I’m leaving the gym in my usual rush when a table festooned with purple reusable tote bags and decidedly unhealthy snacks catches my eye. Two older women from yoga class man the table.
“We’re recruiting new knitters for our group, Knit One, Nibble One. We meet on Tuesdays at the Senior Center to make shawls for cancer patients during chemotherapy. Want to join us?”
I’m crochet-hooked. My mother and grandmother both knit, and taught me. I have run out of friends, relatives, and random strangers to knit scarves for. I suspect that they view these gifts much as I did the knit caps that my grandmother churned out. I imagine myriad scarves languishing in gift-recycle limbo.
“That would be great, I say. I need a new project and can knit anything as long as it’s a rectangle.”
They seem genuinely surprised and pleased. “The starter kit costs $25 and it includes yarn, the pattern, knitting needles, a crochet hook and a package of nibbles. And you get to keep the purple bag!” As if this would be the clincher. They had me at “nibbles.”
“You don’t have to come to knit at the center; you can just drop the shawls off. But it’s really fun.”
I choose a yarn color, pay them, and continue my interrupted rushing, intrigued by this new thread. I don’t plan to go sit with them every Tuesday, but I don’t say that. I’ll just knit at home and drop the finished shawls off, I think.
I start that night. The yarn’s cool hues and gentle clicking of the smooth bamboo needles soothe me. Seeing the swath of shawl emerge with that rhythmic movement is satisfying. I imagine someone with an IV port and cap-covered head swaddled in its warmth, and feel strongly connected to my now-gone mother and grandmother who shared this craft with me.
After I finish the first shawl, I go to the Senior Center to drop it off and get more yarn for the next. I spot the leader as soon as I walk in. She is tall and thin, with an asymmetrical short spiked hairdo.
“Oh hi! You’re Diane! So nice to meet you! The shawl is great- that’s such a nice pattern you worked in! What colors do you want next? I have great self-striping yarn. SIT! Stay for a while… I made matzoth brittle. It’s delicious…” She is a dynamo – the heart and soul of the group. A carefully clad and coifed Tasmanian devil whirlwind of activity and entertaining stories. I like her immediately.
So I stay. And come back the next week and the next. The real surprise comes from what I get from the group:
First, flattery: At the Senior Center, members look at me askance when I walk in. At 56, I’m “the baby” of the group – by decades, in some cases. In this age-biased world, these ladies remind me why we should all be filled with joy to get older.
Second, the unlikely camaraderie: I’d not have met any of these women in the normal course of my suburban life, and it’s lovely to have friends from a different demographic different.
Third: Wisdom abounds. These women illuminate my path with “purls” of wisdom about life. Their collective perspective is invaluable.
And most importantly: Support from more than underwire and Spanx. Several members of the group came to my mother’s funeral even though it was the day before Thanksgiving during a swirling snowstorm. A few of us meet at the local deli for lunch before knitting. I broke down in tears there one day when I felt overwhelmed by my house sale and subsequent move. They held my hands and hugged me.
We sit, we knit, and we kibbitz each week. Our tireless founder, leader, and feeder orchestrates the group with seemingly effortless finesse. She has a stockpile of yarn in her basement that would deflect a nuclear attack. She takes orders when someone needs new yarn after they’ve finished a shawl, remembers each member’s preferred colors and brands, and supplies us each week with our raw material at a deep discount. Like junkies, we await our fix in the form of cellophane-wrapped skeins, and slip her our payments in folded cash. She also takes raw baking materials and concocts delectable weekly treats for us: rugelach, dark chocolate pistachio cookies (my favorite), dream bars, apple cake, and cranberry biscotti.
She collects the finished products, tidies loose ends, wraps and tags them with the knitter’s first name, and delivers them to infusion centers all over the area. Knit One, Nibble One has donated nearly 2,000 shawls since she started the group. We receive touching feedback about their impact – how a patient’s favorite color brought a smile to their face, or how they didn’t expect the chill of chemo and appreciated the warm virtual hug. One woman even asked to be buried in hers.
So when pneumonia kept her from the group for several weeks, we were a bit adrift. Despite home confinement, she always sent out weekly emails to take yarn requests. Her housekeeper and companion brought in yarn and nibbles, which she never failed to prepare, and picked up finished shawls.
I suspected something more was amiss when, in response to one of my checking-in emails, she said that while the pneumonia had improved slowly, the doctor wanted some other tests “just to make sure everything else was ok.”
She confirmed our suspicions in a sweet and touching letter that I read to the group. It was kidney cancer. She would rejoin the group when her pneumonia subsided, and while she explored doctors, diagnoses, and treatment options. The pneumonia had likely been a gift in disguise since it was during diagnostics for that ailment that the doctors found the first hints of the larger looming menace. She had no idea what the future held, but would come for as long as she could.
One by one, the knitting ladies put their needles down in their laps. The flow of multicolored yarns stopped, replaced by tears. Some looked at me as I read and fought back tears myself. I had developed such affection for her, and this just felt like too much, especially so close on the heels of losing my mother. Others looked down at their hands, stilled by the news. The room, normally filled with a cacophony of chatter, fell silent.
She returned a few weeks later after her pulmonologist cleared her, but still without a clear treatment plan for the cancer. Once she settled into her usual seat, handed out yarn, collected completed shawls, and laid out an array of freshly baked treats, we presented her with her very own rich, cream-colored handmade shawl.