Monday, September 25, 2006

Argyle Socks and Family Secrets

You've seen that argyle sock before. My mother knitted it some fifty years ago but she never knit the mate. Maybe the argyle fad had finally faded away (I don't know why; I love them) and she decided it wasn't worth the dpn time. Or maybe my father hadn't expressed the proper appreciation for the pairs that came before this one and she decided to turn her needle love toward her only child. Who knows? Whatever the reason, that sock is the last of its breed.

A friend of mine got blindsided this weekend by Family Secrets. I don't know what they were but I do know she's hurting. I also know exactly how she's feeling. My parents died in 2001. In the five months between my mother's death and my father's, I learned things I hadn't even suspected about my family. (How would you like to find out that your grandmother [and everyone else] had hidden a husband from you and that hidden husband was your biological grandfather? And that's just for starters.)

The thing is, do we really know the people we love? Can we ever know them? Another friend said to me once, "I know everything there is to know about my mother. No surprises there." And yes, ultimately the surprise was on her when the secrets came rushing out.

The mother-daughter dynamic is a complicated one. We are assigned roles within the family at birth and fifty years later there we are, still playing by the rules. Not asking the tough questions. Accepting the easy answers. Wondering how all these dramas manage to play out in plain sight without us even noticing.

I mean, why didn't I ever ask my mother how to knit in the round? It's okay if you laugh. I know that sounds crazy and maybe it is.
But the fact remains that for fifty years my mother was the one who did circular knitting and I was the one who wondered how she did it.

I never asked. She never volunteered. Within our family dynamic, she was The Knitter and I was The Crocheter and never that particular twain shall meet. Why didn't I ask? Would the earth have stopped spinning on its axis if I had? Would she have disowned me? Of course not. She would have sat me down and taught me the basics and I would have either picked up on it right away or pushed it aside and said it wasn't for me. Either way we would have been fine.

Or would we? There's the question. With mothers and daughters you never quite know how it will play out. When our pooches needed new sweaters, it was my mother who whipped out the double points then whipped up the garments while I watched in awe. I was happy with the status quo. We both probably were but, since I never asked, I'll never really know.

So many questions I wish I'd asked. The huge box of haute couture Barbie Doll clothes she hand-sewed for me one magical Christmas. The afghans scattered around my house. The hooked rugs. The oils and watercolors. The secrets she held closer than close.

I was thinking about my friend last night and her own family secrets as I rummaged through my mother's tiny knitting box in search of the fifth double point so I could scan the images. Bobbins wound with colorful yarn. Half-skeins of pale yellow and mint green. And one tapestry needle threaded with wool the color of a rainy day.

Sometime in the early 1950s in the Borough of Queens in NYC my mother threaded that needle then tucked it away in her knitting box. Fifty years later in central NJ I found that threaded needle and wished with all my heart I could have five more minutes with the woman who held the secret to the argyle socks.



Blogger Dallas Schulze said...

Barbara - If only that sock could talk, what a wonderful glimpse it could give you into another time and place.

It seems to me that death always leaves behind a lot of questions. Sometimes, there are big questions - Did you really love me? Why were you so sad all the time?

Sometimes the big questions have been answered but, no matter how open their life was, no matter how well you knew them, everyone leaves behind a lot of little questions like: Why didn't you finish that sock? What were you going to mend with that threaded needle?

Of course, based on my own years of knitting/sewing/quilting, I know that most unfinished projects don't have any special story behind them. My life is littered with quilt blocks I never assembled into a quilt and quilt tops that were never quilted and now we can add in knitting projects.

If I quit knitting now, I'd abandon 20 unfinished projects. What if I just dropped them all in a box and forgot about them? I wonder if, fifty years from now, someone might open a musty old box and sort through it, wondering why I didn't finish any of the eight pairs of socks I have going or what was the story behind that half finished Peacock Feather Shawl.

Maybe it's the writer in us that makes us see stories in the little things. Maybe civilians - non-writers - don't sit and contemplate the unfinished socks and wonder what stories they could tell.

