|It was August. Very hot and very humid.
An Iowa City summer day. We were cooped up in our cool house and needed to get
out. My kids wanted to go to Artifacts, a store worthy of its name. So we piled
into the car, and cranked up the air conditioning. When we got there the kids
rushed straight to the new vintage clothing department in the back. I lingered
in the front, browsing through shelves cluttered with what could have been the
artifacts of my childhood- toys, jewelry, fabric and dishes from the sixties.
I didn’t have to look hard to find the socks. They were near the humming
air conditioner. Big and gray with red and tan toes, they looked like the socks
the woodsman in Little Red Riding Hood would wear. Who really wore them, I
wondered. And what I really wanted to know was, who knit them?
They were socks knit from the toe up, something like a Balkan slipper sock. A
foreign way of making socks, I thought. They were knit confidently; this knitter
had made plenty of these sturdy socks. The socks were made from scrap yarn,
perhaps from leftovers from hats and mittens the knitter made for her woodsman
husband and elf children.
Then there was a shawl, too, lavender, light and lofty, knit from a kind of
Shetland wool with an even and steady gauge. The moth holes seem to dance on the
perfectly knit and purl stitches.
I brought the socks and the shawl to the counter and asked Todd, the owner,
“I bought them at an estate sale,” he told me.
I lectured Todd a bit about his purchases. Did he know the socks were knit
toe up? Interesting, I added, It is a clue about where was this knitter from I
continued. I was fascinated and my children, my best social critics, were too
busy trying on clothes to stop me from chatting and speculating about the
knitter's style and work.
Todd listened and waited patiently and then he said, “There were needles,
too, bone, I think. Would you be interested?”
“Yes, always,” I told Todd. And I thought about how lucky I was. I would
soon have some piece of local knitting history. I’m not sure why wool and
needles, shawls and socks, and a knitter I never knew, meant so much to me on
that sweltering summer day, but I was touched by the connection. It seemed as if
it was a message of sorts like the bread crumbs Hansel and Gretel had left to
make sure that they could find their way home. This knitter’s legacy might be
the story I needed to find to help me navigate through life’s journey.
Todd told me the needles were buried with the boxes of other treasures he
purchased that day. He promised me as soon as he unpacked some of the boxes, he’
d let me know. Meantime, I had the socks and shawl and a long hot summer with
three kids home from school ahead of me.
Months later Todd ran into my husband at our food co-op. “Tell Michelle, I
have the knitting stuff she wanted,” he said. “Have her drop by any time.”
The very next day, I made it to the store. Behind the counter, a box, thin
and narrow decorated with delicate flowers was waiting for me. It formerly held
perfumed rectangles of soap. And inside this box, the treasures; hand craved
bone knitting needles and crocket hooks, and folded crisply, tucked under the
cardboard package of six, size 1 stainless steel, double pointed knitting
needles was a World War Two, Red Cross knitting pattern leaflet, with
instructions for knitting gloves for our serviceman.
The discovery of the pattern made me more than mindful of the moment and time
and place. It was as if this knitter had carefully packed all her needles and
instructions for me, the next knitter. The pattern was not creased or worn. What
did that mean? Did bad news, a son or loved one killed in the war, cause her to
put away her needles and the pattern? Or did she put it all away for the next
knitter, for the next war, because her war was finally over and her woodsman or
elf child would soon return home?
I made myself a cup of hot tea. I sat down in my knitting chair with the tea
on the chair’s arm and my new needles and hooks, my gift from an unknown Iowa
knitter resting in my lap. The wind was howling outside. The sky was heavy and
gray. Maybe snow that night. Or the next day. Soon, surely. The tea was very
hot. I drank it from a cup and saucer that had belonged to my mother. A knitter,
also. There was a purple iris on the side of cup and gold rim. A bone china
special purchased in 1960’s by my mother at the Central Market grocery stores.
I tried out the carved bone crochet hook. I have never seen or used bone
before. Only read about it. I took some of my leftover sock yarn and made some
simple crochet patches. I tested the needles, too. I could use the patches for
an afghan. My oldest would be going away to college in a year and it would be
grand to give her a warm patchwork cover, slowly and carefully knit with these
carved needles. They were made to last longer than a lifetime and that is how
long I hoped my gifts to my daughter would last.
I worked a pattern and drank my tea. Life, I thought. This is it. Raise kids,
do honest work, stay healthy and sane, nurture your relationships, try and grow
old with grace. Amidst all this, knitting a warm blanket, a lavender shawl or a
pair of sturdy socks does seem like a simple, special gift. The socks, darned
and worn again and again, the shawl, still light and warm, softer from use. And
the carved needles, hooks smooth for years of use get put away and then are