When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop.
Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans for what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store. Jesse wants to keep the store open. His brothers want to tie off loose ends and close shop....
Part-time shop employee Kerry Fuller has kept her crush on Jesse a secret. When she overhears his impassioned plea to his brothers to keep the knitting shop open, she volunteers to help. Unlike Jesse, Kerry knows the “knitty-gritty” of the business, and together they make plans to reinvent Strong Knits for a new generation.
But the more time they spend together, the stronger the chemistry builds between them. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe their relationship can last longer than she can knit one, purl two. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her forever and always. After all, real men knit.
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There was nothing cute about the first time Kerry Fuller met Jesse Strong.
He broke her glasses, she bloodied his nose and they both ended up in a tangle of yarn on the floor in the loft space of Strong Knits being scolded by Mama Joy.
What she wouldn't give to be scolded by the older woman just one more time, Kerry thought as she adjusted her dark-framed glasses and purposefully pushed aside the almost-long-forgotten childhood memory. She glanced over at the front window of Strong Knits, the Harlem yarn shop that had been so much a part of her life growing up.
Any other day Kerry would have loved walking through the doors of Strong Knits. It had been that way since she had first stepped foot in the little knitting shop where she'd worked part-time for the better part of the last ten years and pretty much just hung out for most of her childhood years before that, making it her unlikely sanctuary. A place of calm in the midst of the chaos that was the concrete jungle of upper Manhattan. But this day was anything but normal. Despite the summer sun, warm and glinting off the freshly cleaned windows, showcasing the vintage baskets overflowing with color from the brand-new yarns that Mama Joy had gotten in barely two weeks before, Kerry still felt a chill run through her body that sent goose pimples rippling across her bare forearms.
Even the cute little display to the right of the baskets with fake ice-cream cones made of balls of finely spun cotton in creamy sherbet colors couldn't bring a smile to her lips, when they'd brought her nothing but delight just a little over a week before. But smiling now, and the memory of Mama Joy and those cones, caused Kerry's heart to ache way too much.
When she and Mama Joy had put the display together, it was with much happiness and no idea of the sorrow to come. No, all they could think of then was the smiles of the passersby when they saw the new yarns displayed in the whimsical not quite ice-cream cones. Mama Joy knew the children in the neighborhood would love it. And she was right. They did. Folks came in and immediately asked for those yarns. Little faces glowed when they saw the display and brown eyes lit with delight upon seeing the colorful cones.
But like the dynamo she was, Mama Joy had already been anticipating the next display, looking forward to what they would be doing for the fall. She had been excited about showcasing something even better for the neighborhood kids come the end of August with the new shipments on the way.
Kerry felt a weight suddenly lay heavy on her chest. What would happen to those yarns now? What would they do now that Mama Joy was no longer here to help navigate the changes that the new season would bring? Kerry peered through the glass of the door once more, noticing the darkness in the shop uncharacteristic, for the hour of the day. If this had been a normal day, the lights would already be on in the back of the shop and right around this time Mama Joy would be stepping forward to unlock the door and wave her in. Kerry let out a sigh as the fact that she'd never be greeted by that wave, or Mama Joy's easy smile, ever again took the air clear out of her lungs.
Oh well, she couldn't just stand here wallowing in her feelings. Instead, Kerry swallowed and physically forced them down as she reached out and gave the buzzer on the side of the door three short rings. She waited. One breath and then another. Two more rings. Longer and steadier this time. She moved to the side and rang the bell to chime up at the residence upstairs. Come on, Jesse, where are you? Noah? Lucas? She knew Damian would probably not be there, but she thought that maybe Noah and Lucas would have stayed over since they were all supposed to meet up here later anyway.
Disappointment blanketed her shoulders for a moment at the silent response to her ring. Why weren't the brothers together? Especially at a time like this? Sure, Lucas could have stayed over at the firehouse where he was stationed and lived most of the time, and maybe Noah went back to the place he was subletting with the other tour dancers, and knowing Damian, he didn't want anything to mess up his usual well-ordered routine so he'd probably gone back to his own apartment. But still, she expected Jesse to be there. Kerry felt her brows draw together. Who was she fooling? When it came to Jesse Strong, who knew what rock he was burrowed under this morning? The thought brought with it a sizzle of anger that shot quickly through Kerry's spine, followed immediately by an intense feeling of guilt.
