Saturday, June 09, 2007

Best Quote I Heard All Day
Soon I will be an old, white-haired lady, into whose lap someone places a baby, saying, "Smile, Grandma!" I, who myself so recently was photographed on my grandmother's lap--Liv Ullmann

I said I would write about my knitting inspiration.

Many of you mentioned your grandmother as your knitting inspiration. Well, for me, it sure as shit wasn't either of my grandmothers. Neither could cook, knit, sew, quilt, bake cookies, or do much of anything domestic. Grandma was a teacher, Oma was a businesswoman. Both always had housekeepers.

Oma, my father's mother, was a dour, neurotic German who spent her life trying to control her husband, her son, and her daughter, and attached strings to everything that she unwillingly gave. She didn't relate to kids at all--her idea of playing with me was to chase me around a tree, brandishing a stick and screaming that she was a witch and was going to eat me.

Shades of Hansel und Gretel. Hardly an inspiration. More of a giant pain in the ass. As far as she was concerned, I was a hopeless hoyden, an out-of-control child who never sat still and behaved, therefore rendering me useless to society. To pay her back and to prove her right, when I was with her, I would throw histrionic temper tantrums in public, right on the streets of Manhattan, which I never did with anyone else. Of course, she lived until she was 96. And much to my chagrin, I look a lot like her.

Grandma, on the other hand, always has been my inspiration for everything that I do. Her passion for excellence, her love for teaching, and her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly were priceless childhood lessons. To her, I was her supremely talented Dolly, her first grandchild, and one that received her unconditional love. She taught me to love parsing sentences. Now, that's some teacher!

Grandma taught for more than 40 years in the Staten Island, NY school system. She taught immigrant children, many of whose parents spoke no English. She brooked no nonsense in her classroom and expected her students to excel, my mother being one of them (Ma says that was the worst school year she ever had, having her mother as a teacher). Often, when I would be staying with her and Grandpa and we were out shopping or having dinner, a former student would come up to her, hug her, and thank her for everything she had done. She always remembered the student's name. That made a big impression on me as a child.

The original curmudgeon of the family, Grandma never minced words. When Oma complained to her that grass wouldn't grow on my father's grave, Grandma's answer to that was: "Oh for God's sake, Elisabeth, just move the body somewhere else and be done with it."

My mother tells this story about Grandma's one venture into knitting during WWII. In a fit of patriotic passion, Grandma went to the Red Cross, got yarn, and decided to knit a cap, probably this one. It was a hopeless mess. Somehow, she went from four needles down to one. Ma, who had learned to knit from their Irish housekeeper, Katherine, managed to salvage the cap. Grandma's knitting career was done. She decided that playing the piano at the local USO was a better wartime contribution.

After Grandma had a mastectomy in 1962, one of her arms enlarged due to lymphedema and became enormous. With no treatment back then, she was stuck with the condition. Finding clothes that would accommodate the arm became a big problem. But she managed, being a diligent shopper. However, she loved cardigans and liked to wear them around the house, but had a hard time finding one that fit. My very first knitting design was for her, a drop-shoulder cardigan, with one sleeve sized for her enlarged arm. My mother knit it from red acrylic, since Grandma wanted something she could throw in the washer and dryer. She was thrilled. "Oh, you girls are so talented with your knitting!"

So, in an obtuse way, Grandma was a knitting inspiration. But far more than that, she taught me to speak well, write correctly and coherently, to be the best I could be, to make words from the letters on license plates, and to sing "Baa Baa Black Sheep." She has been gone 22 years. I think of her every day.

Grandma is why I learned to inspire myself. Because she taught me that there was nothing I couldn't learn and execute successfully in life as long as I did my best. One rare and handy woman, who will live on in all that I do. I never would have become a writer if it had not been for her love and encouragement.

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