From the vantage of the back seat, my sisters and I could immediately tell when we were in danger. In the rearview mirror, Mom’s eyes would get a wild look in them; she’d hum a little under her breath; drum her fingers innocently on the steering wheel. But we knew. Oh, we always knew.
It was the turn signal that confirmed it.
“Oh, just for a couple of minutes.”
The three of us would stagger out of the back seat of the station wagon; toe the asphalt with the white rubber tips of our tennis shoes; drag our feet, sighing exaggeratedly all the way to the entrance.
Fabric stores of old were a living hell for children. There was nothing to do: no coloring books; no beads to beg for; no stickers or tee shirts or tye dye kits. Those fabric stores smelled dry and dusty; they smelled of wool and linen and a blend of perfume and coffee breath. But Mom sensed something different in the fabric store: she saw pretty Easter dresses and quilts and yarn. Once we crossed that threshold, Mom would become possessed by possibilities. That couple of minutes would turn into an hour, minimum.
Mom would drag us off to the long tables in the center of the store; tables heaped with pattern books: Butterick and McCalls and Vogue. My sisters and I would slouch in the plastic chairs, arms crossed, sticking our tongues out at each other and swinging our legs above the floor tiles.
After about an eternity, Mom would decide upon a pattern. She’d whisper the pattern number to herself, heading to the appropriate drawer, and tiptoe her fingers across the envelopes stacked so neatly one against the other. And then, the real torture began: the selection of the fabric.
We followed her through the store as she went from rack to rack, here and there taking a sample of fabric between her thumb and forefinger and rubbing it, considering. My sisters and I were permitted to wander a bit around the fabrics, and we took great joy pretending we were shopping for wedding dress material—taking up a pinch of tulle in our peanut butter and jellied hands in imitation of our mother, rubbing the fabric thoughtfully, smearing it with the purple remnants of our lunch. “Do you think this would be suitable for a veil?” we’d ask each other, draping the fabric over our tangled hair. And a woman listening in would snicker and turn away and we’d find a better way to entertain ourselves: The fabric displays back then were mainly large circles with bolts of fabric sandwiched around like tight spokes on a wheel. They were the perfect spot for hiding three little girls. We’d crawl under and watch strange feet approach, see the fabric lifted, kind of snort at the idea of bursting out of the fabric and frightening the heck out of some poor lady. And then, “Girls? GIRLS!”
We’d emerge, hot, sweaty, and giggling. “Where have you been?” Mom would scowl at us. “I’ve been looking all around the store for you.” We’d follow her to the cutting table where she’d unload several bolts of fabric. “Three yards, please,” she’d tell the woman behind the cutting table.
The woman would smooth the fabric with her hand just so and line it up against the metal yardstick affixed to the counter. “This is just beautiful.”
“Isn’t it?” Mom would reply, reaching out to give the fabric another caress.
She and the employee would engage in a discussion about the merits of the fabric; the project for which the fabric was intended; grains and widths and colorfastness.
Bolt after bolt of fabric was cut in this manner. In our boredom, my sisters and I languished. We needed snacks. A drink. A bathroom.
Finally, finally, the fabric was cut.
Mom would take the yellow printed slip and stack the fabrics, now neatly measured, cut and folded, into her cart. But we weren’t done. Not yet. Oh, no, we still had the notions: There were buttons to consider, the width of the elastic. There was interfacing. There were zippers. There was thread. For us kids, keeping up with our mother at the fabric store was an all day affair; indeed, fabric store shopping was an Olympic event.
* * *
Last week, I had to go to pick up material for Squint’s cooking costume. Then I had to go back to try and find a pattern for that costume. And I had to go one last time on Saturday to get the dye I needed to stain the pants that I ended up buying after throwing the pants I’d started in the garbage can after a long, drawn out temper tantrum.
From the backseat, Filibuster sighed. “The fabric store, Mom? I have a lot to do today.”
“I just need some dye. And some spray paint. Don’t let me forget the spray paint.”
V and I picked out the spray paint and went to find Filibuster, who was probably hiding in a fabric display. And then I passed the yarn. I slowed and reached out to feel, of all things, a knitted sock.
