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.