She could at least cut Jesse some slack, today of all days. Yes, her thinking was perfectly logical, but it was uncharitable and uncalled for, nonetheless. Especially since Jesse was hurting just as much as she was-hell, probably even more so-with it being the day after Mama Joy's funeral. She may call Ms. Joy "Mama Joy," like most of the young people in the neighborhood, but to Jesse, Lucas, Noah and Damian, she was their mother. The only one that mattered. The only one in this world who stuck around and took the time to truly make them a part of her family. Kerry knew if she was feeling this level of grief and uncertainty, then what must Jesse and his brothers be going through having just lost the only mother they'd ever been able to call their own?
She pressed the shop's buzzer again, then hit the side buzzer one more time. Still no answer. Oh well, she guessed Jesse wasn't there. He probably hadn't wanted to spend last night home above the shop alone. And who knows, maybe he ended up staying over at Damian's. Kerry felt her lips tighten, knowing how unlikely that was, given how well the two of them got along. Nope, more likely than not, Jesse was crashed underneath whatever woman he was currently seeing or hooking up with. She sighed. There she was being petty once again. How was it that thoughts of Jesse brought out the "Call me Petty Patty" side in her so easily?
Reaching into her tote bag to pull out her spare set of keys to let herself into the shop, Kerry hesitated. It shouldn't be too much of a problem just letting myself in. Right? Mama Joy had given her the keys ages ago as a backup and Kerry had promised the brothers she'd meet them this morning to help with sorting things out while they discussed the future of . . . well, everything.
Kerry feared that after today the Strong brothers would officially state out loud what she'd assumed after hearing that Mama Joy had suddenly died. That Strong Knits and all that went with it would be no more. A Harlem institution here and gone in what felt like too short a breath, just like the amazing woman who had made it great.
With a last sigh Kerry finally let herself into the shop. The weight of the old wooden door seemed heavier than ever before. It couldn't be an easy decision for any of the brothers to make. The least she could do was have coffee on for them when they arrived.
As she stepped inside the shop, the light tinkle of the overhead bell made her half smile while bringing a tear to her eye and a painful tug to the center of her chest. She knew it was just her imagination, but it was as if she could still smell the scent of Mama Joy's cinnamon biscuits. The ones she'd make special on Wednesdays for her senior knitting circle, self-dubbed the OKG-Old Knitting Gang. Kerry was their honorary little sister and, in a way, their mascot from early on. She guessed now maybe Ms. Cherry and the rest of the crew would meet at the senior center or one of the women's houses. She made a mental note to get all their contact info so she could still help them with getting yarns online. Not that they'd let her get too far out of reach, mind you. They were just not that type of crew. The OKG felt more Godfather than Junior League, meaning that once you were in the family there really was no way out except one, and sadly, Mama Joy had made her way out.
Still, Kerry knew she owed much to both Mama Joy and her friends in the OKG. No, there wasn't much you could get past them, but she and many on the block were grateful for it. Around here, it wasn't always cool to go the "if you see something, say something" route. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but facts were facts, and there definitely hadn't always been the most amiable relationship between residents and the NYPD. Folks had to learn a different way to help each other out with neighborhood watches and small groups of friends who became family when 911 didn't always show up like the cavalry, and at times you didn't know who was the protector and who was the predator. So yeah, Kerry owed them and Mama Joy a lot, and it went further than yarn and double stitches.
At first they taught her to crochet, going from chain stitches to granny squares, then, as she grew in age and skill, moving on to knitting scarves and hats, then from there onto anything she could imagine. But more than the projects, it was the comfort she got just being welcomed into their group when she'd stop by early before school and then after school instead of sitting at home alone for hours on end, listening to the constant fighting between her upstairs neighbor and her horrible husband as Kerry waited for her own ma to get off work. Or more importantly, during those times when her ma had her own problematic love she'd dragged into their lives and Kerry just wanted an escape.
Either way, Mama Joy had long given up on believing or listening to Kerry's excuses for stopping in and just started setting a biscuit and yarn aside for her, having it all ready, the biscuit wrapped in a paper towel alongside a cup of sweet hot chocolate when she was little, and later coffee when her beverage habits changed in high school.
Kerry closed her eyes a moment. Would she really never hear Mama Joy's voice again? "Come on in, child, and get you some nourishment before you pass out. You need this strength with the way things are out there. A woman's got to have all her wits about her."
