarn was wrapped around the pegs and a little flat tool lifted yarn over the pegs. It created tubes; with tubes and then with fringe, I created scarves. And more scarves. And yet more scarves. When I had 32 scarves, weeks later, for women and 10 scarves for children (7 girls, 3 boys), I wrapped each in tissue and a ribbon, set them carefully into shopping bags, and drove to the women and children's shelter. It was nearly Christmas. I was so very happy to have completed the scarves, happy to be able to give them away. Actually, by then I was really tired of scarves, of the large, unwieldy plastic circle, and of acrylic yarn. But I had worked hard, had learned much, felt rewarded, and could do a good deed in the bargain. And knitting was growing on me.
Prior to this Christmas, my husband and I had four years enjoying the "empty nest" while our last son was in college - what glorious years! His graduation and marriage coincided with our bringing Mom to live with us; she'd barely managed on her own for a year after Dad died and we knew she needed us. Although I love her very much and wanted to care for her, I was unprepared for the emotional shock I experienced. My husband went to work each day, and I stayed home with Mom. We would go to the grocery, or to doctor appointments for her in the mornings. After lunch, I would escape upstairs where I tried to read, or build furniture for my dollhouse. But those projects were inevitably interrupted when I heard Mom downstairs, rising from her nap and ready to do something else.
I would take her some juice and get her settled in the sun room with her knitting, a little footstool for her little feet. I would get a glass of something for myself, and sit across the room from her, and put Patti Page or Perry Como on her player. We'd sing together, "I was dancing, with my darling, to the Tennessee Waltz...." She would pick up her knitting, and Merlin would climb on her lap and purr and she would pet him and put her knitting down. She and I would spend an hour or so, engaged in company-keeping. Perry Como would sing, "Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket..." and Mom and I would sing along. The sun shone in on us, Mother and daughter, cat and yarn and happy tunes from the 1950s.
When I felt I could leave her, I once again sought refuge in my room upstairs, and tried to reconnect with the project I'd left. Rereading a few pages was tiresome. And finding the tiny pieces of carefully sanded wood for miniature chair legs chewed by a passing feline was exasperating. So I thumbed through catalogs to pass the time idly, and often looked at Mom's yarn and knitting catalogs.
There was so much more there than just yarn. One day I placed an order for a gadget that promised that with it, even children could knit; that was for me! Eventually my afternoon reading and miniatures gave way to the knit-a-round from Lion Brand. I could drop it at any point and return to it without skipping a beat. I began to take it downstairs, and often did my own form of knitting in the big chair across from Mom, while she did "the real thing." Well, that's the way I saw it. During the course of our conversations over weeks and months, I began to understand just how sad she was that neither of her daughters cared to learn how to knit; it was her passion.
Mom began to knit in college during WWII. She knitted baby things for gifts and for me and my brother and sister. She knitted woolen "soakers" that were worn over diapers, and knitted sweaters and booties. She knitted argyle socks and mufflers in the evenings after the children were in bed; she and Dad sat in their study and he worked on something he'd brought home from the office, and she would knit, and they listened to the radio. "Tra-la-la, tweedlie dee dee , it gives me a thrill, to wake up in the morning to the Mockingbird's trill...."
She knitted in our new house in the suburbs in the 50s, curled up on the sofa while we watched Father Knows Best and Your Hit Parade in the evenings. She knitted after her children were grown, for her grandchildren; and she knitted for the needy, sending off enormous boxes of caps, mittens scarves and bedsocks each fall, to the state hospital, for decades. She knitted afghans with roses, and throws with mosaic squares and blankets of ripple stripes of all colors and gave them to us, and to Goodwill.
She knitted the tiniest placemats for my first dollhouse when my last child was 18 months old; Dad made her needles out of piano wire so she could do the patterns in miniature. She knitted him an Aran sweater and was upset for years after its disappearance from their summer place. She knitted when she could no longer watch us caring for him as he lay dying upstairs; she'd head for her little hideaway downstairs and say, "I'm going to go knit a potholder."
She knitted when she lived alone for the first time in all her life at age 80, in a strange city, in a strange building with strangers all around her. She knitted in our sunroom when she lived here because she wasn't needed to cook or clean or run errands or babysit. And here I began to understand, after watching her knit for sixty years, that knitting was an outward expression of who Mom really was.
I was upstairs trying to find peace after being down with her for an hour or so. (Peace is not easy to come by when your mother has dementia, when all the things you remember from your childhood have begun to slip away from her. When those things you could coax into memory just a few months ago were gone yesterday. When you understand she can not be left alone because she can no longer make the right choices for health or safety. When you see her slipping away before your eyes, and you know you are losing her, and her history, and her memories....) So, as I saw more and more clearly what her life was becoming, and who she truly was, it dawned on me suddenly, in those brief moments in the afternoon, upstairs as I was so desperately trying to escape the realities of my life...it dawned on me that escaping was not what I needed to do...it dawned on me that I needed to connect with her absolutely in order to not lose her...it dawned on me that I needed to have her teach me to knit. I needed to show my mother that the knitting wouldn't stop with her. It was so very clear to me! Suddenly it was so very, very clear. I needed to knit - I needed to allow her to give this to me now, just as she gave me milk when I was an infant.
I hurried back downstairs, came near her and sat on the little love seat by her left hand. "Mom? Will you show me one more time how to knit? She smiled. "Mom, I want you to show me how to cast on, do the knit stitch, and how to bind off. That's all"
"I don't want to purl yet; I just want to do the basics. When I tried to knit and purl and knit and purl, I messed it all up and gave up. I just want to...."
"OK. Take some needles from the case, and some yarn...."
Mom patiently encouraged me as she had done for so many years. She showed me how, and then told me how well I was doing. My hands perspired, wetting the Kitchen Cotton and making it difficult to work with. I dropped stitches, struggled to push the birch point through the loop and made repeated tries to pull the new yarn-over through. I kept at it, however and soon I knew I had it, and I put away the knit-a-round and began to knit like a big girl - I finally began to knit the real way.
When did you begin to knit? Who taught you? Do you teach others? Now I know all this is far more important than I ever imagined. I am so very glad I asked her that afternoon, when she was 84 and I was a mere 60 years old, to show me once again how to knit; I came so near losing this special gift from her. We spent many, many lovely afternoons in the sun room after that, knitting together, sharing something that was creating a new and growing bond between us.
Mom can no longer knit; I put the needles in her hands for a couple of years after she entered the Assisted Living Facility, where she lives now at 88, and they went right to work - the "memory" was in her hands, and brought back to her what she needed to do. But then one day, it just didn't work anymore. She had lost the skill, lost the desire, and knitting no longer was a part of her life; this one event stunned me far more than the first time she didn't recognize me. I guess I was prepared for that, but was never, ever prepared to see my mother without knitting in her lap.