Raveled Threads

Portraits à la campagne, 1876
(Oil on canvas, 95 x 111 cm)
BY Gustave Caillebotte
Musée Baron Gérard, Bayeux

Before dinner, ice tinkling in highball glasses, the women’s knitting needles clinked steadily. Summer mornings on the dock at Squam with the water rocking the planks, evenings in wicker chairs by the fire, women knitted. On benches by the tennis courts, their needles clicking in counterpoint to the whack of the ball, they knitted. “Match point,” as the needles kept pace with feet racing to the net. I know women also played tennis, but I remember the socks-in-progress for husbands, fathers, sons, the sweaters for children, mothers, grandfathers, each other, or for themselves. A pair of argyles, a cable-knit sweater: a sign that someone’s warm fingers had worked those yarns.

But we left that tribe before I turned five, moving to Phoenix for my father’s health. Though my parents thrived in the hot sun, I felt left out in the cold, no longer warmed by my grandma’s velvety arms and lap, my grandfather’s booming laugh.

In our move, I now realize, we changed not only regions, but also classes. Oh, I know we in the United States are supposed to be a classless society, but there’s a chasm between that sunny ideal and the multi-shaded realities of our lives. My father’s parents’ friends and neighbors in suburban New Jersey included lawyers, doctors, and publishers (one of Pop’s closest friends ran Town and Country). My father and his friends were graduates of Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and condescended to those with degrees from lesser institutions like Bucknell, Bowdoin, or Colgate.

Few of our new neighbors had ever stepped on a college campus. In Arizona, the people around us did not play tennis, and the women did not knit. In a short story called “Knitting,” Susan Sherman depicts it as a WASP predilection. On hearing that her daughter Dotsy is learning how, the Jewish mother of the piece says: “I can’t believe this. Jews don’t knit.” But WASP as our new neighborhood was, when women took a minute to sit down, they folded laundry or picked up Reader’s Digest, a cigarette, or Life, not knitting needles.

I was not only an East Coast transplant in the South-
western desert, but I spoke with traces of my mother’s lingering English accent.

My sister and I didn’t lose our mittens like the little kittens of nursery-rhyme fame — but once in Arizona, I never saw them again. We seldom needed jackets. I cried most of the morning in kindergarten, frightened by our stern-browed teacher. The other kids warned me about the dangers of watermelon seeds: it was general knowledge, and I needed to know, that if you swallowed a single black watermelon seed, it would sprout overnight into a vine, its tendrils leafing out through your nostrils, ears, and other orifices. It could rip apart your whole body. Home finally in the afternoon, I could keep my mother close by enlisting her help with knitting.

All around us everyone spoke differently. My diction was the butt of neighbors’ jokes. I was not only an East Coast transplant in the Southwestern desert, but I spoke with traces of my mother’s lingering English accent. Brought up in proper upper-middle-class British fashion by nannies and governesses, Mom was an excellent teacher. But her definitions of maternal care did not include shows of affection. To my mother, fondling, stroking, and kissing were overly intimate, tasteless displays of effusion; perhaps, from her Anglophilic perspective, they were too French. I honestly can’t remember a hug from her until, some time in the late seventies, after my son was born, I began, when saying goodbye, to put my arms around her, a gesture she endured with stiff shoulders and upright spine. Others may fondly remember the comfort of their mothers’ soft arms or bosoms; I think of my mother’s jangling jewelry, the clack of her high heels.

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