Tuesday, September 28, 2004

On learning to knit again

Gram was a nasty old woman, and Great-aunt Helen was worse. They'd lived together for thirty years by the time I knew them, since Gram divorced my grandfather in the 1950s, and spent much of that time subtly manipulating my father and his brother into hostilities. Once grandchildren came along, did much the same for my sister and me. Oh, they loved us, indulged us, entertained us, adored us. It took a while before we noticed how much pleasure they took in playing my sister and I against each other. I was the favorite, so smart, so talented, of course not too much to look at, but that's all right. Rachael was the pretty one, such a lovely blond, and if she was a bit dumb and overly-theatrical, well, that's nothing. Our father was wonderful, but our mother... Uncle Rick was perfect, but his wife (who my sister and I worshipped), well, there were terrible things there. There were nasty suggestions and bitter comments about everyone, and each of us wondered what they were saying to other people about us.

With our visits came subtle (and at times not so subtle) diminishment, mild cruelty, the simple certainty that I was ugly and Rachael was stupid and that we were (and should be) in competition with one another. They told stories of Rachael's errors and small sins to me, and vice versa, making us into conspirators against each other. We came for a week each summer and left angry and confused and hurt in ways we could not articulate, but took out against each other and our parents.

At the same time, however, those weeks were magic. Whatever we wanted, we had. Our mother, who disapproved of junk food, was appalled when we told her what we ate. There were cookies - peanut butter and chocolate chunk. Favorite foods were cooked, and they rose early to make popovers. There was candy in the glass dish, and we could watch as much television as we wanted. Little statues of animals and other decorative items inhabited the massive hutch in the dark front room, and we were permitted to take them out and play with them. The garden was filled with flowers, and we picked them and thrust them into the endless supply of glass jars under the cabinet. They were admired as much as if we'd grown them ourselves. More jars were taken outside to collect fireflies, toads and crickets, also deeply admired. In the huge backyard one year, Uncle Rick set off illegal fireworks to our amazed eyes.

We took the fat, elderly dogs for dozens of walks each day, visiting the drugstore and the hot dog stand where everyone knew we were Barbara and Helen's grandchildren. We rode the horses and played Atari and Uncle Rick and Aunt Karen's house, and we raced around Aunt Edith's farm, chasing the barn cats, playing with the chickens and proving how much we could lift with the cousins. At night, we tried on the perfume and jewelry in Aunt Helen's boxes, at whatever we desired for dinner, and watched tv drowsily as Gram and Auntie knit sweaters for us in our favorite colors.

Oh, could they knit. My father still wears the Aran fisherman's sweater they knit for him 20 years ago, and it looks nearly new. Not only were there sweaters and mittens and scarves for us, but crib mobiles for my baby sister, halloween decorations, blankets, everything you could imagine, in vibrant colors and patterns that I now know must have consumed them. I liked to play with the yarn when I was young, pulling it out of the knitting closet, and tying things together with it. How much did I waste, and they never said a word, just pulled out a skein of another vibrant color for me to make spiderwebs of. It was always this way - they were wonderful and terrible, generous and petty, loving and cruel, and even now, I cannot divide the dualities that shape my memories.

We wanted to learn, of course, and they wanted us to learn. Even in the early 1980s, they felt that they were losing us to a different kind of girlhood. The lamented my short hair, predicted dire things for girls who played too much basketball, and tried to make us into ladies, without much success. They tried hard to teach us to knit. I was too clumsy. I learned to crochet, but showed little interest, and a few granny squares later, gave it up. I never did master the rhythym of two needles. My sister was a bit better than I, but the magic of their hands never appeared in ours. The knitting lost out to the horse, and to our resistance of anything that smacked of ladyhood.

As my sister and I became teenagers, some of the magic faded. The dogs of our childhood died. The multicolored sweaters we had been so proud of became less cool. And we began to associate some of the anger we came home from our visits with with Gram and Aunnie. The final year came when Aunnie read my diary aloud to Aunt Karen, with, I gather, snide commentary. After that, the visits were shorter, and never happy. When we became teenagers, we stopped making the four hour drive altogether. We visited only rarely. And they got older.

By the time I went to college I was truly angry at them for the things they had done to me. Aunt Helen would call sometimes in my dorm room, but I rarely returned her calls, although she begged me to. One day, in my sophomore year, I found a package waiting for me. It was a baby blanket. I was horrified that she would send this thing to me at college, so totally alien, so like them to inflict upon me expectations that I had not interest in meeting. When I called her late, Aunnie said that she didn't think she'd live long enough to see my babies. So she made the blanket for me and sent it, and I stuffed it in a box and rolled my eyes at how little they understood me. Trying to hurt her, I told her I'd probably never have any. She didn't believe me.

