I'm not quite done with the mountain of essay and final exam grading that inevitably follows end of term. But, as usual, I'm drawn into a series of waking dreams about holidays past -- Christmases, Hannukahs -- in which the healing, life-saving qualities of wool have figured large, at least for me. I have been thinking about the long drives in very old, ramshackle cars (and in one case, a 1952 Ford pickup truck) from various small towns in Minnesota to St. Paul, where the grandparents lived, just in time for Christmas -- and for quiet times beside the fire and the jovially lighted Christmas tree with steel crochet hook, working steadily toward the lace curtain, the lace edging for a cheap pillowcase. Those were my grandmother's habits, the ones that helped her survive poverty, a partial mental breakdown at menopause, the hideously unexpected birth of yet another son at age 54. She would crochet. And she taught me to do the same thing. From tragedy and desperation came things of achingly beautiful delicacy.
I remember making my first sweater -- I'm about to reveal something I almost never talk about -- when my father filed bankruptcy. They hauled away his grand piano. I had never seen him cry. He cried and cried and cried. And so mother and I did the only thing we could do, once we had hugged him for awhile -- we took out the crochet hooks and worked on some squares for a blanket. And then we gave it away.
At every Episcopal church to which I belonged, and to most of the parishes for which I served as church organist -- something that continued until age 29 -- there were church bazaars at Christmas. We would make endless objects with needles, hooks, sewing machines, many of them literally out of nothing. My mother and I transformed old quilts into new ones by recycling the padding and making new covers; we covered cardboard boxes, tubes, and squares with all manner of cloth, embroidery, crochet. We made belts out of crochet thread and beads. It was the original environmentally sound society, wasn't it, this society of thrifty, lower-class women? And at the heart of it were our hands, our imaginations, our crafts.
When my first husband died, I knitted in the big maroon chair in the living room deep into the night, almost every night, and then slept there, because I couldn't stand to be in the bedroom. I don't think I would have got through it without my knitting. When the school year ended, I hit the wall -- so I piled an immense pile of wool in many colors into the trunk of the VW Beetle, complete with jeans and sandals, and headed west, making green modular squares at each stop between Michigan and Washington State. I made a particularly garish one in the Black Hills waiting for prairie dogs to pop up on an off-road departure from the main highway. I made others in Sioux Falls, SD, after driving right up to my old childhood home at 106 South Prairie, and Worthington, Minnesota..........and so on. When I got home, I assembled the whole thing into a cardigan that I now call my Running Away From Home Sweater. Wool kept me sane, didn't it?
I went to Rome the second year for Christmas -- with wool and needles, of course -- to forge new pathways for myself (it was a city that I associated with him), and I remember vividly sitting on the balcony of my gorgeous old hotel listening to the Christmas bells from St. Peter's Basilica, pealing over rooftops and onto the balcony like some kind of presence -- I knitted until there was no light, and in the morning knitted some more, and then wrote a long, long poem about being there and listening for the bells, hearing them fall away into darkness. Then my niece and nephew came, and Rome was saved for me -- because of them, of course, because they saw the place with new eyes and not with my old, saddened eyes, but also because of the rhythmic movement of yarn over needles.
For the next Christmas, I went to Barbados -- a huge pile of wool in tow -- made a sweater while I was gone, just made it up, free form -- taking color cues from the water, the sand, the sense of joy as water slapped against rocks. I sold it only a year ago for far less money than I'd paid for the yarn -- but it didn't matter. The knitting had done its good work long before the sale. And then, midyear, when I felt uncommonly sad, I made arrangements with my dear friend Vivian Hart (of Essex, England) to meet in the Orkney Islands. How could I forget sitting by myself (Vivian was watching birds) on a tiny spit of an island called Papay Westray, a game preserve, with seals not ten feet away -- and my knitting needles, a gorgeous pile of Scottish wool assuming the shape of a pullover, colors like moss and lichen and rock? The seals had no idea that they ought to be terrified -- though not of me. I cannot imagine harming something so gentle, so innocent and trusting.
There are more instances. Everyone who works with wool knows what I mean. Happy holidays to all of you, each and every one, and guard yourselves. We come this way only once.