"Damn straight," Ms. June would chime in while not breaking stride in her stitch work.
"Amen to that," Sister Purnell would say, topping off yet another hat or scarf for her church homeless drive or Ms. Cherry's Angel Tree kids.
Kerry smiled, the pain now excruciating. Little did Mama Joy know that just being in those women's presence was all the nourishment that she'd needed. Probably it was all anyone really needed when they took refuge in her little shop. Sure, people may have initially come for the yarns or the knitting or crochet needles or patterns, but it was Mama Joy's seemingly never-ending wellspring of love and sacrifice, which somehow didn't come off as a sacrifice, that kept her and everyone else in the neighborhood coming back.
A small smile or a hug from Mama Joy and, well, you felt like you'd just had the best meal of your life. Cinnamon biscuit or not.
Kerry felt lucky to have been on the receiving end of that hug or whatever Mama Joy was giving out. A fact that in the beginning was both a blessing and a sore spot for her mother. She was a single parent who worked two jobs that barely added up to one. And a young mother on top of it-who, yes, Kerry was sure, she guessed, tried her best to be mature. But at times the dip-and-do bug grabbed her and she didn't really want the responsibility that came with the constant mothering of an introverted kid.
Though Kerry's mother had her reservations about Kerry spending so much time in the shop, when her mother wanted time to herself or the apartment got a little tight for more than two, well then, Mama Joy and Strong Knits became just that much more of a tolerable solution.
Still, the sticking point that brought up problems between Kerry, her mother and any other neighborhood person with a curious mind and flapping gums was the other elephant in the shop, or four elephants, as it were. Specifically, Mama Joy's four adopted sons-Damian, Lucas, Noah and Jesse-and the fact that they were in and out of the shop while Kerry was spending so much time there.
Kerry thought of her mother, the neighborhood gossips and talk of her and the guys, and snorted to herself. As if her being around ever mattered to the Strong brothers.
Brought in from the foster system to live with Mama Joy when they were all in grade school, the boys ended up being adopted by Mama Joy and taking on her last name of Strong when they were in high school-and by then each was in some way ironically living up to the Strong surname. Kerry was constantly, even still to this day, questioned by her mother and anyone else with half a curious mind about her relationship with the guys and which one of them she was dating. As if any of them thought of her as little more than "Kerry Girl," the shop fixture and a general nuisance to be tolerated.
Though Kerry's mother was fine with her spending time in the shop and learning about knitting and business from Mama Joy, she could never quite get behind her daughter being in constant close proximity to the Strong brothers. Who knew-maybe her mother was right. With her track record for sniffing out heartbreakers and, let's face it, general assholes, she was a bit of an expert in the field. Not that her mother had learned anything, being currently lost in love on yet another potential would-be asshole binge. Kerry prayed that this one would be the last. She'd had it with her mother's disasters and, afterward, having to pick up the pieces. Besides, this last one had taken her ma clear out of state and given Kerry their apartment to herself. She loved her mom, but she loved having her own place almost as much.
Reading Group Guide
REAL MEN KNIT by Kwana Jackson
Questions for Discussion
1. What did you think about Mama Joy’s character and how her presence lingers with each of the major characters in REAL MEN KNIT, though we don’t get to meet her in person?
2. REAL MEN KNIT is very much a story of community. What did you think of the OKG (Old Knitting Gang) and how they play into the story and the community? Were there any people like this in your life? Did you have a favorite member of the OKG?
3. Do you feel the way Jesse dealt with his grief by pouring himself into Strong Knits was healthy?
4. Do you feel Kerry’s way of dealing with her grief by helping Jesse reopen the shop was healthy?
5. The sibling bonds are strong (no pun intended) between the Strong brothers, and the fact that besides Lucas and Noah there is not a biological connection between the brothers doesn’t change the strength of their bond. What do you think of that fact and what it illustrates about what really defines a family?
6. What do you think of the personality differences between the Strong brothers? How are they different but also similar?
7. Who is your favorite Strong brother?
8. What do you think of the fact that all the Strong brothers knit? Are there any male knitters in your life?
9. What do you think of Jesse’s grand gesture and declaration at the end? Did it show his true feelings for her? Was it satisfying, and was Kerry’s response and the conclusion satisfying?
10. Are you crafty? Did reading REAL MEN KNIT bring out your crafty or romantic side, or both?