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It's been a really rotten day. It's cold and rainy; I have a headache from a combination of the weather and last night's insomnia; bad things, sad things and make-me-mad things have peppered my day; and now the dinner I'm making is not only going to be late, but it doesn't look so great either.
I reach for the sweater, pushing my arms through the wide sleeves and I notice that it's inside out. No matter, it works that way too. I begin to feel a semblance of calm.
Do I have a magic sweater? Not really. I have what my family calls "the feel-better sweater."
It is a sweater that my mother knitted close to 60 years ago. It used to be white, and is now a colour that you will never see on any decorator's palette. Although my mother was a fashionable woman, this sweater, I'm pretty certain, was never in style. It fits over anything. It has a fringe and two tiny, useless pockets.
I remember my mother putting it on when she would come home from the full-time job and part-time university courses she took on after my father died. Being, at the time, a grieving, self-absorbed six-year-old, I had no idea how much she needed a feel-better sweater under the circumstances.
Although she was very good about cleaning out her closet and donating clothes that she wasn't wearing any more, the sweater continued to hang in her closet until she died. I'm not sure if she wore it, but I suspect she might have on occasion. I wouldn't be surprised if my teenage behaviour led to some sweater-wearing.
After she died and I was packing up and deciding what to do with her things (there were many, many things in two residences), I fought my pack rat tendencies every step of the way. I sold or donated, gave away or threw out the vast majority of what she had. By choice, I did the bulk of this task alone, working through the opaque fog of grief, with barely any recollection now of the millions of decisions I made.
Perhaps it was just serendipity that made me hang on to the sweater or maybe it was an instinct for self-preservation. Sometimes I think it was my mother, still looking after me in the best way she could.
When I put the sweater on, I am reminded that I was, and am, loved; but also, because it is an adult-sized sweater, I know that I am a grown-up, capable and in charge of myself. The work that went into the sweater, the hours my mother spent knitting it, remind me of the work she put into raising me and make me never want to let her down.
Even though it doesn’t look like much to most people, the feel-better sweater is a precious part of the legacy she left me. I doubt that my mother intended the sweater to mean so much or that she could have known the effect it would have on me, and that is a peculiar part of its appeal. I am grateful for the other things she left me, which she worked so hard for and are a more traditional part of an inheritance, but none of those things – useful, beautiful or necessary though they may be – have the same effect as the sweater.
As I get older and the generation before mine dwindles, I no longer use the hopelessly optimistic phrase “if I die.” I am hoping it won’t happen for a long time, but I know very well that eventually I will die. I wonder what I will leave my three children. A financial planner, a lawyer and a will can take care of what would be described as my estate. Those things are important, but they are not where my mind goes when I think about what I’ll be leaving behind.
I want to bequeath my children the sure knowledge that they are loved and will always be so, the memory of times when being together was the absolute best place to be, and a way to comfort and fortify themselves during trying times in their lives.
Leaving an object that’s somewhat akin to an adult version of a teddy bear and embodies some of these memories and qualities, like the feel-better sweater, is what I would like to do. However, I’m pretty sure that I can’t set out to construct, craft or knit such a thing intentionally. Things such as the feel-better sweater gain their power through the relationship of the maker and the recipient, not through the intention to provide a comfort object.
The feel-better sweater is constructed out of the contradictions that are part of good parenting. Knitted into it are things such as being there for your children, but not too much; teaching them by example how to be a good person in the world and how to recover when you mess up; and giving them the benefit of your experience and knowledge, while also knowing when to rely on theirs.
For me, the sweater is a visible and wearable symbol that I am going to be okay, that I will find my way and that I can rely on my own strength along with the wonderful things my mother gave me.
My hope is, when I’m gone, each of my children will find among my possessions something that will be a tangible reminder of how much I love them, and that they will be comforted by the memories.
Vivian Paide lives in Hamilton.