If you’ve read Beyond the Silk Mills you know that Emma taught her daughter Sophie how to knit and crochet. So it was with my Nana who lived with us in a pink and grey-papered bedroom at the far end of the hallway with what seemed to me in my youth a gigantic bed. Perhaps it was the same double bed that my parents had, but that very small woman left plenty of room for me to crawl in next to her early in the morning. In the stillness I could hear her switch on the brown metal bed lamp while I tiptoed down the hall. She was waiting for me.
On these mornings, our legs tucked beneath her blankets, Nana trained me to knit and crochet well before I began school. I say ‘trained’ because she systematically worked my small muscles in preparation for manipulating a crochet hook and knitting needles. She insisted on exercises every morning, and with intense concentration I held up my two hands for her inspection and practiced separating each finger apart from the others, both hands at the same time. She encouraged me to write my name and simple stories well before school age, gripping a number two pencil far sooner than kindergarten. Because of these two activities, my small muscles were ready for the crochet hook by age five.
We used white cotton crochet thread with no concession to a thicker weight for tiny fingers, and I learned to crochet with the same steel hook that I use today to crochet my knitted sweater seams together. On one side it says, “U.S.A.-10¢.” On the other side it reads “00 Boye 00.” I crocheted endless chains before she taught me to double and triple crochet. By then we were using thick cotton yarn, because she had learned something about small fingers. I made potholders, one after another, until she finely agreed to teach me to knit. I wanted to make sweaters for my dolls.
She taught me to knit with worsted weight using the European method that she brought with her from Lodz, Poland. I prefer this method to the one I see my contemporaries using. It seems awkward to move the yarn across the needles for every stitch as they do. I think I’m a bit snobbish about this.
I don’t remember what I was knitting until I began scarves later in elementary school, six foot long stripped affairs to coil around my neck on those cold New Jersey winter days. Every relative graciously accepted a six-foot scarf in a color of her choice.
The greatest achievement came when I was about fifteen years old. As a budding beatnik who spent weekends in Greenwich Village, I wanted black lace stockings to wear with a short skirt and a black turtle neck sweater. Incidentally, I ironed my long wavy dirty-blond hair on the ironing board under a towel to straighten it. I wore gobs of eye make-up, applied outside of the house, and absolutely no lipstick – verboten by the real beatniks.
One black lace stocking, perfect if I may say so myself, is folded in a plastic bag along with a skein of black fingering yarn labeled Supre-Macy, 50% wool 50% nylon, for socks and sweaters, mothproof. It has traveled with me this many years and now resides in my knitting closet in one of the storage boxes of my stashed yarn. No instructions. I suppose I would have worn them with a garter belt, had a busy social life not intervened to leave the one an orphan.
I recollect Nana’s fine crochet work with inscribed words such as bread and Leslie worked into doilies without using a pattern. I still have a few fingering weight baby sweaters, finely cabled with tiny pearl buttons and a colorful crocheted afghan lined with green cotton. They’re tucked away in an old steamer trunk in the attic. I wonder about the hand knit sweaters that line my shelves today, reminders of my Nana. Will they end their useful life in a camphor-infused trunk in my daughter’s attic along with one black lace stocking?