Read an Excerpt
PART ONE: What's in My Head
OK, So Who's Normal, Anyway? Obsessions Knitting Up a Storm
E. B. CLUTTER
Patsy Schubert has one. It's pink angora with tiny pink-and-white pompoms along the front edge and candy-striped ties and it looks terrific with her ponytail, especially when she's skating. I'm ten, a year younger than Patsy, and I wear a ponytail too and Friday nights I go to the rink too and I want one. I know I'm a clumsy skater, but maybe a very cool skate hat will help my performance. And if not, at least I'll look the part.
My mother, who can knit with her eyes shut or while watching TV or relaxing on the lawn and who's been knitting since she was six, listens as I describe my new heart's wish. "A headband," she says when I show her where it sits on the head and how it ties under the chin with strings. "Yes, it sounds quite simple if you want to make one." Not the answer I wanted. The answer I was hoping for was "Sure, sweetie, I'll make it for you this afternoon, while the cake is in the oven!" But I can see what's in her mind and she sees that I can see. "High time," she says with a half-smile. "You know Margaret's daughters all knit and so do Eva's and Sarah's," she adds, naming just a few of her sisters whose girls were all eager, as they were growing, to take up useful skills. Though I've always had these excellent examples before me, and though I am my mother's only girl, I'm not interested in learning anything that will take me off the playground or away from my beloved books.
"Look through my wools. I can start you today, if you like."
"Well, I do have to go to school, you know . . ."
She smiles as I frown. I know what she's thinking—one day of learning in her kitchen would do me much more good than a day in my grade-six classroom. She's keen on preparing me for running a household. It runs in her family. Her many relations pride themselves on marrying off their daughters while still in their teens. I have two cousins who each had a big engagement ring at sixteen and a huge wedding at seventeen. Now they're both overweight old ladies in their twenties and always yelling at their screaming kids. I have no intention of ever babysitting.
I have no intention of ever being anything like them. A decade later, when I'm in university, I will tell stories about these girls and laugh knowingly about the fifties. But not now. Now I'm ten. I love to write and I'm excellent in math. I've even skipped a grade and that's why I'm in the same class as Patsy. I find all housewifey things boring. But I do want a skate hat and though Patsy doesn't really talk to me, I know from what I've heard that Patsy's aunt made hers. My mom could so easily make one for me!
"Oh, look at the clock," my mother says. "You'll be late for school! Tell you what. When you get home, look through my wools. I may have a color you like, but if not we can pick up a couple of skeins when we're shopping this Saturday."
"We don't have to go downtown, do we?" I whine, but I'm already planning. "Okay, I want it two-tone, baby blue and white!" I say, grabbing up a slice of toast to finish on the way. "With pompoms!"
"Three skeins, then," calls my mother as I run out the door.
All that day I'm picturing me wearing my creation to the rink next time I go with my friends. "This really keeps my ears warm!" I'll say, or, "This keeps the hair out of my eyes!" and Patsy won't be the only one to look great on the ice. People will look at me too.
That's the smooth part. What happens over the next two weeks is not. From the trip downtown—a tiring day filled with chores—to the choice of wools and needles, to the size of pompoms and placement of stripes, all is discord and argument—the permanent storm that is me and Mom. Me and the needles don't get on well either as I knit and rip, knit and rip. I can't get the tension right, I miscount the stripe rows and my decrease section is a woozy patch. I manage to get five good pompoms but they're bigger than they should be and they hang limply rather than peek coyly over the edge. Mom hovers with her own needles, demonstrating and advising, but she won't do my work. "Those are your needles. You should never hand your needles to anyone."
Good advice. But my temper flares over and over. Just when I really want her help she refuses. I persevere, and in the end I have what I want. A finished hat. Sort of. I wear it anyway. I'm earlier to the rink than usual and none of my friends are there yet.
"What's that on your head?" is the first thing I hear, before I've even laced on my skates. It's from this new kid, Brian, hoping to make friends among the boys by jeering at a girl. Usually people ignore him. This time others take up the call, looking and pointing. Soon Patsy herself skates over and laughs openly. Right beside her, her best friend Arlene stares in a disbelieving way and says loudly, "She's trying to copy you!"
"Yeah, and she stinks at it!" someone else adds. And from David, who always asks me for math homework answers and I give them, I hear, "Those pompoms look like dog-doo." They all skate off in a bunch, leaving me on my own. I am mortified. I want to cringe and sulk, but my hat stays where it is. By the time my friends arrive, I have a stomachache and have to leave early.
