My grandma has been crocheting baby blankets for more than thirty years.
It sounds like a while, thirty years. For me, rewinding three decades shrinks me to a kid reading Little House on the Prairie under the covers, the inky drizzle of the western North Cascades rainforest pouring from the fir branches outside my window.
My grandma, though, crocheted the first one when my little sister was born, her youngest grandchild. It was pink, with a panda bear in the middle of it. The rest of us were mildly jealous, but we’d already been swathed in quilts and afghans for years, multicolored and memory-laden and just as cozy as anyone could hope for. Grandma has been making blankets of all kinds for as long as I can remember. This was just the first one with a bear.
It could have been the last; my sister was the last grandchild, after all. Some crocheters might have called it with the one blanket, found a natural breaking point with this final baby. When she made that blanket, she was still living in a house with her husband, who had just retired to this far northwestern corner of the country. She had other things to do, and her life only got busier for a while after that. My grandparents sold their house and lived for years out of several travel trailers, bouncing around the country to visit their children and grandchildren, along with the massive extended family that came with my grandpa’s ten siblings. But then there was illness, dementia, a husband to care for and, finally, to bid farewell.
In these years since my grandfather’s passing, Grandma’s hands are seldom still. She has mastered the use of her cell phone and iPad, along with whatever social media her kids and grandkids frequent most regularly, determined to remain in close contact with us even when we decide to live on another coast or continent.
And then there are the blankets, which grow almost constantly from her nimble fingers. She still makes some bears, but also cats, koalas, penguins, and owls. Foxes, gnomes and monkeys emerge row by row, like the lines from a dox matrix printer. She’s never counted them, but she must have made hundreds of them by now, blankets for each of our children, but also every baby (and nearly every child, and also a whole lot of adults) that we know, an ocean of treasured “Grandma Blankets” to keep us all warm.
There is a whole genre of books that are theoretically written for me, but which I haven’t read and mostly avoid. The most generous title I can devise for this category is “Self-Improvement for Christian Ladies.” These books are about goals, ambition, about dreaming big and achieving bigger. These aren’t bad things, of course. They’re just not for everyone, or for every season. And for the moment, I’m reading different books.
I’m reading Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, and discovering that her passion for French cooking came out of a period in which she moved to Paris with her diplomat husband, and spent as much time as she could trying to learn about the language and culture of this place she had not chosen—at least a first—to live. After several years, they left their beloved France, reassigned in the early 1950s to Germany, in their minds an icy land of monsters, by no means redeemed from the horrors of the war recently ended. And yet, despite their misgivings, she learns German, too, and explores German food, shocked to find that neither the food nor the people are as bad as she’d feared (though neither, of course, was French). Her story continues like this, her passion for food, cooking and company a thread that follows her through a series of moves and career uncertainty.
I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s comprehensive history of the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South in the early 20th century. Though she interviewed more than a thousand people while researching her book in the 1990s, in the end Wilkerson focuses on three stories, three migrants. Though all three are fascinating and wonderful in their own ways, my favorite was that of Ida May Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife who left cotton picking in Mississippi in the 1920s, moving north to Chicago. A life that unfolded to include work in healthcare, voting for the first time, raising children and buying a home in an increasingly segregated city, and even meeting the future president, Barack Obama, at a neighborhood watch meeting, hers is a story of remarkable courage, strength and adaptation in the face of a changing world.
And I’m reading Wintering, by Katherine May, a book of essays regarding the healing power of rest, quiet and fallowness on the soul. I learn about hibernation and arctic swimming, and the simple practices by which Scandinavians survive and even cherish the coldest, darkest parts of the year. I laugh to hear a British author call herself “soft English” by comparison to her Nordic friends, and wonder what that makes me. I linger on her descriptions of her own times of winter—emotional, physical, and mental winters—periods in which she either chose or was compelled to withdraw into a contemplative, hibernating state before moving forward into growth or productivity.
They’re very different from each other, these books, but in each I find a kindred sort of woman, one who didn’t shout her agenda at her life circumstances—spouses’ careers, family life and their own health notwithstanding—but who took each opportunity as a place to listen, learn and grow. Not that every moment was a pleasant one, or every setting the most desirable, but these were women whose ambitions didn’t blind them to the beauty and learning available in the places, roles and states of their real, actual lives.
My grandma is a part of this cadre, too. From her chair, with her busy fingers, she has literally crocheted thousands of miles of connections with the world around her, one colorful animal blanket at a time. She didn’t have to. There are, I suppose, any number of ways to be in your nineties, but she chose this one, continuing like the women I’ve been reading about to be still, to be here, to pay attention to each moment and see what she can do with it. I am honored to know her, and each day hope to learn, if only just a little bit, to be more like her.
A few days ago, when the fever of the Pacific Northwest’s record-breaking heatwave broke, I woke in the middle of the night with only a sheet to cover me. Feeling cold was so unfamiliar that it took a moment for me to realize what I wanted. When I did, though, I reached under my bed and pulled out a small blanket, an owl crocheted by my grandma. Perfect, I thought. Because it really is.