A little self-promotion, a Mother’s Day gift, and a good cause.
I entered a writing contest a couple of years ago about what I learned from my mother. My essay, below, was accepted and published in an anthology, Wisdom of Our Mothers. The editor, Eric Bowen, is donating half the proceeds to shelters for victims of domestic abuse. If you’re looking for a different sort of Mother’s Day gift, this might fit the bill.
Here’s my essay:
“Barbara, put the god damn knitting away and read the map!” We’d hear my father’s familiar refrain more than once growing up. We’d been driving for hours and my father suddenly realized we were lost. And of course, it was my mother’s fault because instead of reading the map and watching the road, she was knitting.
But when she finished a garment, usually something for one of us four, he’d be the first to praise her handiwork. We might have gotten lost those countless time regardless; I’m not convinced it was entirely the knitting’s fault. But the knitting, one of the many handicrafts my mother does, serves as an example of her ability to keep her hands busy while still keeping an eye on the road.
For my mother knitting is much more than a handicraft; it’s part of living. By teaching me how to knit, she taught me how to live. What she exemplifies in knitting — patience, perseverance, and pride– transfers to daily living.
“Preparation is everything,” she insists. I make a swatch to check the gauge, the formula that determines if the yarn is the correct weight for the needle and the needle the right size for the yarn. I wind skeins into manageable balls, hearing my mother remind me that if I don’t do this the yarn will knot into unyielding masses that I’d waste. Though I’m always eager to begin, I remember that she made sure I was ready. I read over a pattern and circle the size I’m making, so as not to read it quickly and make mistakes.
When I’d get frustrated that a project was taking too long to finish or I felt bored and wanted to start something new; she’d make me keep at it.
“Don’t be a quitter,” she’d say, ” Finish what you start.” She’d mention the money spent on yarn and the hours I’d already done. “What are you going to do with a half finished sweater?” She’d ask, urging me to complete the second half.
“If you’re not happy with it today, you won’t be happy with it tomorrow,” she said. She’d make me undo and rework rows and rows to fix a mistake or rescue a dropped stitch. And she refused to do it for me. “What do you learn, if I do it?” She was a perfectionist and wanted me to be one too, at least when it came to knitting. Stripes and patterns had to match up, so a sweater wouldn’t look “like you slapped it together in a hurry.”
For her, no knitting project is too difficult or too large. She welcomes every challenge knitting presents. She encourages me to try new patterns and stitches. Knitting, like life, should include risk-taking. “You don’t learn anything if you do the same thing again and again,” she’d say. While she’d be happy to buy new yarn, she always looked for ways to utilize scraps. Like leftovers from a meal, unused yarn presented a challenge– what can I make with this? What colors and textures would work together to create a new garment? So like her, I don’t throw anything out– you never know when it can come in handy.
For her, no needle size is too small or large, no yarn too unyielding, and no project unimportant to ignore attention to details. She spends as much time blocking and finishing a project as she does knitting; proudly sewing in a “Handmade by Barbara” label in each item.
From my early forays in knitting at age 7 to my knitting as an adult, I continue to seek my mother’s advice about my projects. She lovingly shares her talents– she taught my left-handed best friend to knit, helped design a suitable pattern when the mothers in my toddler’s playgroup wanted to knit matching sweaters for our three year olds, and now, fingers gnarled with arthritis, teaches her granddaughters to knit.
From entrelac to fair isle, from intricate lace to complicated cables, she’s crafted jackets, skirts, baby outfits and blankets, countless sweaters, hats and mittens and socks. I still wear a pair of royal blue cashmere cabled socks she knit for me years ago. I could never understand why anyone would make socks– why spend time on something that’s going to be hidden by pants and covered by shoes? For my mother, it’s knowing “I’m keeping your feet warm that matters, not what others see.”
When my father retired after 35 years as a poultry farmer, he began traveling the world, volunteering as an agricultural consultant throughout Africa and Eastern Europe. My mother, who’d worked beside him on our farm while raising four children, accompanies him. And like any journey, whether a short drive to the next town or a long plane ride to Kazakhstan, she brings her knitting. When they return and regale us with their adventures, more often than not, they share stories of how her knitting helps breach the vast differences between cultures and languages and creates trust between them and the people they’re sent to assist. Strangers approach her and admire her handiwork, or the hand knit garment she’s wearing , and pull out their own. She describes the many conversations, often wordless, she has with villagers that compare stitches and patterns, methods and tools, materials and textures.
Like my mother, I carry knitting wherever I go– you never know when you can get a few stitches or even an entire line done. It makes waiting to board airplanes or in doctors’ offices more bearable, watching children’s sporting events less stressful, and even listening to concerts more enjoyable, knowing my hands are busy. My husband and children wear my sweaters, proudly displaying the “Handmade by Lisa” labels. I know I have too many sweaters — and I can’t pass a yarn store without stopping in and buying another project.
Unlike my mother, I do several projects at once– easy items I can do without paying too much attention; and more difficult ones for when I want to really concentrate. I’ve learned to design patterns– my daughter wanted a 1950’s style cardigan like the boys wore in the movie “Hairspray”.
I’ve learned patience. I rip and redo again and again. If I want my family to wear what I’ve made, I want it to look right. I throw nothing out, especially hand-knit sweaters. I’ve recycled some by taking them apart and reusing the yarn, thus carrying the old garment with me as I wear the new. My daughter found a magenta lace top my mother had made for me years ago buried in my dresser. She’s claimed it for her own; wearing it layered over tank tops and adorned with accessories I’d never thought of putting together. Though she’s learned to knit, she’s not obsessed. At least not yet.