February 20, 2006

First Knitting Story

My first exposure to knitting occurred when I was around 9 years old, and it didn't really occur to me until long afterwards how truly extraordinary it was.

When I was 9 we moved from the home I'd always known, a duplex in the heart of inner city Minneapolis, out into the southern suburbs. For many reasons, not the least of which was a crippling shyness and sense of fatalism on my part, I did not do well in my new social environment. My sister, for very different reasons, was also struggling socially, and evidently our school librarian noticed, and contacted my mother with an idea that was actually rather brilliant; she knew of a gentleman in a nearby nursing home who had no family to visit him, and he was becoming very depressed and lonely. Would we be willing to visit the man and give him a bit of company every week?

My sister jumped at the chance, and I was willing to go along, so that weekend my mother drove us to the nursing home. My sister settled happily down to chat with the elderly gentleman, but it was soon clear that there wasn't much need for me as a silent third wheel, and I wandered out of the room and made my way hesitantly down the hallway.

Eventually I was drawn to a room that, unlike the others, was completely unlit... yet I could see that someone was sitting up in the bed there, quiet and yet seemingly alert. When I approached the door I must have made some little noise, and the occupant cheerfully greeted me and asked me to join her.

Sitting in the dark was a lovely elderly lady with shining white hair and a soft accented voice. Her name was Hanna, and as I sat at the foot of her bed she told me about her life. How she traveled on a boat from Sweden as a girl with her parents. How she met her husband and raised her daughter. How both were now gone, one to old age and illness, the other to a car accident. She told me about her home and her friends and her childhood.

As she spoke she worked away with several thin sticks and a soft blue yarn, magically forming a delicate bit of fabric. I asked her what she was doing, and she showed me the body of a tiny sweater, its lacy eyelet pattern, the places where the arms would go, the neck that she was shaping. She told me that she had learned to knit when she was a girl in Sweden, that all the women in her family had learned to knit as children... and then she went on to speak of other things.

She spoke of other things every week when I visited her, and every week she was working industriously away at some new baby item. I think she must have knit those things for a church, or the nearby hospital, or some other charity - certainly I never saw any other visitor, and she did not speak of any living family or friends. Still, the tiny garments disappeared, and every week a new one was on those needles.

Hanna did not offer to teach me how to knit, and I did not ask; perhaps she assumed that I already knew, a girl of nearly 10 years of age. To me the process seemed rather mysterious and magical. It did not occur to me that it was something that I might emulate.

Knitting was simply part of Hanna, a part of her Swedishness and her softness, the serene beauty of her expression, her gnarled yet deft hands, the darkness of her room, the darkness of her life.

Hanna was blind.

She couldn't see with her eyes the soft pinks and blues and yellows that she knit up into those tiny garments. She claimed that she could 'see' the colors with her fingers, and then laughed at my amazed questions. She easily identified each color for me, running her wrinkled fingers gently over the yarn, but she never told me how she knew. I have some idea now, as an older and more knitterly woman myself, but at the time it was just another magical facet of this gentle fairylike woman.

I easily accepted magic in those days, as I accepted many things.

More easily than I accepted it when one day we were approached by an administrator of the nursing home, and told that we could not see our elderly friends. A new company was managing the home, and there were insurance concerns, legal concerns about letting people visit who were not related to the residents. We were not allowed to say goodbye to our friends, we could not explain why we were abandoning them... we were just to go home.

Those years were a dark and complex time for me, and this rough separation from my elderly friend was no less dark and complex. I felt terribly sad for her and for myself. I felt guilty for the seeming abandonment of our lonely seniors, and angry for what I felt was the senselessness of that forced separation. I mourned the loss of a friend, and mourned that I could claim no other friend to replace her. I resented my sister's easy acceptance of the loss. I resented my mother for not fighting the administrator and the unreasonable rules; I resented the librarian for not warning us that such a thing could happen; I resented myself for not having the courage to flout authority. I hated having to live in the sort of world where Rules were more important than people.

I still hate that. I understand it somewhat better now; sometimes I fight it and sometimes I accept it - but I still hate it. It always brings me back to that helpless, frustrated moment in the nursing home when I first really encountered the forces of Bureaucracy and Order.

I never saw Hanna again. But I see her in my mind now, whenever I smooth my hand over my own knitting and feel the woolen stitches warm and soft under my fingers, fingers that are now beginning to wrinkle and gnarl ever-so-slightly.

We weren't Family enough for the comfort of the Insurance Company, Hanna... but you left me a great inheritance, nonetheless.


Blogger Chris said...

What a powerful story, Eileen - thanks for sharing!

3:17 PM  
Blogger Tink said...

Beautiful memory. Thank you for sharing. I'm sure you meant as much to Hanna as she did to you.

8:26 AM  
Blogger mama_tulip said...

Wow. This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing it.

11:17 AM  
Blogger mE said...

Thanks for the feedback, it means a lot to me - especially from people whose prose I respect so much! :)

9:19 PM  
Blogger mrspao said...

That is such a beautiful story. It is such a shame that you weren't even allowed to say goodbye. I'm sure that Hanna would be glad of the legacy she left you.

11:58 AM  

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