Johnson County Library and The Writers Place are pleased to announce that Martha Gershun has won the essay category of our writing contest on the theme of WOMEN'S VOICES with "Channeling Marjorie".
Martha Gershun recently retired as Executive Director from Jackson County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). Her first book, "Care & Custody: A Novel of 3 Children at Risk," was published in June. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, SELF Magazine, Kveller, and the Kansas City Star.
There is something deeply intimate about knitting with another woman’s yarn: fingering the textures, gauging the colors. There is a special bond created when you work the very material that she chose to work herself. And when that woman is dead, the intimacy becomes infused with added mystery. There is obvious revelation: She liked browns and greens. She preferred medium needles. She bought on sale. And there are numerous unanswered questions: Why did she buy nine skeins of butter yellow when she clearly preferred more muted tones? What was the plan for the dozen twists of forest green? Was she planning a special gift – or did these yarns just strike her fancy piled high (and cheap) on the craft store shelf?
For the past nine months I have been knitting with Marjorie’s yarn. Marjorie was my dear friend Rick’s mother, grandmother to his adult son Josh, my friend as well. I only met her once, five years ago, at her adult daughter’s funeral. We spoke for a few minutes; knitting did not come up.
But I knew a lot about Marjorie from stories Rick told. She had been a nurse, with a career, back before women routinely worked outside the home. She was devoted to her husband, the family patriarch, packing up and moving the family without complaint each time he had an opportunity for career advancement – six times before they settled in Kansas City for good. She was Germanic and Nordic in both ancestry and character. She didn’t hug her children, and she never tucked them in at night. She took care of their needs in a functionally maternal way, and they were left to figure the rest out for themselves. And she was an accomplished knitter.
That last trait, the most important from my point of view, was casually divulged. One day I complimented Rick on a particularly nice sweater – green, soft, cable knit. “My mother made it,” he said. Up until that very moment, I had no idea that his mother knitted, let alone knitted well. Considering Rick knew how much I liked to knit (and how much he liked the warm scarf I made him one birthday out of precious alpaca), this was a pretty big oversight.
Then this Christmas I got a surprise from Josh -- a garbage bag filled with Marjorie’s yarn. She hadn’t been able to knit in years; fibromyalgia had inflamed her hands, and it was now too painful to hold the needles. Josh came across the stash in a closet and asked if he could share it. Marjorie must have agreed, because the yarn was transferred in front of a local restaurant one cold December night.
I accepted that first distribution greedily. Browns and greens and variegated skeins with deep purple strands mixed in. What a treasure!
For weeks Rick had been reporting that Marjorie, now 88, was failing fast. I sent a handwritten note to this woman I had only met once, thanking her for the generous gift and promising to be a good steward of her yarn. And then, in a frantic race against time, I knitted like a mad woman – a scarf of muted browns for Rick, another from those skeins with the purple for Josh. I wanted Marjorie to see something beautiful created from her yarn one more time before she died. I knew I was making this story up, but I wanted this woman I barely knew to see that her yarn could represent just a little bit of immortality.
I don’t know if that deeper meaning got through, but Rick reported back that his mother liked the scarves a great deal. The urge to rush had been prescient; by April both Marjorie and her 87-year-old husband, were dead.
Tackling the monumental task of clearing out his parents’ stuff, Rick discovered two more garbage bags filled with yarn – more than double that first stash. Now the rest of Marjorie’s yarn is mine.
For the past two months I have been knitting squares of brown and green and beige, each worked in a different stitch. There is the easy mistake-stitch rib that is my “go to” stitch, the one I used for the winter scarves for Rick and Josh. There is the cable stitch I chose because I found it in a knitting magazine I also inherited from Marjorie. And there is the tuck stitch I had never tried before – because I felt it was important to try something new with this old yarn.
This whole time I have been knitting with Marjorie’s yarn I have been thinking about her. What was it like to be a woman of that generation, when pursuing higher education and seeking a career were the exception and not the norm? What does it mean to never hug your children, while devoting night after night making beautiful garments to keep them warm? Was she lonely, packing up and moving, leaving friends and community to follow her husband, year after year after year? Is that why she knit?
When I finish this blanket, I will give it to Rick. He is living in his parents’ home now, and I like to think of this blanket living there, too – his mother’s yarn made manifest by his best friend. I like to think we will both be keeping him warm.
Marjorie did not plan for her yarn to go to me. I doubt she planned for it to go to anyone. Like all of us, she expected to live long enough to use every skein.
But Marjorie died with the work unfinished, and I have been honored and blessed to share the textures and colors and weights that called to her. It is the only thing left I can do for her, this fellow knitter, who birthed a line of men I care for very much: to weave her memory into the fabric, rhythmic row after rhythmic row. I hope, when my time comes, someone will do the same for me.