Letter to my Grandmothers

My Italian grandmother, my nonna Giovannina, taught me how to knit when I was eight years old. She cast on with her fingers and held the needles tucked in between her ample bosom and her armpits. I had no bosom so I had to clench the sticks with my fingers, holding onto them with a single-minded ferocity. I remember my hands always cramped, tired from holding the needles at the correct angle for so long. Nonna was a tight knitter maintaining a death grip on her yarn, and so was I, developing first a sore spot, then a callus on my finger from pushing the end of the needle through each tiny looped stitch in my attempt to make something.

Although it was decidedly painful, I loved knitting with my nonna. Loved the sweaters, far too hot for Italy, that she made for me and my sister each year. They were cabled intricately and included tassels and crocheted pompons and unlike her own faded floral shirts and black clothing, they were knitted of bright primary colours, reds and blues and yellows.

I was an adult by the time I properly met my English grandmother, Betty. For the first few years I called her Betty, the endearment of Grandmummy, which my cousins used, sounding forced to me.

I was a punk rocker, out of school and on my own, caught up in the excitement of the music business, though I still knitted. Thick Icelandic-style sweaters by then, ideal for the Canadian climate we grew up in but not so useful in California, our new home.

I was twenty-five, she must have been seventy-five at that time. Sturdy and straight-backed, fond of cardigans and tweedy skirts and stockings always, and sensible shoes for gardening and going for brisk walks with the dog.

Our conversations were a little stilted though perfectly amiable. I think it was a shock for both of us; a vast unknown distance between my babyhood and my young adulthood, all those missing years, as if I had just appeared already fully formed, like a cabbage in one of her vegetable beds. I was staying at the farmhouse for a week and in between the vegetarian meals she cooked especially for me, drunken philosophical debates with my uncle who lived next door, and some mostly quiet afternoon teas where we both looked at the birds from her sunroom windows, I wandered around the farmhouse examining things, trying to piece together a picture of her. There were coach whips in an urn by the front door. Metal bed-warming pans to fill with embers from the fire and slide between the sheets. Family portraits of stern strangers. Pottery and butter dishes.

The old things reminded me of my nonna’s house, and how she used to give me baths in her huge iron pasta pot filled with hot water heated on the woodstove. Sitting, then, at the kitchen table with her as she rolled out dough for tagliatelle or gnocchi; sitting, now, in the kitchen next to the Aga with my British grandmother as she poured tea and handed the biscuit tin around, while the dog under the table tried to steal the Kleenex out of my jeans pocket.

Betty had a spinning wheel, something I had only read about in fairy tales. And one day over tea, she told me how she used to spin her own wool from her own sheep, and how she dyed it with roadside plants like elder and goldenrod and bramble berries. She gave me a giant bag of wool remnants, small and medium sized balls, leftovers from things she had knitted when her hands were spry, hanks of knubbly, tufted wools in soft muted shades of yellow, orange and ochre, and the natural browns and blacks of sheep she no longer kept.

I took all those scraps of yarn and I knitted a shawl, big enough to wrap around my shoulders two and half times. When I bury my nose in it, I can smell the English countryside, the faint sheepy scent of lanolin, the inside of my Grandmummy’s house, dust and lemon oil, Earl Grey tea, wet Labrador, dried lavender, and apple wood on the garden bonfire.