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Original Essays

Still Knitting

by Ann Hood
  1. Comfort: A Journey through Grief
    $18.75 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    "A loving tribute by turns harrowing and beautiful." Kirkus Reviews

    "[W]renchingly honest....[T]here is redemption at the end of this short, anguished book." Publishers Weekly

  2. The Knitting Circle
    $6.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "[A] wondrously simple book about something complicated..." The Washington Post Book World

    "An intelligent, moving read." Pages

People always ask me, "Do you still knit?" As the author of a novel called The Knitting Circle, I feel almost a moral responsibility to knit. But even without that, I cannot imagine my life without my needles and yarn. This is a fact about myself that surprises me. I was never one of those kids who could shape pipe cleaners into sculptures or build anything out of craft sticks. My one effort at decoupage ended in flames and a hole in our living room rug. I did spend one entire summer when I was 12 stringing beads into a curtain for my bedroom doorway, but that was hardly an arts and crafts moment. It grew out of boredom and an ability to do repetitive tasks without stopping. No one in my family did anything very crafty either, unless you count the outfits my grandmother crocheted for our extra rolls of toilet paper to make the bathroom look fancy.

We cooked and baked. We played a lot of cards. We took car trips. But we did not create anything out of thread or yarn or scraps of fabric. In ninth grade, all the girls had to take Home Economics. The first half was Cooking. We made no-bake cookies out of oatmeal, cocoa, and peanut butter and served them to the boys on silver platters. Once we made cherries jubilee by dumping canned cherries over vanilla ice-cream. I liked Home Ec that part of the year. I liked cooking and I liked boys, so it was a fun way to spend last period every Wednesday. But then it was time for Sewing.

On a field trip to a fabric store, I had an anxiety attack surrounded by all the bolts of material. Too many colors. Too many patterns. And none of it looked like it should be the skirt we were required to make out of the Butterick pattern I clutched in my sweaty palms. We were the kind of family that drove to the shopping mall and bought our clothes. The idea of making them seemed quaint and foreign, very Laura Ingalls Wilder but not very 1972. Panicked, I chose a garish yellow and pink paisley fabric, and then set upon the frightening task of turning it into a skirt by the beginning of June.

Spring in New England means rain and cold weather until one day the sun bursts out and daffodils and crocuses and dogwood blossoms appear everywhere. By then, I should have had my pattern cut and pinned to my paisley, my paisley cut into the rough shape of a skirt. Some show-offs already had their skirts finished, and had begun culottes or shift dresses. I had a heap of fabric and a lot of wrinkled paper with pins sticking from it. Mrs. Wylie raised her red-pencil-drawn eyebrows and shook her head. "You might get an A in French, but you are not getting one in Home Economics, that's for sure," she told me solemnly. Since my adolescent dream was to become an airline stewardess, that suited me just fine. I would be able to order my clothes in Paris, in French. Sewing be damned.

By mid-May, the weather turned hot and the school smelled like gym socks and tater tots. I wanted nothing more than to be outside, reading a book and daydreaming. But there I was, trying to make the sewing machine move forward instead of backwards, trying to make a skirt I would never wear. Mrs. Wylie began a countdown: that skirt has to be finished in three weeks, two weeks, then: that skirt has to be finished by Friday. That did it. I rolled the mess up in a ball, stuck it in my backpack, and snuck it home to my cousin Gloria-Jean, who was a year older and had gotten an A in Home Ec the year before. She stayed up late into the night making my skirt, and on Friday I was able to sit at the sewing machine and pretend to have just completed my project. Mrs. Wylie walked in. I grinned. She frowned. "No way," she said. "You did not make that skirt." She took it from me, pulled a thread, and once again I had a paisley mess.

I did not touch anything resembling needles or thread for the next 30 years. But as happens in life, we get blindsided. In 2002, on an unusually hot April day, my five-year-old daughter Grace spiked a high fever and died 36 hours later from a virulent form of strep. For my entire life until that moment, I had turned to reading and, later, writing for comfort. But in the face of this unimaginable and enormous loss, I could not find solace in words. In fact, I felt there were no words that could comfort my broken heart or express my grief adequately.

That spring turned to summer, a glorious one with skies as clear and blue as Grace's eyes. And then summer became autumn. My son returned to fourth grade, my husband returned to work, and I sat at home, still numb and stupid with grief. Friends came every day to walk me, like a golden retriever. On one of those walks, a friend suggested I get out of my head and do something with my hands. Desperate for distraction, I asked her what she had in mind. Her answer? Learn to knit.

I did. I learned to knit that October, in a store in the country surrounded by the vivid yellows and reds of autumn leaves. The store was near the ocean, and often I would take my knitting to the beach and find peace in the yarn in my hands, the salt in the air, and the ocean stretching seemingly endlessly before me. Over time, I began to read again. At first, Us magazine and detective novels. But slowly I found that I could concentrate long enough to read a short story, and then an entire book.

Writing took longer to return to me. But a year and dozens of scarves after I learned to knit, I found myself once again at my computer, this time trying to do that very thing that seemed so impossible in the months after Grace died: to articulate grief. Although I was not given the gift of looking at fabric and imagining it as a skirt, or taking clay and turning it into something beautiful, I was given the gift of writing. Once my words returned to me, I not only could take comfort in them again, I could also offer comfort to others.

The Knitting Circle is fiction. I asked myself, What if? What if Mary, my protagonist, lost her only child? What if she joined the perfect knitting circle, filled with women who could give her a life lesson and a knitting lesson? Once I asked those questions, I had a novel. That novel allowed me to look at my own experience and to write about it in my memoir, Comfort.

Grief does not go away. Not ever. Today, here in Rhode Island where I live, it is sunny and the clouds are white and puffy. It is a glorious day. Yet as I walked to my neighborhood café, inexplicably grief grabbed hold of me and shook my hard. I thought of Grace with her raspy voice and her ironic smile. I thought of holding her sticky hands on this very street six short, eternal years ago, and listening to her plans to become an artist who paints in nail polish. I imagined her skipping ahead of me, eager to ride on the swings at the corner playground, eager to have me swoop her up into my waiting arms.

My latte abandoned, I came home instead. I sat on the sofa in what Grace and her brother Sam called the puzzle room because of all the jigsaw puzzles we did there. I put on her favorite Nanci Griffith album. And I picked up my knitting needles and did that most simple form of comfort: knit one, purl one. Row after row, until soon the rhythm of that action, the click of the needles, the yarn in my lap, worked their magic once again to soothe my broken heart. Still knitting? I am asked. Yes. I imagine I will be knitting for the rest of my life.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ann Hood is the author of nine books, including the novel The Knitting Circle. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, Tin House, and O magazine. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island. spacer

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