Aunt Helen lived to meet my future husband, lived to express horror that he was Jewish, to complain to my face that I never came to visit any more. She did not survive to see the babies. I had not visited in many years when guilt drew me there, and I saw how near to death she was, still bitter, still snide, but on the edge of total failure. Still, I went once (in many years) before she died. My sisters did not, and paid the price in my grandmother's anger.

Gram managed to survive on her own just a few months before she went to the nursing home. There was no more knitting there. She faded, stopped walking with her walker, stopped reading, settled for complaining and watching television. I visited her more then, coming a few times a year, first with one son, then two. She died shortly after I let her know that her third great-grandson was on the way. She never knew that the fourth, my youngest sister's child, followed shortly after.

When I was young, Gram and Aunnie made elaborate lists of who would inherit what after they died. In fact, my aunt and uncle took what they wanted (not much), and then my father and sisters and I came and took what we wanted - that was all. Mostly, there was garbage. I took some strange things. This was before I had children, but I felt compelled to salvage the period clothing - the hats with elaborate feathers, the fur stoles, the sparkly shoes and other things that we had been permitted to dress up in when we were children. I am not sure why they mattered to me. I took Gram's cedar chest, and left Aunnie's for my cousin Cody. I took books my father had read as a boy for my future children. I took some of the dishes that stood in the hutch. I took the knitting needles with the cloisson ends. I had no children, and I did not knit, but I took them. Somehow Aunnie's anticipation of my future had begun to change me. It changed my sister too. She took the unfinished Aran blanket, with the hope of someday finishing it.

There was no funeral for my grandmother. My uncle Rick decided against it, I think perhaps in part to hurt my father, but also because there was almost no one left to come. Her sisters were dead. Her friends, the ladies who knit from the DAR and Eastern Star and the church committees were dead. The younger women in those groups, even the neighbors no longer visited, except to ask if she wanted to renew her memberships to things. We never convened to say goodbye to Gram, and I think only my father was much troubled by it. I was relieved, more than anything, not to have to travel while pregnant, with two young children, not to have to watch my father and his brother fight out the battles of their childhood again.

Right before my first son was born, I dug out the blanket. It was white, with pink and blue stripes delicately across the middle. Like everything they tried to give me, it was not a perfect fit. The yarn was cheap acrylic, I loathe pink and baby blue. But I felt then a twinge of sentiment, that Aunnie, whatever her flaws, had believed in and loved my children before I ever knew them. I threw away a lot of things they gave me, but not that. My son slept beneath it, some of the time.

And then, not long ago, I was seized with the desire to knit. My sister had her first child, the one that Gram never knew, a little girl. And the desire to knit her a blanket was nearly intolerable. Knitting blankets is what aunts do for their baby nieces. And so I did. I learned to knit from a series of books. I am not a coordinated woman, and it finally took a book about knitting for small children to bang the basic motions into me. But once I began, I could not stop. And I thought of them every moment. Of how much I wish I'd listened to some of what they knew. Of how badly I wish I'd been able to distinguish between their desire to make me in their image and their desire to simply teach me what I knew. Of how much easier this would have been if they could have showed me, hand over paper-thin hand.

I am still not sure how much nostalgia for them I have. I find them easier to live with as anxious memories, for it is easier to distinguish between sorrow and pleasure, to sort out the things I liked best, and try and leave the others behind. And all I can do to assuage the memory (the ghost) of my failures to understand, and theirs as well, is to knit for the great-grandchildren they did not live to see, but believed in so fervently.


Denise said...

What's the title and author of the knitting book that did the trick for you? I've been wanting to learn how to knit myself, and it never occurred to me to seek out a book intended for kids.

Karen said...

