Third place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2016.
"Knit 1, Purl 1" by Mary Keil
While some never leave home and others leave and never return, an unexpected inheritance brought me back from the city to the Hudson Valley town where I’d grown up.
In the town’s recent history, no one had been more influential than Edna Mae Moore whose eulogy I was giving. I was the logical choice because everyone knew, while many had learned to knit from her, I was the one she taught her real craft to.
“Knitting provides an opportunity to focus on another in as loving a way as possible,” she said. “If you do that, whatever you make will be imbued with that loving energy.”
Late as usual, I rushed into the nave of the church where I’d been baptized as the organist played the opening chords of Edna Mae’s favorite hymn “Be Still, My Soul” to Sibelius’ “Finlandia” and the congregation rose.
Edna Mae had lived in town longer than most of us had been alive. Paralyzed from the waist down since an accident, she was a familiar presence whizzing about downtown in her motorized wheelchair, her unruly hair escaping from underneath one of the many brightly colored, hand-knitted hats she always wore. In the summer, they were cotton, with brims that shielded her face from the sun. In the winter, they were wooly, covering her ears and forehead from the cold wind.
That the church was packed wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was the riot of color, texture and design all around. Almost everyone, including Mr. Albertson, the minister, was wearing something that Edna Mae had knit over the years. There were hats of every description, color combination, and pattern. There were scarves galore: long ones, short ones, with and without tassels, wrapped tightly or thrown casually around a neck. Shawls were draped around shoulders. People wore gloves, mittens or fingerless gloves. I caught glimpses of legwarmers peeking out from under coats and socks rolled over boots. Even her casket on the altar was covered with the colorful afghan I recognized as her favorite lap blanket.
Seeing that lap blanket, its story came to mind. Edna Mae knit it for Mrs. Spencer when she had her baby and couldn’t shake the post-partum depression that set in. Within weeks of receiving that blanket, Mrs. Spencer was ice-skating at Blake’s Pond with her husband, looking happy and laughing. When they moved some years later, she gave that blanket back, and Edna Mae used it from then on.
Edna Mae had told me “There’s more to knitting than K1, P1. It’s about how your feel when you knit and looking for opportunities.” That blanket was testimony.
The week following Edna Mae’s death had been a whirlwind. Despite our close relationship, it took me by surprise that I was her heir set to inherit the familiar house on Maple Street, with the detached garage converted to Edna Mae’s Out Back, her long-shuttered knitting shop. She even left me enough money to renovate the shop.
Events of recent months might have prepared me if I hadn’t been so distracted. After years of ignoring any inclination to pick up a pair of knitting needles, one chilly autumn afternoon, Mrs. Liu’s daughter Lily, burst into the dry cleaners while I was there, her small violin case clutched under her arm. She complained about how cold her hands were, and I felt this strong urge to knit her a pair of mittens. I saw them, pink and warming her tiny hands, hands that would master that instrument over time.
Not long after that I found myself staring into the window of the yarn shop on Amsterdam Avenue. Previously I had always walked by, not focusing on the frequently changing displays of yarns, patterns, and sample garments. I saw the welcoming lighting within, the floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with skeins of yarn of every color and texture, inviting the browser to touch, squeeze, and even smell. A comfortable sofa and chairs beckoned, occupied by laughing, chatting women, their fingers moving rhythmically to the needles. I realized I had tears in my eyes when I finally looked away.
Then, a week or so before Edna May died, I was walking on Fifth Avenue. It was crowded, as only Fifth Avenue can be around the Holidays, and I had to focus on making headway, strategically bobbing and weaving, using skills I learned over the years of living there. Suddenly, up ahead, a flash of color drew my attention. Draped over a man’s back were the unmistakable ends of a scarf I had knit twenty years prior for a boy in my class at school. It was, in fact, the first scarf I knit following Edna Mae’s advice to look for an opportunity. Will’s mother got sick that Fall and, I watched him wandering around lost and distracted. When she died, I knew I had to do something. Cold weather arrived early, so I decided to knit him a scarf. When I dropped it off at his house, I made sure he wasn’t there so that he wouldn’t know it was from me. I imagine he thought Edna Mae made it. All Winter he wore that scarf around his neck like a lifeline. That Spring, he had the lead in the high school musical. I knew he’d gone to Juilliard and Edna Mae told me he was returning home to teach at the nearby college.
Try as I could, the gap between that familiar scarf and me widened. I lost track of it and its wearer at 53rd and Fifth.
When I got home, a package from Edna Mae greeted me. Even before opening it, I knew what it contained. My hands trembled as I read the note written in her now shaky hand, “You know what to do with these.” It was her collection of knitting needles.
Edna Mae died the next week, and soon thereafter I was on my way back home to give the eulogy.
I stood in the back of the church taking in the colors and faces and saw clearly how the import of a person’s life isn’t measured in bank accounts, screen credits or exotic travels. Edna Mae, despite her physical limitations, had woven her time-honored wisdom into wearable pieces of love that had helped many people in that very room as well as others who had moved on already. Those present were wearing their gratitude to Edna Mae, and that realization hit me right in the heart. I understood that inheritances are about so much more than possessions.
As I made my way down the aisle to Mr. Albertson’s introduction, I looked from side to side connecting with people I hadn’t seen much in recent years, even recognizing a few pieces that I, not Edna Mae had knit, including that elusive scarf I’d glimpsed on Fifth Avenue worn by a man I hadn’t seen since high school. As our eyes met, I knew I was stepping into my own future back home, knitting needles in hand and eyes open to the opportunities all around me.