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A gift from my grandmother

March 21, 2010

So, last night while knitting on my handspun February Lady Sweater, I got an overwhelming memory of my grandmother. Perhaps it was the sound of the click of the needles in my hands that brought her memory close, for many of my memories of her, she had her knitting in her hands.

I called her “Doda”, which means grandmother in her first language, which is Mohawk. She grew up on a small family farm on the Mohawk reservation of Akwesasne. She grew up on the Canadian side of the reserve, on the small island of Cornwall on the St Lawrence Seaway.  She didn’t speak English until she was over 10, and was one of the only members of her large family to go to school and learn English. Her Mother was a basketweaver, making exquisite little Mohawk fancy baskets she could sell at the market in exchange for groceries.

My Doda left home to become a teacher, having no patience for her mother’s trade of basket weaving.  She taught in a one room school house on the reservation for several years. Eventually she married my grandfather, Lincoln, and had three boys, ( one being my father).

My grandmother’s name was Emily White.  Here is a picture of her when she is roughly my age…she always had such grace and style, she always looked well dressed.

She is who first taught me to knit.  Socks were our first project.  I still have them…She knit one, i knit the other in the pair. Her’s were perfect ( after knitting hundreds of pairs in her 89 years, she could practically knit them with her eyes closed!)…and my pair were wonky, the knitting so tight, that my sock was nearly 2 sizes smaller than her sock!

here’s the first pair..

But, i caught the knitting bug that weekend, and have been insatiably knitting ever since.   When I sat with her that weekend, I asked her how you said “knitting” in Mohawk.  “There is no word that means knitting in Mohawk.” she said. ” Kali:say yoon:we” was the mohawk word she used, which literally meant “making socks”. But nowadays, it is used as a word for all knitting.   Guess the Mohawk women were impressed with the English sock making skills!!!  My Doda never knit lace, saying Mohawk women had no need for doilies, just socks, sweaters and “toques” ( knit caps).

When she was 91, I went to visit her. I had a couple of years of sock knitting under my belt, and thru online tutorials and a Cat Bordhi book, I had learned to knit socks on two circular needles.  She watched with interest as I knit socks in a new-fangled way, and immediately she wanted to learn how to do it my way.  I showed her the basic concept, and she knit one whole sock that way.  She laughed, and in her funny mohawk/english accent said: ” oh that was easy as falling off a log!” She always had these funny little sayings.  But for the second sock, she had her trusty double point needles ready to cast on.  It’s hard to convince an old dog to practice new tricks, eh?

I really wish I had a photograph of her hands. She lived with rheumatoid arthritis for a large part of her later years, and her hands were very bumpy and gnarled, but in a beautiful way that old tree trunks twist and bend.  She swore that knitting wool kept her hands nimble and working, and she could knit like the wind, a very fast knitter. Prolific too, as we have a bin of old sweaters she knit for us over the years, and my daughter still wears some that I wore as a small girl.

Here’s a picture of her showing me a knitting technique….note my daughter is the baby on the floor, she’s now 5 years old!

She gave me so many gifts and memories.  Yet the gift of knitting, it’s one that keeps giving, as my hands work the yarn into many shapes and colors.  I cherish that she and I shared that connection, that love of a craft.  In her last days here on Earth, she called all of us to her bed to share with us a few more bits of wisdom, and to give us things from her possessions she knew we would hold onto.  Naturally, she wanted me to have all her knitting tools, and she even had me promise to finish a sweater of hers that was still in progress on needles in her knitting basket.  I am thankful to still have that last sweater of hers, as she passed the torch to me as the knitter in the family. I will proudly pass down the craft to my own daughter, as she grows.

I was inspired to write some of these memories by a blog I recently stumbled onto….The Family Trunk Project.  Emily Johnson has been designing knitwear patterns inspired by old family photographs and her own ancestors. Each knitting pattern was designed with a specific family member in mind, and the pattern tells the interesting story of that persons life.  She’s created a family tree of knitting designs!  All her patterns have a wonderful vintage flair, and I can’t wait to knit more of them.  I already knit her Portlandia Cloche, and i love it!  Here’s a photo of my finished cloche:

One of my most favorite things that my Doda left for me was a bowl full of darning eggs.  She was an avid collector of many things, including vintage Fiesta Ware. This Fiesta bowl filled with darning eggs on the shelf in my weaving studio is a daily reminder of the things my Doda loved.

I still use those eggs too, they are a wonderful tool to patch my precious handknit, handspun socks!

Here’s one final picture of my Doda, Emily White.  This is always how I will remember her, smiling.

She was a fiesty old woman, and I only hope I can live with half as much grace as she carried herself through her life.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 2:20 am

    what a beautiful beautiful post-thanks for sharing.

  2. April 3, 2010 2:52 pm

    Rowen, this was beautiful! What a nice tribute. I can see such a strong family resemblance in that photo of her when she was your age.

  3. Charlotte permalink
    October 26, 2011 1:10 pm

    Such lovely & beautiful memories for you to cherish and to share with your daughter & son!
    Keep knitting~
    Blessings
    Charlotte

  4. October 26, 2011 3:01 pm

    That was beautifully written, thank you! When I picked up knitting a couple of years ago, I didn’t really think of my mother, but once I started knitting with metal needles the tick, tick brought back so many old, forgotten memories I’d forgotten. It makes me sad that we never got to share knitting, but I at least have some of her sweaters.

  5. charlene permalink
    October 26, 2011 4:53 pm

    What a sweet tribute! Your likeness to her is so striking in the photo of her as a young woman!

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