A yarn: a strand of fibre.
In the winter evenings when the sunlight has faded, my mother crochets an afghan. Occasionally, she'll knit one, and as she knits and purls, the yarn flows as a river through a valley. But usually, she'll crochet. Her hands work the yarn, and row by row a mantle of colour and texture grows. From a grey-blue strand, she crochets a blanket of ocean. Then a rolling field in soft shades of sage, or wheat and rye. Night after night, my mother's hands work the fibre, back and forth, the yarn's migration over an expanse, each blanket framed with a chorded edge, rows of crossed double crochet stitches that alternate with a row of single stitches. The border is both beginning and ending; framework and context.
My own early knowledge of knitting went only as far as the stocking stitch. I don't know how to hold a crochet hook, how to guide the hook and hold the yarn in place keeping the tension even; how to wrap the yarn and pull up a loop; skillfully, patiently unravelling a long, cohesive strand. It's an acquired skill, this connecting and joining—of knowing just when to drop or add a stitch.
Yarn: a long story with incredible events.
Like a ball of wool, slowly unravelled, fashioned into a pattern and framed by a corded edge, is family narrative—from one long strand like a crochet chain (insert hook, yarn over). It's an immigrant story, one particular story among many. The arc of such a narrative begins in another country, has its conflict and climax in war, its denouement in starting over. And typically, the telling begins only long after such an ending. Often it will be the next generation that fashions the text out of the tangled yarn.
There are only a few photographs from the past. In this particular one, my grandmother sits at the centre, in a black knit sweater, grey straight skirt, thick dark stockings and sensible shoes, all donated by the refugee agency: she, like the nucleus of an atom, and clustered around her, in light cotton dresses, in matching pairs, are her six daughters. The two youngest girls lean from their seats and nestle into her sides. The little girls wear short-sleeved dresses and stockings, so it must be spring. Eight-year-old Ella's thick stocking is torn at the right knee and will need mending. My own mother Erna, who has just turned ten, is waif-like and shadow-eyed in the photo. She stands behind her mother, hand on her shoulder, and I get a renewed sense of how great a comfort the presence of a mother must have been. As the writer Madeleine L' Engle, in her memoirs, said of her mother, it was as if (her) presence rather than place gave a sense of home.
Since December, just before Christmas 1948, they have been clothed, nourished, fed, and settled in the refugee camp in Gronau, Germany, near the border to Poland, after the war, after years of hunger, malnutrition and dislocation. I think this photo was taken in March 1949, a conjecture based on a second photograph, and what I know about that one.
It is a similar photo that shows my grandfather seated among the four sons, the same building in the background. His face is angular, cheeks hollow, eyes sunken, and he looks old except that he still has a dark, thick shock of hair. In his second-hand suit, he is flanked by the two youngest boys, also seated on wooden stools. My grandfather cups his hands over his knees. The older two sons stand behind, their arms and hands hanging at their sides. They all seem stiff and awkward. My grandfather had just arrived in the refugee camp (in March 1949) after being released from internment in Poland. What doesn't escape me about that photo is how emaciated my prisoner-of-war grandfather is, and how foreign he seems among his sons, especially the five year-old, who was five months old when his father was taken.
At first sent to a prison camp in Warsaw after he was arrested at the family farm in the village in Poland on March 3, 1945, my grandfather was later transferred to Lodz, in November 1945, to work in a wool factory, Woll-Wasch und Spinn Fabrik. His job was to wash the wool before it was spun onto spools.
These two photos, among the others, are like knots in a skein of wool. I have to pause, inspect, work them through and unravel the particulars.
The war has left its gaping holes. Unravel memory; then knit, purl, knit, purl....
Pictures of my uncle David reveal an adolescent with dark and placid eyes. When he was eighteen a telegramme informed my grandparents that he had been killed on the Russian front (gefallen im Osten, den 25.10.43, 65 km, Lidlich Saparascha).
My mother's older siblings remember their brother David and describe him as a soft-spoken boy, a patient older brother who helped with farm and household chores. To help his mother, he patiently brushed and braided his little sisters' hair. David, they remember, could knit, and spent winter evenings darning the family's socks and knitting scarves. When Martha, the oldest daughter, seven years younger than David, was old enough, she began knitting, too, then Anna, two years younger than Martha. The girls were knitting by the age of six, and by eight they were making socks and mittens, the muted clatter of knitting needles in nimble fingers. Any sweater with a hole in it was unravelled and the wool reused. No wool was wasted.
To begin, pull a length of yarn and tie yarn on to crochet hook.
