The knitting gene

I found a thick twisted skein of sheep wool in my closet today.  The band around it said Wensleydale Yorkshire.  I held the creamy braided wool against my cheek, feeling its roughness, breathing in sheep and wool and the village of Dent from two years ago.  

The boys and I were in England, with cousin Neelima and her family in a country home in Yorkshire where an early spring awaited us.  The home and village were impossibly charming, with stone walls, green grass and scattered sheep nibbling grass everywhere, the faint smell of wood-burning smoke in the air.  One afternoon, we found a stone inn where we all squeezed in around a wooden table in the tea room. A large Victorian sponge cake rested on the sideboard layered with cream and jam. The owner brought us warm scones and pots of tea. We sliced the scones down the middle, smearing clotted cream and jam on the halves, eating mouthfuls between sips of black tea from patterned china cups.  The kindly proprietress jotted down her scone recipe on a notecard for me. The Victorian sponge cake, she said, was made from a Mary Berry recipe. On the way out, I stopped briefly at the village store, where I noticed baskets of wool from local sheep.  Impulsively, so I picked up two fat skeins.  I was hardly a knitter, not like paternal grandmother who was nearly 90 now, the last of my surviving grandparents.  Yet there is a part of me that has wanted to be just like her.  I called my mother, “Do I have Amma’s genes? Do you think the knitting keeps her sharp?” My mother said “You know, she doesn’t worry about anything.”

Amma did not teach me how to knit.  Each time I tried to play with her needles as a child, she would finish any project that I started.  One year, pregnant with my first son, I longed to make something for the baby.  I joined a knitting class, and made a tiny blue hat, which the newborn outgrew in a week.  Another year, I armed myself with pattern books and made several hats.  Numerous balls of colorful wool remained after the novelty of making hats wore off.  I stuffed the remaining yarn into my suitcase and brought it to India.  Amma got busy and handed me several expertly finished hats, mittens and socks.  I looked in the mirror: I had my grandmother’s round face, her nose, her straight hair.  “Did the knitting gene skip me,” I asked my mother.  She said, “You have her energy: Amma plays cards with her friends for hours each day.”  I could sense a slight censure in her tone.  As I prepared to go back to America, Amma’s parting words were, “Keep sending me wool.”   

I was impossibly drawn to the Yorkshire wool skein.  I slipped the heavy strands through the back of a chair to start rolling it into a workable ball of yarn. My younger son came in, and I let him remove the skein from the chair and hold it up between his two hands.  I wanted to hold on to his pudgy hands, his baby cheeks, his inherent sweetness, knowing that he would grow up quickly like his older brother. We were momentarily distracted, a thread was pulled in the wrong direction, and soon the yarn collapsed in a heap of tangled knots.  I looked at him in dismay, not sure what to do.  The more we pulled, the worse it got.  Too much tension in the yarn, I thought.  I laid it on a flat surface.  The knots started loosening, almost magically, and I had a feeling that I have done this all before. Suddenly time had no meaning. I wanted to finish the ball, find a pattern and start knitting, but I couldn’t seem to make anything go faster.  “Nothing bothers Amma.  No matter what happens, she shrugs it all off. Remember how ill Babaji was,” said my mother. 

The ball was finished, I picked up the knitting needles.  I couldn’t remember how to begin, what’s the first step to casting on stitches?  The instructions in Knitter’s Companion looked like a cryptic conundrum, but my hands took over.  Soon, I was casting on stitches and knitting again.  I knitted several rounds, then promptly dropped a few stitches.   This isn’t going anywhere.  I took all the stitches off of the needle and pulled at the thread, unraveling hours of work.  I wrapped it back up neatly into my ball.  I squelched my ego and suspended my ambition. “You can start over tomorrow,” said my mom.

Perhaps I did have the knitting gene after all.

[Recipe for Mary Berry’s Victorian sponge cake with cream and jam]

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