Hi, Sharon. Aunt Karen here. I have read and re-read your entry about Gran and Aunnie and feel I should respond. You were so eloquent in your tally of Barbara's flaws.Now let's set the record straight.
First and foremost, Barbara loved you. She was not perfect and made a lot of mistakes, but she never stopped loving you. Aunt Helen was crazy. I mean that literally, a fact that your parents knew very well, and remarked upon more than once. Why, I wonder, did they leave very young children with two elderly people living on fixed incomes, one of whom was nuts, for a week at a time? Hmmm - perhaps free babysitting and purchase of school clothes was a factor? But this is about you and your relationship with your grandmother, isn't it? Let's get back on track.
Your visits to Barbara exhausted her, both physically and financially. No wonder she did not always meet your expectations as the perfect grandmother.I ran interference as much As I could, to give both her and you and your sister Rachael a break. And even when it hurt her that you found dashing Aunt Karen and her horse more exciting, she continued to open her home and hear to you. She could not help being "old" and tried so hard not to be "mean". Well, Sharon, most grandmothers are old. Any everyone who is honest with themself is mean at lease some of the time. But mean ol' Barbara was always there for you, wasn't she? Always willing to take you in, let your play in her precious yard, always sad to see you go.
A quick bio on Barbara: she survived poli as a young teenager. She took care of her mother at a young age, when her mother took to her bed for long periods of time with some undefined nervous condition. Barbara's father had a violent temper and was perhap abusive. Rick remembers the man hitting Barbara with his cane. Barbara was unable to attend college, because her younger sister was more favored and got to attend nursing school. Older sister Helen was sent off to a boarding school somewhere (pregancy? Mental breakdown? I don't know. And I never listened to her read your diary, what kind of person do you think I am?). So Barbara had to stay home and take care of her parents. The man she married became abusive soon after Rick was born. John had a story of his own, having been shot down twice during WW11, left for dead once, prisoner of war twice, wounded twice. He carried his war demons into is marriage, and Barbara left for your safety and the safety of her two young sons. Women in the 50's did not divorce easily. Society looked upon her as a fallen woman,, somehow to blame for the failure of her marriage. She received only $20.00 per week to feed and cloth her children and was forced to seek assisted housing. She moved into her sister Helen's house.
I met the family in 1971. Helen clearly had neurological problems. The minute, constant shaking of head and tremors in her hands was obvious. Barbara, always the one who was called upon, became her cargiver and remained with her even with Rick and Robert were married and gone. Barbara, again, was back in the position of putting another's needs before her own. She and I became good friends.

Karen said...

Karen's rant, part two - very upset, much to say.
Fast foward 20-25 years or more. Now the ladies are struggling, trapped in a house that was in need of repairs, frail bodies, no savings and little income. Too old to knit well, they kept each other's company and enjoyed their mempories. My kids and I cleaned their house, we did their shopping and laundry. I still had a cup of tea with Barbara now and the. Helen died at home. Barbara made a valient attempt to live on her own, but suffered on fall after another. She had post polio syndrome, you see and gradually lost the use of all muscles on one side of her body. Rick arranged for here to be admitted into the nursing home he worked in, so he could be close to her and supervise her care. She really enjoyed your visits, Sharon. She lived five yours more, suffering one physical set back after another. The bitterness and despair came towards the end. In the years between we had holiday diners with Barbara in Rick's office, had our St Bernard Bubba tow her around in her wheelchair, long visits in the wander garden, ice cream and treats from Frankie's. We knew when the end was coming and had time to say goodbye. She hed on until we did, then slipped away. You sound like a great person, Sharon, although you seem to take your self too seriously. Accept Barbara's humanity and failures, and see the real person, both wonderful and flawed. You will be a better person for it. And congrats on the new baby. Aunt Karen

jewishfarmer said...

Denise, the book was Melanie Falick's _Kids Knitting_.

Karen, I'm glad I spotted your reply - I don't usually see replies to older posts. I appreciate your response, and your perspective on this - including her biography, which I knew (although I thought she did attend college, actually, at St. Rose in Albany - or so she told me when we moved up here.) Living so close and being so involved in her care, you obviously have a very different (and in some ways better) perspective on Barbara than I do. This was never intended to be anything but a very personal narrative of my experience of her in one regard - knitting. It was not a biography or a whole account. Perhaps it wasn't clear from the post that this was memoir, rather than reportage.

The two comments I can think of are that first, you could make the same defense of Helen that you do of Barbara - Helen loved us too. She may of made a hash of that love much of the time, but both of them cared for us enormously, and showed it. Perhaps because I was a child, my perspective on Helen is actually less critical than yours - although I've no doubt either that she was nuts.

The other comment is that we'll simply have to agree to disagree on the subject of whether some of Barbara's behavior fell into the realm of normal grandmotherly "meanness" or something more inappropriate. As much as you saw many things I never saw from your perspective as an adult, so it is true that I experienced things that you were unaware of. I don't know that I think there's much point in debating it, though.

I apologize if I gave the impression that you listened to Helen's comments on my diary with intent - I never thought so, I only knew you must have been told some things, because you told me that you had been at the time. Besides the ethical issue, I can't imagine anything more deeply boring than listening to the contents of an 11 year old's diary - although you were always kind about putting up with the rather boring 11 year old. TBC

jewishfarmer said...

As for the rest of it, Karen, I can't comment on my parents using them inappropriately for babysitting or school clothes, except to say I'm sure it was true, and at 10 or so, I wasn't so very much in control of my destiny, or familiar with the economic details of grownups. As I recall, you and Rick also used them as daycare for Cody early on - and now that I'm a Mom, I can understand how easy it would be to take too much advantage of the generosity of grandparents, who wouldn't say no, even if they should.