An ending becomes a beginning. The photograph on the steps of the immigration office in Bremen, in 1951 is my favourite family photograph. On the first step of the building, my grandfather stands, hat in hand, his left hand in the jacket pocket of his three-piece suit, complete with white shirt and tie, like a gentleman; my grandmother stands beside him on the step, in a knitted skirt and sweater, hands behind her back. The clothing is, of course, second-hand from the relief organization. Behind my grandparents, like stair steps, are the ten children in order of age. The happy look on their faces exudes hope. The people lined up behind them in the photo, also immigrants, mostly young men, and one couple with a baby, look at the camera, too, but the lens seems fixed on this anomaly; such a large family together, after survival—seemingly whole.
Insert crochet hook into yarn. Loop over. Pull through. Continue, stitch by stitch, row by row.
With its transport of refugees, the MS Nelly sailed from the port of Bremen on November 12, 1951, to Le Havre, France, where two hundred more passengers boarded the ship, before setting out on a calm sea for Canada. By November 15th, the water grew rougher, and the next day it was stormy. A sea in chevron patterns like my mother's afghans, white, swelling to grey, deep blue, darkening to black. It seemed an endless expanse to cross, until, on November 22nd, at 5 in the morning, the lights on the shores of Halifax greeted them in the sunrise, and the family disembarked to board the train west.
The train stopped first in Winnipeg, where, familiar faces from the village in Poland greeted them at the station, those who had also fled the Mennonite settlement, Wymischle, sometime in January 1945 six years earlier, but who had not been turned back by Russian soldiers and had somehow made it through to Germany. From there the family moved on to Alberta where the relatives who had sponsored them lived. With the work ethic of new immigrants, the family began paying off their travel debt through farm labour and domestic work.
By then, as children will, my mother at 13 was already acculturating. The summer of 1952, Aunt Frieda and Uncle Dave invited Erna to come to stay with them in Olds. My mother was inclined to see the invitation as an opportunity for some time to herself, and, perhaps, for some attention. She helped in the kitchen, and Aunt Frieda gave her children's books to read. They listened to story hour on the radio after lunch. Older cousin Anne, who worked in Calgary, even cut Erna's braids off and gave her short hair a perm, though my mother admits she didn't know how to manage or style this new look. And while my teenage mother may have been pulling at independence or seeking a loosening from the past, Aunt Frieda taught my mother, who already know how to knit, how to crochet.
The differences between knitting and crochet, besides the obvious one of using two needles versus one hook, are also structural.
In knitting, a dropped stitch can unravel a fabric. But a dropped stitch in crochet rarely interferes with the piece. This is because in crochet, there is only one "live" stitch on the hook, while in knitting, an entire row of stitches is simultaneously active. Additionally, the looping in crochet (insert hook, loop over one, or two, or more depending on the pattern) is more complex and unlikely to come loose under stress. Each stitch is supported by the corresponding stitch above and below, and conversely supports the stitches on either side of it. Thus, if a stitch in a finished piece breaks, the stitches around it remain intact. I often think about what it is concerning my mother's immigrant family that has kept it together despite dropped stitches, imperfections and time. It's something inherently structural, I realize, just as each stitch in crochet is supported by those on either side, above and below, held in place, even when there is a tear.
My grandparents made the decision to move to British Columbia where there were more opportunities to obtain a small farm of their own.
In 1967, when I was five years old, my grandparents sold the farm. I still have memories of the large garden and fruit trees, the rows of raspberries, milking barn and the shed where the family butchered.
My grandfather died in 1982. I remember that my widowed grandmother used to knit and crochet and, how, in her last years, her memories began to vanish like dropped stitches. My mother and her siblings, now in their seventies and eighties, gather often during the year for each of their birthdays. In summer there's an annual family picnic, at Christmas we rent out a church basement or gym, and we, the Canadian-born cousins, with our children, and now even our grandchildren, still come, identifying ourselves as family. The members of a particular family—each of us held in place by one another as if by a stitch.
Now that the aunts and uncles are elderly, they talk about the past. But as my mother admits, she has forgotten many of the details, and doesn't want to remember certain ones. As with crochet, a dropped stitch in story can be deliberate, and does not weaken the unity of the narrative. Memories of the past fade. For some, traumatic memories are blocked. And each family member's memory of a shared event differs. But family narrative only has strands of memory on which to rely. Holding the yarn in tension, we wrap the yarn, pull up a loop, each stitch held in place by others around it, create a pattern, fashion something to wrap ourselves in, or to pass along—to remember and to release.