Raveled Threads

Her name, she said, was Marcia, and she stopped by my aisle seat an hour after takeoff. She’d noticed the Ramayana in my lap, and asked if I was going to India. I wasn’t headed, this time, for Delhi, but Singapore — and I dreaded the nineteen-hour flight. She was ticketed to Bombay, making her annual pilgrimage to Sri Ammachi’s ashram in Kerala. Maybe I had heard of Ammachi as the “Hugging Saint” or the “Mother of Compassion.”

Dziewczynka
(Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 cm)
BY Władysław Czachórski
Muzeum Podlaskie, Białystok

Ours were the only blue eyes on a plane filled with South Asian students flying home for family visits between semesters. Marcia told me about her work for the Holy Mother, and I told her about my translations with a Bengali collaborator. Later, on my way to the rear of the plane, I noticed her knitting.

In the chilly air of the cabin, the heap of mauve wool on her lap looked warmer than the thin polyester blanket I’d left at my seat, and, at that moment, more intriguing than the pages of my book. Her eyes focused on the long thread of yarn in her fingers, steadily working two wooden needles.

Knitting. What women did when I was a child. The soft cloth bundled on my mother’s lap.

In my earliest memory, the first dream I remember, Mummy and Grandma are knitting as I’m toddling around their chairs. They’re a haze of bright color as I walk away, down the slope of the grass, to the woods beyond my grandparents’ acre. At the tall hedge between manicured lawn and forest, I stop and peer through to the other side. Barely twenty feet away, chopping furiously at a row of cabbages, is Peter Rabbit’s nemesis, Mr. McGregor. If he sees me, he’ll chop me too. I turn to run, but am stopped, not by the hedge, but by three towering, glowering bears. There is no way out. I cannot get back to my mother.

A few years ago, when I asked my mother what I was like as a child, she answered, “You were perfect,” in her snappy, “That’s all there is to that” voice. I’m not sure whether her definition of perfection included the fact that, at three, not long after the Mr. McGregor nightmare, I learned to cast a few stitches onto needles as big around as my fingers and to knit a couple of rows while she made booties for the little sister about to be born. No bears could reach me on the sofa beside my Mummy, as I awkwardly pressed the tip of one needle against the other.

… in learning to knit, I was also learning to take my place in the tribe.

In A.A. Milne’s “Disobedience” (a poem my sisters and I still recite with fervor), although three-year-old James James Morrison Morrison “Took great / Care of his Mother,” that naughty woman wandered off by herself, going “down to the end of the town,” never to be heard from again. My tattered copy of When We Were Very Young falls open to the pages of this poem, stamped repeatedly with a pointing finger, as if to say, “Urgent message, pay attention.” If I persisted with my little piece of ragged knitting, I could keep my mother nearby, be sure neither of us roamed beyond sight.

And in learning to knit, I was also learning to take my place in the tribe. In the forties and on into the fifties, at least among the women I remember in Summit, New Jersey, and at the lake in New Hampshire where we spent summers, knitting was a communal ritual.

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