But the next week at school, a few of my friends ask me how I made my hat. "Easy!" I say. "I'm gonna fix mine, so if you get needles and wool, I can show you!" Over the next few days five of us eat lunch quickly and knit secretly in an empty classroom and the next skate night we're all there, wearing our wonky hats, smiling and smirking to a high pitch. There's Patsy off to one side pretending to be special, and on the other side of the rink there's us, whooping it up and having a grand time. "This really keeps my ears warm," we call to each other, and "Yeah, it really keeps the hair off my face!"
By the end of winter, there isn't a girl in my class who doesn't have a skate hat and I feel responsible. Show-off Patsy, feeling much mocked, has stopped wearing hers. Poor kid. Not the sharpest crayon in the box and since she has nothing new to show us, no longer a style maven either. But that's the adult me recalling her. The ten-year-old me is overjoyed. A decade later in the sixties, when I'm in university and into taking action against social injustice, I will consider this to be my first big success.
But in the meantime there's a lot of heavy weather to ride. Things at home get pretty frosty as I hit sixteen and still I cling to my own ideas. Mom and I are constantly colliding. For one thing, I'm not interested in getting engaged and I insist on finishing high school. I know she's envious of her sisters' success with their daughters—all of them apparently great household managers. I know she wants me to be the same. And I'm not. I even veer from knit to crochet—it's the time of mod vests and caps after all, and I'm a girl of my time.
I imagine over the years she takes a verbal beating from her sisters for her wayward daughter. Perhaps she's been agreeing with them all along, hanging her head in shame for my lack of useful skills, having nothing of her own to add when the bragging turns to sons-in-law, babies, and new homes in the suburbs. "Emma's so different," I imagine them telling my mother politely to her face. But the one time it happens in front of me, Mom brings them all up short. "Different!?" she demands. "Do you mean not talented? My Emma can knit! And crochet! And she goes to university. Which of your daughters ever did that?"
In the stunned silence I feel the two of us knit, the way a broken bone knits. Mended. Storm ended. Not forever but for now. And later in life I award Mom more credit still. In at least one skill, she caught me and taught me when I was eager to learn. In teaching we call that readiness. In life it's called good timing.
My name is Charmian and I'm a knitoholic.
I used to convince myself I was just a social knitter—you know, exchanging fixes for dropped stitches, discussing which brands pill the worst, who has the best colors. But I've come to realize I've got a problem that's bigger than the sixty-eight skeins of wool stashed about the house, three boxes of patterns under the bed, twenty-six circular needles, and thirteen double-pointed needle sets, combined.
It's time to face facts. I'm a classic binge knitter.
I can go months without picking up a needle or even thinking about that Lagoon Blue skein of 100 percent virgin New Zealand lamb's wool tucked behind the bookcase. But when the stress of winter sets in, my fingers begin to itch and before I know it, I'm saying to myself, "Just a row or two." And for a few days, I'll be able to control it.
But two rows lead to four, four turn to eight, and soon I'm only working my day job to support my habit. Even if I can keep it to a skein a day, it's expensive. I'm into the good stuff—pure wool, silk blends. None of this watered-down acrylic or synthetic nylon nonsense.
Weekends are the toughest. Three skeins of pure virgin wool can fly like nobody's business. I start Friday night and emerge Monday morning, bleary-eyed with aching fingers. I know it's bad when I start padding the bottom of the wool basket with toilet paper, hoping against hope no one will notice. But notice they do. A new sleeve or a finished button band is a dead giveaway. I confess, I've even worked on multiple projects to make life appear normal, but it always catches up with me. You can't hide three half-finished sweaters forever.
I haven't always been like this. I kept it together fairly well in high school. Sure, I tried a few rows, but I could take it or leave it. Then in university, away from the watchful eye of my parents, I began experimenting with monochrome stocking stitch and quickly moved up to Icelandic sweaters. To this day, Alafoss Lopi can make my head spin. Those ski sweaters called for three colors, but it was straight knitting and I thought I could handle it. Pretty soon, I found myself dabbling with Fair Isles and then—bam! I was into the hard stuff. Aran knits with cables so complex you'd stand a better chance untying the Gordian knot.
It's hardest during the festive season when my friends show me their Christmas patterns and hand me a ball of the latest yarn, expecting me to stroke a skein of Rowan as if it were nothing more than twisted thread. As I brush the wool against my cheek, I can almost taste the designer color--pistachio. Those who don't know my story give me gift certificates to The Yarn Barn or discount coupons. If only they knew the damage they're doing.
Winter's setting in. According to the Farmer's Almanac it's going to be a long, cold one too. But this year will be different. I've got clarity and perspective. I've got willpower.
I've got a 20 percent-off coupon.
A pair of thrum mittens for my niece, or a scarf, can't hurt. . . .
Don't Knit and Drive
From the Trade Paperback edition.