I visited my parents in the desert. My mother shared her wisdom on various things.
The efflorescing flora all around.
Family history, seen through a series of silver demitasse spoons.
They belonged to Lockie Hilllis Coats, my great grandmother, shown here in 1894.
The personalities of various seniors my mother lives with, who mingle and gossip like kids in a college dorm. She and my father have a charmed life at their retirement community. Though that sounds like almost too technical a name for a place with stretching gardens, a comfortable, well-thumbed library and big open doors onto a sun-flooded patio. They adore it.
I began to miss them even before I stepped on the plane back.
My mother shared something else with me. Her collection of hand-knitted sweaters. Some are the cherished work of matriarchs on both sides of my family. Each branch seems to have had a gene for needlework, or perhaps it was just in the water of their generation. To an avid novice knitter like me they gave great inspiration.
My great aunt, known to me as Auntie, produced a color blast of a harlequin-patterned cardigan for my mother. Auntie became a renowned home ec teacher in rural Tennessee and was the kind of adept who could knit and purl in a pitch-black movie theater without dropping a stitch. Tatting was her main thing, and carefully put away in storage I have the openwork pieces she wrought – in the dozens, if not hundreds.
For the triangle-themed sweater my mother laid out on her bed, Auntie took a different approach.
There was not only this one, it seems, but identical garments for two other women, my mother’s sister Sandra and her mother Virginia. Were they intended to wear them all at once? My mother pronounced the pattern gaudy if beautiful. Good for the circus, not for her.
On the other side of the family, the delicate crochet-work stole of my Aunt Gus, my grandfather’s sister, posed prettily here with Jack.
Yellowed now but preserved in one of my mother’s sensible moth-guarding plastic bags.
And a knitted short-sleeved sweater decorated with appliqued circles like suns and tiny pearls. Perfect size and retro styling for Maud, who has it now at school.
Then, moving away from family, came the popcorn sweater from New Zealand.
Each wool bubble intricately worked out of the body of the sweater.
Also from New Zealand, this blue and brown beauty.
And a lacy pink number with ballooning sleeves that has appeared at various special occasions.
Pink, also, but kind of crazy, the zig zags hailing from Holland, where my mother tells me she saw all the women sit out on their stoeps and ply their needles.
A loden from Germany with the kind of cables I long to make.
And the oldest one, from Italy, darkest blue and fuzzy yet almost scratchy.
Touching the handiwork of women from around the world, created so many years ago, is a rich experience, shared in a bedroom in the desert.
Then my mother brought out a wrap, teal ribs, with not-well-hidden knots where the yarn was joined. Amateur hour.
You made this for me, she said. In college or maybe in high school.
Big question mark. I’ve only just learned to knit, in my 50s, I’m as sure of that as I am of anything in the world. When I was that young the notion of wielding pointy sticks was unfathomable. I was also too silly and distracted to sit still to knit.
But my mother insisted. You did this, she said. You.
So was this actually knit? Was it crochet? Which I did have the patience for back then. Or woven out from some other material, or done in some secret life I have no memory of, or something that my mother in her wisdom invented? Or imagined?
It is teal, it is made by hand, and she has worn it many times. That’s what matters.