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Knitting A life: Making The Remembrance Scarf

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

Last week on a particularly stormy and dark fall day I braced myself and descended the stairs to the basement. I knew I would be spending the better. part of my day sorting contents from dusty boxes covering dozens of moves through the years - some across oceans - but I wasn't prepared for what I would find...

Truthfully, I had set out to simply move a few things around to make room for Kiki's Yarn Works supplies, shipping boxes, displays, etc, but basements have their own gravitational force, and there's no escaping the pull if you're down there for more than a few minutes. So I hit play on my bluetooth speaker and decided it was time to deal with some shit.

First came the avalanche of show postcards, programs, notebooks from The Theater School at De Paul University where every character's intention, subtext and motivation was meticulously recorded for the sake of a believable portrayal. Then came photographs from New York, my apartment on 109th st, a coaster from a jazz club, headshots, my first plane ticket to Seville to study flamenco. Next box: diaries that my two best friends and I used to write notes to each other in Italy. More photographs. Next box: adoption papers for Henry, the collar he wore when I picked him up from his foster home in Chicago. Next box. And there it was. The one I wasn't prepared for...

Folded on top of some old clothes was a hand-knit long red fringed shawl. My grandmother's shawl.

This was my madeleine. The cookie that sent Proust on a 1056 page long reminiscence of his life. Except in my case it ended up being stitches, not pages.

When I was little, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's one-bedroom apartment in a pre-war building in Milan. She was born in Sicily and escaped north during the bombings in search for a better life. She worked in a panettone factory in Milan and was given a still-warm, freshly-baked panettone every year for the holidays. I remember my grandfather, a prisoner of war, who had a collection of hand-carved wood pipes on top of the bedroom bureau. I remember giggling nervously, hiding on the floor behind my grandparents bed so he could come in and pretend to look for me. I was too young to know about trauma and war and alcoholism and how they ravage a person's spirit. My grandmother had left behind ten brothers and sisters when she left Sicily, some of whom I met, others who remain a mystery. I was told that when her mother gave birth to triplets, Mussolini himself wrote her a note and sent cribs to her house in Messina. One of the babies was named Italia. I can't remember if she was the one with the son who ended up being a major rock star, but I do remember attending his wedding. For just that occasion, my grandmother took me to buy a dress with a cropped pink jacket, the same one that thirty six years later is still hanging in my closet.

I was about thirteen at the time. The age when you start losing interest in the grandparents and the things that up until then were your entire world. The age when friends start to shape who you are and you need to leave things and people behind to explore your independence and sense of self. Sometimes it translates to small cruelties: parents and grandparents start to feel irrelevant when you stop sharing information; when you hide your thoughts and emotions away because the world is big and weird and confusing and you're as thrilled as you are mortified by it all. It was all so much easier when you were little and everything was familiar and safe.

My grandmother's apartment was familiar and safe. Her routine was as comforting as the hand-knit long red shawl that she grabbed from the radiator every morning and threw over her shoulders. The shawl that the sun rose to every day. I still remember the old, heavy wood shutters she opened every single morning of her life flooding the rooms with light. The weight of them and sound they made when they moved clumsily in their tracks. I remember the news radio coming on, the shape of her back at the round, white kitchen table as she stirred her coffee or extinguished her cigarette in the glass ashtray with the brass bottom. The piles of laundered clothing sitting on top of the radiator waiting for the ironing board tucked behind the French doors; the one that squeaked and got stuck when you unfolded it. I remember the sweeping, the mopping, the smell of breaded veal cutlets frying in butter and olive oil. The veritable miracles that she performed in a "kitchen" that was as big as a small broom closet.

I remember the small bathroom vanity directly across from the toilet and the smell of Nivea cream. I remember the funny bathtub shaped like an arm chair with the telephone shower head. I remember the fur coat, brown leather heels and blue eye shadow that she wore to walk to the market. We couldn't walk a block without someone stopping us to say "buongiorno," compliment my growth, gossip about so and so. And then we were off again. Another few blocks until we reached the jovial twin butchers with their white aprons stained with blood, always taking the time to walk around the counter to give me a piece of candy.

I remember the thrill I felt when my grandmother handed me a couple lira to buy milk from the small dairy shop and general store right next to our building. I remember the pride I felt when, unaccompanied, I ran down the stone steps worn in the middle; the sound the intercom made when I buzzed to be let in and how the size and shape of the black button fit perfectly under my small finger.

I remember when my grandmother took in Nonna Mimma, my 94 year-old great-grandmother and served her a little grappa with her coffee after each meal. I remember the night when Nonna Mimma passed away peacefully in her sleep. My grandmother had just returned from walking "Thea," the cocker spaniel, when she saw her. She slept a few hours that night and awoke before dawn to clean the entire apartment from top to bottom. Visitors would be here soon and the place had to be spotless. An early lesson for me that when tragedy hits, you get to work. You don't sit and wonder what it all means. You get up. There is always work to be done.

Fast forward many years. The cancer diagnosis. My mother flying to Italy several times. The last vacation we had together and my mother gently warning me by saying "she wears a wig now." As if that was enough to prepare me for how the steroids had swollen her face, or the groaning at night when the pain must have been so awful that she couldn't sleep. Or the guilt I felt when I walked a little in front of her because I was embarrassed to walk next to her to get to the beach.

And here I was, how many decades later? The hand-knit long red shawl in my hands... and then the idea. I could remake this! I could replicate the stitches and make it my own. It had all been leading up to this moment when I would hold this shawl again and it would show me what to do with it and where to put all these big feelings of sadness and regret and love.

So I got up and worked.

I knew just the yarn I would use. The most luxurious alpaca mixed with merino wool and silk. Light as air but incredibly warm. The kind of yarn that my grandmother could not have afforded, but would have loved to have and throw over her shoulders if she was still alive. So the Rememberance Scarf was born. I replicated a similar pattern to the original: several rows of garter stitch followed by some slipped stitches, but used bulkier wool for the cozy "squish" factor. I made it a little narrower than the original so it can be worn double and knotted in front, but still long and wide enough to be worn loose as a shawl with a pin to hold it in place.

While knitting it I learned that needles and yarn straddle the present and the past. They seek to reconcile one with the other as they stitch together remembrances. And perhaps, at times, knitting also looks to the future so that the hopes and dreams that lie there may eventually find their way into a new pattern. That's why I knit. Knitting saved me when I closed my dance studio and it comforts me every day in small and big ways. It allows me to work in the way people used to work: making things. With the added bonus that those things can be worn by others and passed along with their own stories. Their own memories embedded in the fabric.

With each transition in life you leave pieces of yourself behind. But you never know what other pieces belonging to others you will pick up along the way. Maybe in the end, those pieces all add up like the stitches of a scarf that you wrap yourself in.

My grandmother's shawl, left. The Remembrance scarf, right.

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