KNITTING FROM THE TANGLED SKEIN
[For Maggie, on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday.]
Maggie knits. You may imagine I mean that Maggie plops in an armchair, watches professional wrestling, and produces scarves and gloves and sweaters from a thread of yarn bent to the rhythmic clicking of fingers and needles. She may. I do not know. Nevertheless, I say, Maggie knits. Not every knitting produces garments. When bones break, the fractures knit. When relationships fray, tattered feelings require knitting. Even history, a chaos of threads, begs a careful hand to untangle the skein and weave a useable fabric. Maggie knits in this latter sense.
Like all American families (except perhaps a few Amerind tribes from ancient migrations), events exploded Maggie’s historical family. Shards fell everywhere: Italy, Cuba, Ireland, across the United States. The human dynamite was probably pedestrian enough, the typical corrosives of modern life. Cheap land over the hill sends a brother packing. A war kills a young wife, and grief drives her bereaved across mountains. A corrupt landowner connives to seize a poor family’s homestead; they move on. A job beckons in another land. Plague decimates. A lover begs to return to her family of origin—elsewhere. Oceans intervene. Mail gets lost. Elders die. Exigencies preclude travel. Connections moulder. Records perish in fire and rot. Relationships languish. Finally, memory fails. What had once been ancient, spreading, oaken “family” becomes scattered seedlings with shallow roots. Histories grow blank.
Maggie lost her parents young. Her siblings were problematic. Don and the girls and Don’s family were Maggie’s all, which, though much, was not enough. So, Maggie took up knitting. She plies her family’s photos, guessing connections. When she discovers one, Maggie calls, then visits. She sniffs Irish church records. She knocks on doors of Sicilian “Fimias.” Maggie thwarts political impediments to build ties to Cuban cousins. She drafts Mormons to her tasks, ferreting connections in their vast archive of the unbaptized dead. She intervenes with nieces in the Ozarks, and summers with distant relatives’ children. Maggie has even tortured a bishop or two, in a kind, mostly civil manner. All in the name of knitting together the fragments of that explosion we call post-Enlightenment modernity. All in the name of knitting a family.
To knit is to create. All creativity takes something that exists and bends it in a fresh direction, creates associations that would otherwise go unnoticed. So, family is to Maggie an art form. Her medium is pastiche. She glues history’s detritus back into a meaningful shape. She introduces members to other members. She writes letters, makes calls. She weaves in a global web of associations, her living work of art. Few understand her obsession. That is typical of creative work. Most do not get it.
So, when Maggie’s grandchildren ask what Grandma Maggie did, tell them she knit.