A couple of years ago, I submitted an essay to Real Simple about the meaning of love. I didn’t win. I was going through some old files, and I ran across my final draft. It may have been a little off the mark for the contest, but I think it’s good just the same. It’s a little long, so check back for the second half tomorrow.
When I was a kid, people sometimes said I seemed old. I knew it was because I spent the first ten years of my life in a house with two senior citizens.
My great-aunt Addie, or Aunt B, as I called her, was short and stout. She wore thick-soled shoes and carried her purse in the crook of her arm. Her voice was high but not shrill or unpleasant. She spoke with the unhurried pace of someone who was raised in the South. When she smiled, her eyes crinkled tightly behind a pair of tulip-shaped oversized frames. If Aunt B wasn’t with a church group or her ladies league, she could be found at her dining table turned craft station, stitching together scraps of fabric for a new dress or weaving yarn into doilies and toilet paper cozies. She lived on the second floor of a two-family flat. My grandfather, mother, and I lived below.
Pa Pa, known to the world as Ezekiel, was long and lean. He kept his reading glasses in the front pocket of a crisply ironed shirt. He walked with an easy, slew-footed gait, and he was never in much of a rush about anything. I think life in the military and years of working at a factory made him allergic to speed. He grew the juiciest tomatoes, made delicious peach fried pies, and dabbled in home remedies. Whenever I had a cold, I tried to hide it from him, lest he give me a piece of rock candy. If you haven’t had the pleasure, count yourself lucky. It felt like a lit match traveled down your throat.
Spending post-school afternoons and summers with Pa Pa and Aunt B made my life a little different than most. I didn’t ride bikes or play tag. Arthritis and other ailments precluded my sitters from vigorous activity. Instead, I learned to shuffle cards better than a Las Vegas dealer, to keep birds out of the garden with string and tin pans, and to buff a pair of leather shoes until they shined.
Those lessons, especially the card tricks, have served me well over the years. My lightning-fast style of shuffling is a great conversation starter at parties. The greatest lesson, though, is one Aunt B taught me when I wasn’t paying attention. She used a crochet hook to help me understand the meaning of love.
The summer before I started kindergarten, Aunt B handed me a fat green crochet hook and a ball of yellow yarn. She twisted a loop around the hook and placed her hands over mine. I sat on her lap and was mesmerized as loose yarn transformed into a golden chain. My chain had to be just right, she explained. If I pulled the yarn too tight, I wouldn’t be able to reinsert the hook for the next link. If my chain were too loose, the work would be stretchy and full of holes. Day after day that summer, I sat under her craft table and practiced making the perfect chain.
Aunt B would inspect my work with her glasses perched low on her nose.
“It’s close,” she’d say as she unraveled my tangled attempts.
It was fall before I got the hang of it. After that, I learned to join the ends of my chain and add on stitches. The goal, I think, was to make a cap. I crocheted round and round. Somehow, though, the circle morphed into an oval. I kept crocheting. When I ran out of yellow yarn, Aunt B handed me a ball of chestnut brown. By the time I was finished, I had a lopsided scarf that resembled a braided rug. I wore it to school every day until I lost it on the playground. I cried for days.
Over time, my stitches became more precise, and I was able to use smaller hooks. I never graduated to doilies and toilet paper cozies, but my Barbie dolls had a wardrobe of sweaters, caps, and skirts. And I still made the occasional scarf. Aunt B praised everything I showed her, and she always had an extra hook or ball of yarn for me to use on the next project.
My mom got married when I was 10, and we moved into a suburban neighborhood. While contending with the challenge of being the new kid, I made friends and found other interests. By the time I hit junior high, crochet was a thing of the past. Every now and then, Aunt B would ask me about it. I don’t remember what my answers were, but I’m sure they had the disinterested tone of a snotty preteen.
Part Two Posts Wednesday!