Is this about how my grandmother failed to be "perfect?" I don't think so. I had other grandparents, and I'm getting to watch my own parents be (imperfect) grandparents, and I don't think my expectations of how adults treat children are unreasonably high, or that I blamed her for being old, or for not knitting any more, or any of the things you seem to have gotten from my message. I do think that she and Helen were often unkind and inappropriate in ways that other grandparents I've had a chance to watch were and are not. I also think that because of that, and because I was an idiot, I failed to see some of the good things they offered us - and I think I say that in my post. And I don't really know how to think about them - which is part of the point.

I do think that lionizing Barbara at Helen's expense (even though there is considerable temptation and more than a little justification for doing so) is at least as unnuanced as you accuse me of being. I guess the really bizarre thing about all this is that it is possible for all of the above to be simultaneously true - they were, as I said in my post, many things at once. I suspect that somewhere betwee what you see and what I see, there's a truth that could be gotten at. I'm glad you wrote what you did, so that this gets closer to it than I could alone.

I do want to say that I'm sorry if this offended or upset you. I generally don't write publically about my family (other than the immediate one) precisely because I don't want to mine my relatives for material (amusing as we probably all would be), or hurt their feelings. I made an exception here, because they were gone, and I thought the only people likely to see it were family members who I see more often, and with whom I've talked enough for them to have a sense of the complexities of the issue - it never occurred to me that you might see this, and it should have. While I don't agree with your perspective on many points, I would never have written it had I realized that I might hurt someone who felt differently. We see and hear from each other so rarely, that I never imagined we would be in contact this way, rather than directly.

This was intended as an exercise in narrative memoir, a genre with conventions that don't necessarily include total balance. I don't think I said anything untrue or wrong, nor do I think that the kind of limited narrative I was writing required total balance, but I do apologize if I offended you, and I do appreciate your adding something else important to the picture.

As for whether I take myself to seriously - probably, although I suspect less so in person (I hope) than when writing in a particular, public way to a particular audience. If you ever want to contact me directly, or continue to debate this (probably not of interest to most people reading here) you could always email privately me at sharondownonthefarm@yahoo.com.

Thanks for the congratulations, and I hope you, Rick, John and Cody are well.



jewishfarmer said...

I shouldn't keep replying to this, but after I answered you yesterday, Karen, I kept thinking about it, and I don't think I quite said one of the things I want to. I think you very much wanted to give the impression that Barbara's failures were the ordinary, normal failures of regular grandmothers, and I can understand that, and I'm glad you cared about her enough to judge her flaws ordinary.

But that's not really the truth. Most grandmothers don't refer to their granddaughters, pre-puberty, as "whores" (I know it was pre-puberty, because I had to look the word up in a dictionary when Barbara used it on 9 year old Rachael.) They don't spend a lot of time during visits making derogatory references to a child's mother's sexual habits (some quite explicit). You and she may have been friends, but I've never in my life spoken to anyone, much less a child, about a friend of mine the way she talked about you to us, and I'm no mealymouth. Even leaving the things she said about me, both to my face and through my sister out of the discussion, this does not fall into the category of normal Grandma meanness. And yes, this was Barbara, not Helen.

The nice thing about adulthood is that you develop a sense of perspective. As a child, your world, no matter how it is skewed, seems the norm. But I've known enough Grandparents (and had enough) and enough *people*, even those who have been through enormous trauma, who simply didn't act the way Barbara and Helen did. No matter how tired, or stressed or cranky you are, or how hard your past and present, the world is full of people who don't call children whores.

Nor do I really think that either my sisters or I can be much blamed for not wanting to spend a lot of time with people who did this - I certainly wouldn't allow my children to have contact with a relative who said these things to them. Talking about one's mother's sexuality in explicit and unkind detail to a child is the kind of thing that does come to outweigh all the good things - and frankly, I think that's an appropriate reaction.

I admire you, Karen, for considering Barbara a friend, when she wasn't always all that nice about you, either. But then, you were an adult, and there's a difference between the things adults can choose to tolerate or not from one another, and the choices kids have.

Again, I don't deny that her life was a hard one, or that she cared for me (I cared for her too - among other things, Isaiah Benjamin is named for her) - but I do deny that the problem is my lack of perspective, my inability to see her as "human." Everyone has ordinary human failings, but there's a difference between cutting Barbara some slack and whitewashing her into a paragon. I choose not to do the latter. And I think it is truly worth it to have a strong sense of perspective on what ordinary human behavior is, rather than writing the extremes into simple human error.

Most stories about how people learn to knit are about the loving attention they got from their grandmothers or mothers. I got that, and that was part of what I wanted to write about. But I couldn't write anything approaching the truth without including the other parts.


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