Stitch in time

Even though I was 18 when she died, I don’t know a lot about my maternal great-grandmother.

I know she went by Elsie; that she was from Portugal but had blue eyes and blonde hair. I know she was married twice in a time when good Catholic women didn’t do that, and while I know nothing whatsoever about her first husband, my biological great-grandfather, I know Arthur, her second husband of 50+ years, was a good man, the type of man to show up at my wedding dressed to kill and threatened my husband with extinction if he didn’t treat me correctly. That’s the kind of man you want sticking around.

I know she had five children, three boys bookended by my Nana at the top and my great-aunt at the end. I know she was funny; at least, she always made me laugh. From our visits I like to think I got my tendency not to suffer fools from her. She made the hand-snipped and intricately woven handkerchief that my mother held when she got married–the same one I held on my wedding day. I know that in that way she took part in my ceremony.

And I know she loved to crochet.

One of the best things about visiting my great-grandparents was the doll room, a guest bedroom filled with plastic dolls from the craft store. My Great-Nana would take these penny playthings and turn them into works of art, clothing them in fantastically elaborate frocks of yarn. It was a fun hobby for her, one that I can see today–three of those dolls are in the bookcase behind me. These are the crafts I can most easily reach for in my memory, though I am sure there are more. Dusty memory fragments float through my brain and almost catch the light–afghans, blankets, doilies that I can’t quite remember but that I know must be there somewhere still.

My mother says she learned to crochet from her grandmother, and though I never asked for clarification I always assumed she was speaking of Great-Nana. My mother inherited all of her grandmother’s hooks and keeps them in a bag on her craft shelf, as well as a few packets of needles and other things. It was this bag that I rummaged through when I selected a hook to make my first blanket for Maggie and for my second project, a gift for my cousin’s soon-to-be-born baby.

In the somewhat laborious process of learning to crochet, my mother has been pleased with my progress. She’s only taught me two stitches so far; I’ve made or am making something significant with each before I move on to more intricate things. Because I am impatient and not easily satisfied I have also made untold amounts of dishrags, an item that can be made in an evening and offers the instant satisfaction of a completed work. More satisfying was mending a pair of pants that had ripped because they are worn twice a week and have been for the last six years (they fit PERFECTLY, okay?) with a needle from that bag. They’re all sewn up (reinforced with iron-on patches) and ready for more action.

Travel and upheaval notwithstanding, it’s a pleasant and calm life that Tom and I live, routine and happy. Our child is quiet in her own way, preferring the neatness of sorting blocks and turning pages in her book to the flash and dazzle of her toy chest. We drive a Honda, for Pete’s sake. We have a quiet, orderly life and we like it that way.

With five children born through the 1930s to 1950s and making her way in a rough-and-tumble kind of world, I think my Great-Nana’s life was not so calm or orderly. Full of love? Absolutely. But probably not quiet. But I think about her reaching for the needle to mend something that needed mending or to make something beautiful just because she could; I think of her selecting a crochet hook to make a lovely doll dress for a grandchild to enjoy or a blanket to keep someone she loved warm. And then I think about her tools, passed along to my mother, used to enjoy, to create, to build something useful, or maybe just pretty, stitching along in the quieter background of her days.

These same tools I’m using now, again being used to create pretty and useful things. Things that will be kept for a long time, things that are keeping her great-great-grandchild warm even as I type, softly snoring under a tight weave of rainbow cotton, things that will keep her future great-great-grandchildren snuggled warm against the chill. Her skill is flowing through to her family, immortal, touching the born, the unborn, and the as yet unimagined. I think she would like that.

And I think of these things and know then that I know her, that we might have known each other, better than I thought.


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