28 March 1914–17 February 2013
Recently, as the result of sorting through a box that contained, among other things, a buck knife, a wooden car, and the notes and letters featured in the above photo, I did something that I often do — I looked up someone from my past. I suspected that the woman I had once spent many Sundays with had passed away, but when I did find her, I was surprised to see just how long she had lived.
When I met Edith, she was a small, elderly woman in her early eighties. I was in my mid-thirties and preoccupied. I don’t have a specific memory of the first time we met; it was, like so many things in life, unremarkable.
Edith had given up driving years earlier, but she did get to weekly services we both attended with varying regularity, and over time we came to know each other well enough that when I was pregnant with my youngest son, she saw fit to give me a small crochet sweater she had made for him.
What Edith did not know — and could not have known — was that I was on the hunt for a crochet teacher, and when she presented me with that small sweater that fit my youngest son for all of ten or fifteen minutes, I knew immediately that I had found the teacher I had been looking for.
It all starts with a chain
These were the words of wisdom that Edith shared after I had eaten the meatloaf sandwich she had prepared for my lunch. Crochet, it seemed, was more grueling than I had realized.
The first lesson involved making what I now know is a foundation chain. I watched Edith as she made a slip knot and then effortlessly crocheted a row of neat, even chain stitches.
I attempted to copy her deft motions, making my slip knot with a serviceable but haphazard technique. It wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to get started. I had trouble duplicating her easy “yarn over, then pull through the loop” movements. I labored over each stitch, often having to stop, pinch the back loop of yarn with my fingers, then pull that same loop over the front loop in order to make the chain.
As I struggled to make the stitches that would form the foundation of my work, Edith sat back in a chair and told me about her life. She was from Chicago. She had had two sons — one of whom had died of a brain tumor when he was ten. When her husband was advised by his doctor that the smog in LA would kill him, they moved from Los Angeles to Redding, California.
Meanwhile I continued to work on the chain. When I was done my stitches were of varying lengths, and the effort had exhausted me. The meatloaf sandwich I had thought was overkill was probably the only thing that had allowed me to go on as long as I had.
I left that first lesson demoralized and determined.
I went back the next Sunday, and the next Sunday after that. Edith and I fell into a routine, and the stitches that had bedeviled me when I began, now came off my hook easily.
Then one Sunday, I came to her with a book I had purchased at the local bookstore. Could she help me make the crochet afghan on the cover?
It was complicated. Edith could follow written crochet instructions if they were read to her, but she could not read them very fluently, and she had no idea where to begin to teach me how to read them.
So while Edith continued to instruct me on the finer points of forming my stitches each Sunday afternoon, I began to teach myself how to read a written crochet pattern on my own during the week.
I read the volumes in my now growing crochet library, studying the charts and tables. At the time I thought it would have been easier to learn Sanskrit, but I persisted in my studies until the terms were all familiar. Soon, I knew without thinking that sc was short for single crochet, hdc was short for half double crochet, and so on.
My stitches got more even and less awkward under Edith’s watchful eye, and I became more fluent in reading crochet patterns having finally deciphered the purpose of brackets, parentheses, and asterisks as well as the abbreviations for all of the stitches— I thought that I must be ready to crochet the afghan that I had so desperately wanted to make.
I was wrong.
It turned out that despite all of my studies, I didn’t know everything I needed to in order to make the afghan that had captured my imagination, and complicating matters was the fact that my life was about to be turned upside down.
On very short notice, my family and I ended up leaving California. We had three weeks to pack up and clear out to get to a new job that awaited, and while at the time, it seemed like a questionable gamble, in retrospect it ended up being the better (by a lot) of two less than ideal choices.
After a year-and-a-half, my Sunday afternoon crochet lessons with Edith came to an abrupt end.
For several years, I was reasonably good — if imperfect — at keeping in touch with her, but as my life got busier, the number of phone calls I made and letters I wrote dwindled.
Sometimes when we set out to do something, we know that there will be consequences. Sometimes those consequences are the things that do happen; sometimes those consequences are the things that don’t happen.
But sometimes when we set out to do something, we don’t realize that there will be any consequences at all. The actions we are taking seem inconsequential, and we don’t know that once we take that first step we are setting into motion a series of events that will irrevocably change us.
Edith’s life changed mine, and it is the knowledge that she passed down to me that I want to preserve for future generations of crocheters who want to an answer to the question: where do I start?
That first Sunday when I went to Edith’s apartment, I don’t think either of us realized just exactly what we were embarking on or the impact it would have on my life and the lives of those around me, but we were embarking nonetheless.
One stitch at a time.