My Great-Grandmother Caroline was a crochet and sewing wiz. When I was a wee slip of a girl, I didn’t understand or appreciate the length to which she went to produce the items for us that she did. We had the best dressed Barbies on the block, and we didn’t even know the effort it took for her to make that so.
My Grandma Caroline was one of a kind. She was a spit-fire hellion wrapped up in a 4’8” frame and woe betide the person who dared stand in her way. She lived in an older section of the town my mother grew up in, a town we visited often as children, my sister and I. Her tree lined street was replete with houses from an earlier era, both stone and clapboard sided one and one and a half story houses with large sweeping porches from a time when neighbors would sit outside at sunset, catching up and drinking tea while the locusts came to life and the June bugs swirled around mightily buzzing. There were lightning bugs to dot the air and those trees provided a protective cover should the skies get sultry and weepy. The sidewalk in front of Grandma Caroline’s was cracked badly by those magnificent trees’ roots, and there was a worn place in the grass next to the cracked part, where people walked up to the porch bypassing the heaved up section so as not to trip themselves up. The sound of our little girl shoes clomping on her deck, a giant stone structure covered over with planks of wood and painted white and gray with pillars where we used to sit and pretend they were thrones to hold our royal bums, announced our arrival even to a woman who couldn’t hear too well.
In her old age, she had stooped at the shoulders a bit, shrinking even further, though her heart never shrank. She always flung the door open wide to admit us, and hugging us fiercely belied the strength her frail looking body concealed. She was a powerhouse, one we didn’t understand when we were young, but one we came to respect as time and age grew on us. She wasn’t a woman of means, but what she had was tidy, clean, and loved. Her furniture was draped with crocheted afghans and pillows and she always had a tomato pin cushion on the table next to her favorite chair, which usually held her latest project in some state of almost-completion. We were never interested in what she was working on, and she always stopped her work when we came over to give us her full, undivided attention. She’d ask us now and then how the Barbies were and if they needed anything. Shortly after a visit to her house, we’d get a box in the mail and it would be full of multiples of our requests, miniaturized versions of purses, hats, dresses, pants, vests, sweaters, quilts. You name it, she made it, both sewn on a sewing machine and crocheted. Except for shoes. She said they were too fiddly and the materials were hard to come by. But our Barbies had sleeping bags and pillows, tents for camping out and sheets for their beds. There were dressy clothes and camping clothes and casual clothes and more. There were clothes for Ken, clothes for multiple Barbies, clothes for Ken and Barbie’s future babies, and I wouldn’t be surprised were I to look through it all to find maternity clothes, though I’ve never seen a pregnant Barbie doll. I think we used a pillow from the miniature couch to pretend, if I recall correctly.
And it wasn’t just our Barbies who were swathed in Grandma Caroline’s love. No, us kids were given blankets and pillows galore to rest our heads upon and cover our shoulders. The most beloved blanket of my childhood was a green ripple blanket that Grandma Caroline had crocheted for my sister that I stole and made my own, draped over my shoulders or my hair to pretend it was lovely cascading hair, or covering my body while I watched TV, or wadded up in a ball in my arms for the comfort of a toddler who needed a lovey. There wasn’t much in the way of clothes since we grew so fast, but we did know that we were the recipients of some one of a kind pieces of art. When I was a teen, Grandma Caroline asked me what colors I’d like in a wedding afghan. I told her and as most sixteen year olds are wont to do, I forgot about it. My sister also had a list of colors for her wedding afghan and I do believe she also forgot about it. Imagine my shock when, the day after my wedding eight years later, I grabbed the next box in the succession of wedding gifts and discovered it was from Grandma Caroline, who had been too old and frail to make it to the wedding, not to mention the fact that she had never driven, never learned to do so, and hadn’t the means to do any traveling. But I know she put her invitation lovingly in a photo album anyway, despite the fact that she wasn’t going to make it in person. However, her box had made it, and I instantly felt my eyes well up with tears. Could it be? I opened the box and there was the most beautiful wedding afghan I’d ever seen, not too big, as her arthritis had begun to take over between the years when she’d asked me for my colors and my wedding. It was blue and cream, shot through with little bits of green and rose in a variegated bit of yarny goodness. It wasn’t particularly soft, but warm, yes. It covered warm quite nicely. I carefully packed it away thinking that I would put it out when I had some furniture to match it, something that didn’t clash quite as badly as our black and green sofa with the giant rip in it. That sofa wasn’t worthy of my Grandma Caroline’s wedding afghan for me.
