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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I felt the stranger’s gaze from across the small aisle in the surgical waiting room of the hospital. “Did you just rip out everything you knit in the last two hours?” she asked incredulously as she watched me begin to cast on new stitches to the knitting needles that had held a few inches and a few hours of a pink shawl. I nodded: “I had only 70 stitches and needed 72.″

“What a waste of time!” she shot back. I forgave her unpleasantness and attributed it to the fear and anxiety that permeates this hospital area. It was the waiting, not my ripping out stitches, that was her true complaint.

I lowered my head and continued casting on stitches, and reflected on a lifetime of memories cast from my knitting needles.

It started with my mother. Every year she knit my sister and me a mohair cardigan for the start of the school year and in preparation for the Winnipeg winter. This tradition, as we got older, acquired an emotional significance; a sweet connection to our childhood and our mother. To this day, each of us has one of the tattered and elbow-worn cardigans saved as a memento. There were also mittens, hats and scarves. And one of the hats still sits in good condition on a shelf in our closet. But the mohair sweaters were special.

My mother was always knitting. What a shock to me when she recently confessed that her knitting was her therapy that helped her survive an active, rebellious brood of four children being raised in the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” era of the 1960s and 70s. She was terrified for all of us. Her only escape was her knitting needles. Stitch by stitch she and her children managed to survive. With her confession, I realized that knitting has also been therapeutic for me – and much more.

My mother taught me to knit when I was about 6, starting first with the traditional cat-tail device of four nails that the yarn wraps round and round while a colourful tail grows from the bottom of the holder. I knit the mandatory beginner’s scarf and then abandoned the project, as it was boring for a young child.

My next knitting adventure was an awakening in Madison, Wis., where I was in graduate school and feeling the pressures of the program. One day, as I cycled to school past the knitting store on State Street, I stopped, hopped off and went inside. I was not even sure what I was seeking. The mittens in the display area caught my fancy, and I determined that I would learn to knit these sweet mittens. Too big a project for a beginner, but the store employees were kind and patient with my daily visits for instruction. The project expanded to a gift of mittens for each of my dear friends, and miraculously, the mittens saved my soul in that tense semester of studies and other life events of love and loss.

Each knitted object has a story. The tie for an old lover. He returned it by courier after our breakup. The cotton short-sleeved top whose stitches calmed me as I sat for long days knitting at my husband’s side during a hospital stay 40 years ago. Our daughter now has this top and enjoys the love and care embedded in it.

Knitters carry their projects wherever they go. Every knitter can tell you a story about a lost knitting needle at a crucial juncture of a project: I was on a cruise in Alaska. In a bizarre series of events, the needle tumbled overboard. Finding a knitting needle at ports in Alaska is like finding a needle in a haystack. But on our final day of the trip, I found a lovely knitting store and replaced my missing needle.

Knitting scarves, shawls and blankets for our daughter when they went away for university and other pursuits brought me solace as I imaged every stitch of love wrapped around my now-adult child – as once my arms protected them when they were young.

We knitters who live with cats must develop strategies to outsmart our feline friends. One of my major storage bins for yarn is inside a closet in our basement. One day, I returned home to find spider webs of yarn criss-crossing up and down the stairs and down hallways in our home. The cats had a full day of break and enter, and fun.

But perhaps the cats briefly helped my hoarding habit. This year, on the brink of my 70th birthday, I did an inventory count and realized that I would have to live to 130 and knit a sweater each week to exhaust my supply of yarn. I’ve now added a codicil to my will, specifying my yarn to a store that accepts donations.

My busy fingers wrapped in yarn have long assuaged my anxiety during medical appointments and hospital stays for friends and family. I have learned to knit while standing, and have passed the time in lineups by growing my knitting projects. I knit while on hold in telephone lineups and during insufferable Zoom meetings where my hands don’t show. Knitting during the pandemic alleviated my despair at not being able to participate in my usual volunteer activities at shelter and meal programs that had been central in my life for decades. I channelled my energy into knitting dozens of scarves to donate to a women’s shelter and this helped me feel connected to the community.

My mother’s legacy is vast, but her major life lesson from knitting is that there is a step-by-step process of building, tearing down and rebuilding. And it requires patience and a belief that stitches cast off can always find their way back on.

I smile gently at the stranger in the hospital waiting room, then continue to rip out stitches and cast them back on until I get it right.

Gilda Berger lives in Toronto.

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