Sittin' Knittin'


Rain beat against the windows of a yarn shop far out in the Maryland countryside. Facing a tall wall of wool, I could feel a deluge of small decisions dissolve a cold resolve not to take on a project at all. No parent resists fervor on the face of a child. In the attic, rummaging through an old trunk, my teen-ager had come upon a scrap of a blanket wrapped in tissue. "This was mine?" she asked, handing it to me, "You knit this for me?" Her eyes lit up. "Can you knit a sweater for me?"

My eyes fell to the bundle of stitches cradled in my lap, an artifact of early marriage when I was welcomed by a circle of sisters who found time to knit, inspired by a mother whose handwork is legendary. Curled up in a chair, just sittin' knittin' long into the night, she shapes sweaters, caps, hats, lap robes, afghans, jolly gray elephants, bedspreads bordered with yards of ecru lace. As a bride new to Baltimore, who lost stitches as often as temper, ground, heart, I walked from our house, hidden by high green hedges, up the street to hers. "Can you find the design for me?"

When she moved last year, to our attic came a tin box of needles, stacks of pattern books, sacks of yarn, and to our dining room a hand-carved chest. Each time I lifted the lid and looked at the work inside, I could feel a flash in my fingers. One never forgets how to knit, even when, for 17 years, one has not knit.

Domestic bliss hopelessly tangled in household hit and miss, I sent bags and boxes off to rummage sales and bundles out to the alley, but kept the balls of yarn and needles in the attic, and in the cellar a great grandmother's spinning wheel. Her generation raised sheep as does my brother, who works in a city in the Midwest by day, but lives in the country where time courses more slowly across the surface of the land, seeping, puddle by puddle, through a richer soil to seek level and roots. The summer he sheared his first flock, we took the wool to market on a hot and hazy day, but it had been cut a half-inch too short. Riding back through rolling fields almost ready for haying, I ran my fingers through clouds of wool.

I remember the slick feel of lanolin as rain rattles the windows at the end of a dim corridor at Peabody where I sit in a pool of silence, listening for the faint sound of piano scales -- and knitting. I watch my fingers and needles from the tin box lock loops of wool into leaves of blue on a field the shade of horn.

The hour seems vast and empty nor am I lost in formal thought. I could be meditating on this sweater, on how it weaves generations together, restores raveled time, smooths the snarls of hectic days. I could be solving, schematizing, making plans and lists. But handwork, like housework, is an exercise in repetition that for 17 years I have thought it a pleasure not to have to do. Pulling yarn off a shelf, I resigned myself to knit in this hallway as I sit in this hallway: out of love for a child.

As rain runs down the windows and scales shift to nocturne and stiches slide from one needle to the next, the hour I spend seems cavernous. Tomorrow it will be lost in the larger enterprise that is a life, but tonight time passes even more slowly than the miles will pass on the long ride home. Tomorrow will see a distancing of today, but today I've stopped thinking about tomorrow.

In the span of a row of stiches, I think very little: how the soft wool just matches the blue of my child's deep eyes, how her eyes match this hank of lambswool, blue as a Maryland sky. Knitting, stitching, baking, sweeping, hanging clothes out to dry in the slant of a winter sun -- each is a species of chore, but then so are sowing and reaping.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Writing and Media Department at Loyola College.

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