A couple years later, Grandma Caroline had a moderate stroke. It took away her ability to speak, which just about killed her not to do. Grandma Caroline was a great conversationalist. She could talk about anything, and she was quite the dancer, too, having taught my sister and I to Jitterbug in her younger years. My mom’s mother had to make the difficult decision to find a nursing home for Grandma Caroline. She was in need of greater care than could be given in a home setting, and as she began to heal and regain her strength from her stroke, her fire slowly returned. She couldn’t speak but she could make it clear when she was unhappy, and she was vastly unhappy. She wanted to talk, to sew, to dance again, and she could do none of those things. The nursing home staff was overworked and while her medical orders were that she had to have someone help her to her feet, that was essentially a bed rest sentence to her. But she didn’t let that stop her. She’d get up on her own, medical orders be damned, and it was to the point that the staff put a monitor on her to track her movements. When she would get out of bed, they would know it. Frustrated, Grandma Caroline one day threw the monitor in the toilet, and laughed when the staff came running and found her perfectly fine, perfectly out of bed, and free of one perfectly flushed and dead motion monitor. Her daughter (my grandmother) knew the staff was frustrated, but tired of seeing her mother so miserable, she moved her to another, more expensive nursing home that had more staff and more comfortable accommodations. It was there that there was another stroke, and that was just about enough for my Grandma Caroline. She passed quietly in her sleep the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2003.
I was 7 months pregnant with my first child, and though there were some concerns about me making a road trip for the funeral, I wouldn’t have missed it. It was absolutely a celebration of her life, as opposed to a mourning of her death, and my grandmother summed it up best when she said during her eulogy that Grandma Caroline was up in heaven talking God’s ear off and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. It was that Thanksgiving trip that my grandmother, Caroline’s daughter, took me to her spare bedroom and dug out a box in the closet. She opened it, and inside were three of the softest baby blankets. One white, one blue, and one yellow, just like the green one that I’d loved literally to pieces as a child myself. I was to pick one, and I chose the yellow. We didn’t know Son was a boy and so I didn’t want to pick the blue one and have it be the ‘wrong’ color, and white seemed too easy to ruin. What happened to the other two, I don’t know, but I assume they were passed on to their intended recipients with the great care and love that I received with mine. It lined the bassinet Son slept in, and then four years later with Daughter.
But I have learned something about the baby blanket, and the wedding afghan for that matter, since I have started needlework and knitting. I put the wedding afghan away for its importance is too great for me to risk it becoming ruined by either the kids spilling something on it or Cat laying on it and tangling her fur in its stitches or slubbing up the yarn strands with her claws. I put the baby blanket away when the kids were big enough to move to a crib, not wanting it to get soiled or puked on in the night, because it’s irreplaceable. Sure I could do another one for them if this one gets shredded, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same. So I kept them locked away for safe keeping. Sure, it’s fine for something of this nature to be considered an heirloom, but now that I make them myself, I know they are intended for use, abuse, and love. Nothing would please me more than to learn that the blanket I made for a friend’s baby has become that child’s security blanket. Nothing would make me happier to know that my creations grace the feet of a relative or friend when they’re snowed in and need the extra warmth. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to know that something I made for someone was used just as much as it was treasured, regardless of the risk posed to it through the uses of every day life.
And so, the other night, I took out the baby blanket and draped it across the shoulders of Daughter (who is 17 months old today, my how time flies) as she was heavy lidded and sleepy. I rocked her in the rocking chair and stroked her back through the blanket, marveling at how soft the yarn was and how warm the baby underneath was. Snug as a bug in a rug, I whispered to her like I do every night right before I say ‘night night’ and lay her in her bed. And I left the room, but only after carefully adjusting around her shoulders the baby blanket Daughter’s great great grandmother crocheted in the months before a stroke, when she first learned that a family was in the making. Tonight, as I hack and wheeze my way through a stupid summer cold, I will wrap my wedding afghan around my shoulders and sigh, knowing that even though Great Grandma Caroline is beyond the veil, she’s giving me a hug through that afghan, and I will be warmer for it.