My paternal grandmother was my first knitting teacher. The lesson came as a surprise, since I had never seen my grandma knitting before that day, nor did I again. There were no gifts of hand-made sweaters or hats. Despite her apparent lack of regular practice, the stitches she showed me that day were decisive and sure. Grandma cast on a needleful of stitches and knit the first couple of rows for me. Armfuls of silver c-shaped bangles – the kind that you had to twist onto your wrist, mindful not to dig the end into the soft tendons on the underside of your arm – clinked softly while she worked. An uncharacteristically fancy sapphire bracelet sparkled among the chunky silver. My grandfather had given the sapphires to her one Christmas. Grandma had cried when she opened it, but the bracelet did not receive any special treatment or status. Maybe she didn’t believe in saving nice jewelry for special occasions. Maybe, at her age, she didn’t believe in saving things, period.
My dad has three brothers and one sister, so I have lots of cousins. We are not a matching set. My siblings and I are sleek and dark, while our cousins have fair hair and skin, light eyes that twinkle. When the families got together at the holidays, we cousins jangled and sparkled like those bracelets. We played and shouted, delighted by the sheer volume that we could create. We were awed and intimidated by our grandmother, the woman at the helm of it all. We could almost always find grandma installed in her upholstered armchair. A teetering pile of crosswords and pens sat within her reach. She frequently buried her nose in one, taking advantage of a few moments of idleness in the midst of the day.
The day of the knitting lesson, Grandma came to my house for a visit, an occurrence so unusual that I only remember it happening that one time. In the absence of any cousins, all of her attention was on me. Well, on me and the knitting. Maybe that was why she brought the needles out that day; it gave us something to focus on that was not each other, as unaccustomed as we would have been to that. We talked about shoes. Grandma eyed my feet – already a size 7 at nine years old – and said she hoped I hadn’t inherited hers, because finding shoes for a size nine and a half was a real pain in the neck.
At some point, she surrendered the needles to me, and I suppose I knit a bit, although I don’t remember it much. I didn’t knit again for many years, not until I was an adult and living in New York.
It was the Mets that got me knitting again, not sentimental feelings about that lesson with my Grandma. One summer, I watched almost every ball game, and needed something to do with my hands (baseball isn’t so much something one watches with complete attention as it is something one has in the background). So, I bought Knitting for Dummies and a pair of size eight needles. I planned a few ambitious projects, and even finished one or two. There was a bib and hat for a friend’s new baby, a scarf, a pair of fingerless gloves (a real coup!), and the back of a sweater for me that was doomed to a life without its corresponding parts. A t that point, my skill level reached a plateau. Making scarves bored me, but anything more advanced required time and effort I did not have. I stuffed my knitting bag onto a shelf, and left it for dead while I went on to other things.
I always told myself that I would pick it up again. So, now, years after abandoning that last project, I am starting a new one: a hat for Win. I’m not quite sure why I find the process of knitting so alluring. It’s an old-fashioned hobby, and the quaintness appeals to me, but it’s not a particularly thrifty way to obtain head wear, especially when you factor the cost of the yarn, the cost of my time, and the distinct possibility that the project won’t ever be completed. Or, at least, not while Win’s head still fits in the thing. My finished projects look quite rough (not beautiful like my sister Parry’s work). So, why don’t I give up the ghost and just buy Winnie a hat for $5 at Old Navy?
I don’t exactly know the answer to that question. While I ponder it, I’m going to keep knitting. The hat I’m making has – or, will have – purple and navy stripes and a pom-pom on the end. It’s ridiculously long, like an elf hat, and I’m fairly certain that none of the other kids on the playground will have one like it. Experience would indicate that this project won’t end well. Most of my projects don’t. But, I’m hopeful about this one, and I look forward to seeing Winnie wearing it. I think my knitting reflects substantial optimism on my part, actually. The odds are good that my effort will be in vain, but I still sit and work, needles clicking, while I talk, listen to music, think, watch tv, and even play board games. I enjoy the possibility that I might surprise myself.
Yes, that’s the important bit, I think: I might surprise myself. But, if I hold back from doing something that runs the risk of wasting my precious time, I won’t. After all, time’s not really precious, not any more than a string of sapphires. Certainly not too precious to spend on something a little frivolous. Maybe I inherited more than my feet from my grandma. I also have a decisive stitch, and the desire to use what I’ve got when I’ve got it.