My mother, Vivian, learned to knit in a Catholic boarding school in Switzerland. It was the mid-1940s. She learned from her Swiss friend, or her Lebanese friends, or perhaps her French friends. Perhaps all of them. The way she knit was a kind of pidgin Continental style that was well informed by crochet. It was her own style, a combined sort of method that takes patience to translate and appalls many experienced knitters.
Vivian knit socks for her friends, keeping them warm in the dormitories in Lausanne. Lots of socks. She knit at night, after lights-out. She could turn a heel in the pitch dark, but also she knit by flashlight under the bedsheets. She knit at night because she was naughty. She was breaking the rules, and living dangerously, risking being caught by what she described as “the meanest nuns in the world.”
She was the product of a Southern Baptist father who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy and a mom who was a bit of a showgirl and model and also a rule-breaker. They divorced when she was young, and her new stepmother didn’t want to be saddled with another woman’s child. Her mother was busy globetrotting. So the convent school became her home.
She lived alone among girls and nuns, rarely going home on holidays. She was angry. So she found ways to annoy and thwart those nuns. She smoked and drank and stuffed her bra and wore lacy underpinnings and snuck out to see boys. And she knit after lights-out.
The minute she could make her own choices in life, she set about erasing her past. At 19 she found a steady Midwestern man, married him, and had as many babies as she could. She couldn’t have nearly as many as she wanted. So she quilted and made stained glass things and carved wood, and made teddy bears for Hatian kids and orphans.
I don’t remember her knitting much at all, except when she taught me. She said she developed a serious math phobia back at the boarding school, where wrong answers brought the ruler down on her knuckles, and her dyslexia meant her numbers were always wrong. So her gauge was always off. She never had the patience to swatch.
After her boarding school days, Vivian knit just one ill-fated and ill-fitting mohair sweater for my father, and a few over-sized hats. No more socks. I never knew why. Meantime she continued to deeply admire knitting, and loving yarn, visiting yarn shops near any home she had, and developing a rather nice stash of beautiful wools and mohairs. She intended to knit some day, when the time was right. She collected patterns and needles and notions for that day.
When Vivian discovered the lumps in her lymph nodes, and we found ourselves in a losing fight for her life, one of my best friends suggested I take up knitting. She knew in her bones we were headed for a time of being out of control. She thought knitting might help. Friends are good that way.
I left my job for awhile. Mom and I visited yarn stores. I bought needles. I visited blogs and online knitting magazines to learn and learn. I bought books. As a kid I had devoured my mother’s ancient copy of “Knitting Without Tears.” I went back to that book. I knitted chemo caps. I learned to knit socks. Mom and I turned my first heel together while she sat with a bucket in her lap, throwing up between short rows. I learned to custom-size socks so that I could knit kitten-soft, pink alpaca bed-socks for her impossibly small feet. She flirted with her doctor by offering daughter-knit, custom-fitted socks for him if he would only get the medicine right and cure her.
But her doctors couldn’t help. They couldn’t pinpoint her cancer at all. Couldn’t even name it. Between tests and more tests, surgeries and infusions, between radiation appointments, she fussed over my purl tension problems. While receiving chemotherapy, she evened out my cables. She gave me her needles and her yarn and her patterns and her notions. We went back to the yarn store again and again. We bought hand-spun, we found spinners to make the yarn we imagined but couldn’t find, we planned projects far into the future.
We called in the hospice team and then dreamed up a Fana cardigan. We combined traditional motifs with ones we fantasized. We tried designing motifs for deer and herons and otters and bears on sheets of graph paper as she drifted in and out of awareness. We planned the most amazing sweater-coat in a moss green and ivory merino. A hand-spinner in Montana spun the wool for us. She got to pet that new yarn a day or two before she died. I haven’t cast on for that sweater yet. I can’t quite start.
In the year of Vivian’s dying, I went from knitting scarves to knitting steeked, intricate, Aran sweaters, Lavold’s viking cables, and lots and lots of socks.
In the year of Vivian’s dying, we lost control over life and death, but we planned and designed and dreamed and produced beautiful things.
This is a sad story. But there’s good in it. In the year since Vivian died, I have knitted madly. Everything I make is full of her. She’s all over my yarn stash. Her voice is there when I imagine every project. She eggs me on to rip it out if it isn’t right. She chides me to finish things well.
And I knit when I should be working. I knit when I should be sleeping. I knit in meetings. I knit in the dark. I knit to resist, to be bad. I knit because I’m angry that I lost my naughty mother.