When my husband's uncle died, we cleaned out the house where he had lived for 80 years. That was seven years ago and the little mysteries still tease at me. Why did he save that ticket stub from an opera he saw in 1948? Did he go with a woman he loved? Was it a particularly good performance? Did he just drop the stub in his jewelry box and never got around to throwing it out? What about the lady's linen handkerchief wrapped in yellowing tissue paper that he so carefully preserved? Who did it belong to? Why did he save it? Treasured momento of his mother? His grandmother? A lover?

I'll never know the answers, just as you'll never know for sure why your mother threaded that needle. For me, it's curiosity and a writer's nose for a story that may or may not be there. For you, there's a much more personal connection. In either case, I think, maybe, in the wondering, we confer a kind of immortality on the departed. We touch the objects they left behind - the tangibles that are all we have left - and for just a moment, they’re a part of this world again. Bittersweet comfort perhaps.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Barbara Bretton said...

Dallas, yes to everything you said. For me there's something about the threaded needle that shook me up more than her notebooks or sketch pads or even the more intimate, every day things that support our lives. I almost felt (and this might sound crazy) that her fingers had touched that needle just yesterday and maybe if I move fast enough we could connect for a second.

It's probably the strongly emotional connection I have with needlework at play here. It's all tangled up with home and family and rainy afternoons working on a project with her while other mothers cleaned house or did something domestic in a different way. Our kitchen table was always cluttered with oil paints and canvases and sewing projects and books and puzzles -- you had to sweep them aside with your arm to make room for the dinner plates.

Not many papers existed after my grandmother died. Much had been lost in an apartment fire fifteen years earlier. But I found a photo of her snapped on a Long Island beach -- she's in a bathing costume and all over this guy (also in a bathing costume) like a cheap suit. (Sorry, but she was literally hanging on him.) His name was Prince Mohindin. The place was Glen Cove, Long Island. And at the time I thought my grandmother was a married woman! I asked my family, "WHO IS THIS GUY?" and they brushed it off. "Oh, an Indian Prince your grandmother knew."

WHAT!?!?!? Turns out my grandmother wasn't a married woman at the time. Turns out there's a whole lot of story there I'd love to discover but everyone who knew anything is dead or just not talking.

And yes, I agree that writers could make an adventure out of going to the bank. (Anyone else reluctant to go to the bank when the Brinks truck is there? I always figure if I know when the Brinks truck arrives the bad guys do too and I picture masked robbers bursting in with their faces hidden beneath a pair of knee-highs, Kalashnikovs blazing, me tossed to the ground like a bag of flour, screaming, gunfire, sirens, alarms -- all in the second it takes me to decide to use the drive-through instead.)

2:23 PM  
Blogger georg said...

I learned more about my Gram in the time of her death than I had ever held close to me while she was alive. This was the most depressing thing about her passing.

My family too has some secrets... I didn't know I was related (by marriage only!) to my husband until the wedding planning was well underway. His grandmother's second marriage was to my great-grandfather, as his second marriage, and I didn't even know either had a second marriage.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I use my grandmothers' needles (a mix of their two collections). But what I treasure most are my grandmother's little pair of folding scissors. Nothing fancy, just a pair of folding scissors with a braid of green and white yarn attached to one end and their own little needlepointed case to keep them in. For some crazy reason I always feel close to her every time I pull them out of my knitting bag.

7:02 PM  
Blogger LauraP said...

Barbara - it's good to know I'm not alone in my Brinks truck imaginings. ;> 'Tis our nature to wonder why, then come up with a dozen possible scenarios.

I have that strong emotional connection to the women in my family through the needlework, too. It's not just the memories of shared moments. It's knowing that my movements mirror those of my ancestors, the women whose lives and actions shaped the family I was born into, who taught those who taught me. It's a continuous thread of knowing, of being, that stretches through time and connects me to that which came before and that which will come after. Circle of life, and all that. It's comforting and empowering at the same time.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Jamie Denton said...

Barbara - Hugs to your friend. I know what it's like. When the DH's mother passed away - almost 20 years ago - the skeletons that fell out of the closet left bruises.

What was even stranger to me was how the two oldest boys knew about this stuff and didn't bother to mention it to the three younger ones.

Family can be a very strange dynamic.

12:46 AM  

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