Knit one, purl one

Knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one. Granny’s mantra went round and round on four needles as she knitted up socks for Father, mittens for us, gloves for mom. Every evening there was stitching work.

Mother sat balancing on her knee a wooden egg thrust into an ailing sock. She settled it into the frail part of the heel to keep the shape. From a woven basket, she selcted some strands of mending wool, threaded it onto a tapestry needle. Then with careful stitches, she wove the yarn back and forth until the sock was whole again, scarred in the heel, but ready to march a thousand steps or more.

I can see the brass pole lamp, ridged in the upright, the scroll at the juncture of the outstretched arm that held the light and the lampshade. Light hovered over her lap as she worked. If it was not socks, it was mending – a hem, a seam, an alteration. Stitch, stitch, stitch, until we were sent to bed and then some. That was on Thirty Sixth Avenue.

I wore Heather’s clothes when she grew out of them. Lizbet wore them after I did. It was the way of things. Mother was from the Depression generation. Nothing was thrown out until it was rags and the rags were used for cleaning. There was no paper towel. It was yet to be imagined.

We moved when I was ten. Not far. It was just from Thirty Sixth to Twenty Fifth, though it placed us in another shopping district and all my friends were left behind.

We all ended up with our own rooms. Previously, we three girls had shared a room and Otto had his own. This was luxury.

It was an old home built by a doctor in 1913. Now that his children were in their nineties, it had become too much for them and it had to be sold. The house was solidly built but it had not been maintained. There was much to do both in simple maintenance like replacing the roof and painting; and in modernization, like tearing out the pantry and making a big kitchen. chucking the big black coal and wood cook stove, replacing the plumbing including the wastefully big claw footed bathtub (which father regretted when the new, water saving and efficient bathtub proved to be short for his long legs).

Mother and Father both dug in with a passion to renovate and make good the family home. But that’s another story for another day. Where I want to take you is into a small,  powder blue painted, glassed-in sun room tacked on the back of the house, surmounted by a balcony on the second floor, looking much like one of these glassed in, added on elevator shafts. 

The early evening sun of daylight savings illuminated the room. Both women, mother and daughter, sat with their handiwork. Gran was almost blind, cataracts blurring her vision. Still, she could knit by feel, her beautiful gnarled hands pulling a thin nubbly cream wool around clicking needles. When the hem to top was about ten inches long, Mother started to read out the pattern to Gran, thirty four cream, start pattern with two greens, ten cream, two greens, three creams, one green, ten cream; next row, thirty-three cream three greens, nine cream, three greens and on and on until, between them both they had created a  complicated mosaic of leaves that framed a series of three roses in a vertical column on the left shoulder of the sweater.

Where was Mary Cassatt to record this lovely interior scene in paint? Their dresses fell in lovely soft folds around them, Mom in a fuller fifties dress, Gran in her straight up and down style, more reminiscent of the twenties but with more sober patterning. Early evening light fell softly with long shadows.

While Gran stayed with us, she taught me to knit and crochet, to embroider, to sew. She had been a lady’s companion in England before she came out to Canada by boat to marry Grandpa William whom we never knew.

She had sat countless hours in her lifetime making tiny careful stitches, making  beautiful ladies’ clothes by hand before there were sewing machines, embellishing them with her deft hands, with bead work or embroidery. And here she was, our lovely Granny, passing on her skills.

In amongst oft repeated family tales, is Gran, hemming Mother’s one slip before she goes out to a party so that it will be just the right height and then re-hemming it next day so that it will fit her day to day clothes.

As I was sorting out Mother’s closet for thrift, Historical Society or gift to her friend, I found such a  slip, hand made of a lovely fine Egyptian cotton, with evidence of the ups and downs of fashion. Fickle fashion went up and down, but the slip endured with a fold two inches above the hem neatly finished in tiny even stitches that could answer to a changing wind of the times. The Historical Clothing Society lady drooled over this relic and will take and keep it for eternity.

One day as Mother was shopping, she saw a soft white cable stitch sweater  on a mannequin at Woodwards Department Store. She fell in love with it and couldn’t let it go. She hadn’t enough money for it  but bought it anyway, scrimping on other essentials, counting on stocks in the kitchen cupboard and fresh vegetables from the garden to make up the shortfall.

She had the sweater from the seventies and here it was , 2002. It had worn well and taken her fashionably many places until it was no longer fashionable and was her favourite, around-the-house sweater. Now thirty years later, she was still wearing it, to keep her warm in bed.

These last fifteen years, she had been unstable on her feet and she often leaned against counter tops and table tops to keep her self steady. The elbows of her sweater were getting thin. She told me her story of yearning for this sweater, going back to see it twice, thrice, four times before she dared spend on herself rather than the myriad of things needed for our home and her family. Even now, she could not let this sweater go.

One night, I made her wear another sweater to bed. While she slept, old night owl me took the closest match I could find and crochet knitted up an elbow pad for her sweater, sewing it onto the strong, unaffected parts when I’d made the pad large enough to cover. It was a gaucherie of work, the wool too thick, the connections apparent, the colour not a true match. A child of ten could have done a million times better, a hundred years ago when that was the focus of women’s work. I shuddered to think what she would say when she saw it.

She was embarrassingly thankful. I blush to think of such thanks for such crude work, but she was thankful. She could wear her beloved sweater, her friend. Just like a blankey.

Later, I knit new cuffs for it. A real patchwork. Same embarrassing, effusive thanks. She was happy. I  cry to think of it.

Now in her nineties, Mama lamented. “Isn’t there some hand work I could do? Could you get me some wool for an afghan?”

She had made countless gifts of her endless crocheting. Her arthritic hands could no longer hold the yarn; they cramped and pained her; her eyes, not just clouded by cataracts, but robbed of essential puzzle pieces in the center of her vision, could no longer see. Her mind was clear and wiling but another familial pastime was proscribed for her.

No knit one. No purl, no purl.


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