Who knits socks?
I could knit a sock.
I felt a square of a baby’s blanket; felt the thickness of a hat. I reached up and felt a ball of yarn.
“Maybe I’ll crochet myself a hat,” I told V. I went down the aisle considering this yarn and that, going on to the next aisle.
“Mom,” V said. “You don’t wear hats.”
“Your head’s too big.”
She was right. I can’t wear hats. A hat in any size makes me look like a pinhead. Any hat I pick out comes down to just above my ears, tenses for a moment then kind of springs off my head and just rests on top like a bad and unnecessary toupee.
“You’re right,” I said, turning away.
I turned back. I took another sample of yarn between my finger and my thumb. “Want me to make you a scarf?”
V’s eyes lit up. “Sure!” She reached up and took a sample of wool between her finger and thumb. She went from yarn to yarn, considering.
“Where have you been, Mom?” Filibuster. Hands on hips. “I’ve been looking all over the store for you.”
“Want me to make you a scarf?”
She smiled. "Thanks, Mom."
Twenty minutes later, we left the store, two new crochet hooks, four balls of yarn, two bottles of spray paint and one box of dye in hand.
Once home, I told myself I was crazy: I haven’t crocheted anything in over twenty years. I had a ton of other projects to get done. I’d completely forgotten how to crochet. And those funny codes: sc 14 turn. I no longer understood them. The hook slipped from the yarn and fell onto the couch. The ball of yarn rolled onto the floor and Destructo picked it up and ran into the other room, trailing a pathetic line of uneven cast on stitches. Why in the world had I promised to make scarves for the girls?
* * *
Every year or so, my grandmother would board a plane bound for Ohio to spend a week with us. I remember a lot about my grandmother. I remember the way she’d laugh long and hard. I remember going to McDonalds and my sister teaching her to turn her eyelids inside out; I remember my grandmother laughing so hard she claimed she was going to wet her pants.
I remember how my grandmother flew out to care for us when my mother went into the hospital. I remember how she joined us in stuffing our shirts with immense grapefruits and turning sideways so my father could catch our womanly figures on camera.
I remember her faith. I remember how she’d sit at the edge of her bed in the morning, thin robe over her shoulders, slippers on her feet, rosary in her hand. I’d see her through the crack in the door and wonder.
And then, she’d pad down to the kitchen, pewter ash tray in one hand, pack of cigarettes in the other, and she’d sit and have a cup of coffee with her morning cigarette. And then she’d look around as if she’d forgotten an important piece of herself. And she had, of course: She’d forgotten her knitting bag.
“Could you get my knitting bag?” she’d ask the closet grandchild. “But only if you want to.”
Often we didn’t want to, but one of us would rise anyway, and stomp up the stairs to fetch the bag. The wooden handles would clink together; there was a ball of yarn inside the bag, a pair of knitting needles crisscrossed into it.
Grandma would take up her knitting—or her crocheting—and go to work. She made sweaters and afghans and hats and scarves; her needles clicking one against the other, just the tips flashing in and out of the yarn so fast, chatting a mile a minute.
Fortunately, crocheting is like riding a bike: Once you’ve learned you can never really forget. I remember the warmth of the yarn in my lap; the pleasure at seeing a project lengthen and take shape. I like being able to think or to listen or to just let my mind wander while I crochet.
I find that crocheting is a lot like writing: You put a lot into it. You make mistakes. You tear a lot out and then you begin again.
And I find that crocheting is a lot like life: You put a lot of effort into it. You screw a lot of it up. You have to make a lot of corrections. But in the end, you have something beautiful that connects you to generations past—and future.
Crocheting is a long bond of love and laughter and stitches and patterns. Working with yarn reminds me of my grandmother—of her knitting; of her faith; of her love; of her laughter.
I crochet not because I'm crazy: I crochet to remember.
This Christmas, V and Filibuster are going to learn to crochet. And tomorrow I’ll head to the fabric store again to pick out some yarn for a scarf for Squints.
Labels: Books, Crocheting, Daughters, Girls, Grandparents, Sisters