As the sun fades from the kitchen mid-afternoon, my mother furrows her brow at the knitting draped over her knees. The two pieces of a cowl she's trying to put together with three needles are a jumble of burgundy loops at the row where they should join, some strangely tight, others oddly loose, in a stockinette pattern that should be completely even. She mumbles to herself as she peers at the instructions, counts by twos in Cantonese along the width of the cowl and then utters with dismay, "I'm missing a stitch!"
Across the table, I set my own knitting on my lap and wait to see if she wants help. For the last hour, my mother has been going back and forth over the same few rows, taking out mistakes only to add other ones, and it is all I can do to let her continue without intervention -- getting more involved risks disrupting the balance we've managed to achieve on this visit so far. No fights or gross misunderstandings, as we are prone to have at least once per trip.
We've been talking, certainly -- just light conversation about nothing of great importance. Unfortunately, I suspect the more she speaks, the more errors she makes in her work. Neither of us would win contests for being able to walk and chew gum. But my gradual retreat for her sake from the chit-chat in our knitting circle of two hasn't seemed to prevent her from gabbing on, interrupting herself only to exclaim over new tangles.
This time still, she returns to counting, trying to determine where her stitch has fallen, so I go back to the little blue sweater on my own needles. The piece I'm working on has been growing at a creep, not because the pattern is hard but because the numerous cables are slow-going. I think of the intricately textured baby vests and cardigans Nga Po, my mother's mother, used to turn out so quickly for all of her grandchildren and have to marvel at her skill. No patterns, no guidelines, just intuition. "Nga Po could look at someone else's work and duplicate it, even resize it," my mother tells me whenever we talk about her mother's talents.
"Nga Po taught you to knit, right?" I ask.
"The basics," my mother says. "She was so patient. Whenever I messed up, I'd take my work to her and she'd help me fix it. Every time, no matter how tangled up. She was so good too -- I don't know how she could figure out where I'd made my mistakes, it was so bad sometimes!"
I, too, can only wonder how my grandmother could see the often deceptive logic of stitches meant to twist, cross, double, or join in their over-under fashion to produce the leaves, diamonds, and other figures she'd create in an evening -- frequently while playing mahjong -- for the tiny garments she'd send us. I try to picture her, the same two lines between her eyebrows that are now between my mother's, as she peers at my mother's needles. She holds the mass of yarn in both hands, her long fingers gently stretching the web of loops and holes that spell out their secrets in a script only she can read, and suddenly the point of one needle flicks into action. It noses into the heart of a row, fishes up some length of yarn, the other needle grabs it and begins to work in tandem, and like magic, the tangle is transformed. It has happened too quickly for me to see what she's done, but there's the panel of knits and purls, whole again.
This isn't the only moment in which I've tried to draw my grandmother's quiet presence near during these months of preparation for motherhood. Because the beginning of this pregnancy was shaky -- there were questions about the baby's viability around 7-8 weeks -- we waited as long as possible before telling our families our good news. So in the first trimester, while we watched anxiously for signs that we could breathe more easily, I placed my grandmother's photo on my nightstand. Please protect this baby, I asked her, a mother of six, before turning off the light at the end of the day. While I've never practiced ancestor worship as her generation did, the idea that she was always a guardian to the integrity of her family -- the thread that drew it close even in her old age -- made her seem a natural confidante for my worries. And, of course, all the questions and hopes and bizarre hormone-induced dreams I'd wake up to the next morning, unable to share them yet with anyone else.
Now in the darkening kitchen, there is only the whish of one needle against another -- my mother has stopped talking; her error must be serious. I glance at the clock. The following day, we are both slated to head to Boston, where my sisters are throwing a baby shower for me, and neither of us is packed. But I resist the urge to go fold my clean laundry for the trip while my mother's concentration deepens.
There is much I wish I could talk about with my mother while we still have this time alone together -- all that I kept between me and my grandmother's picture, to start with, and the roller coaster of anticipation I've been on as this final trimester has begun. In Boston, we'll be busy with shower preparations -- more cooking, at the very least -- and my sisters will be there, of course. Not that I'm not looking forward to seeing them, but my mother is an even more scattered person when all of us are gathered. Like this woman who can't help putting more tangles in her knitting just because we're talking, my mother is practically impossible to have a real conversation with in the presence of all three daughters. She'll ask one person a question and in the same breath turn to another to comment about something else before the first can answer. I find myself stepping away from her attempts to divide her attention in this fashion because it feels petty -- and futile -- to want her to focus for once on each of us, one at a time.
All the more reason to talk now, though from the harried look on my mother's face, this isn't the time either. But just as I start to tuck my work back in its bag, my mother lifts her knitting from her lap, turns it left and right, and shakes her head. "This is a disaster," she says. She leans across the table, holding out her needles. "C, can you be Nga Po for me?"
I'm momentarily thrown by her almost plaintive tone. In an instant, that image of my grandmother holding my mother's tangled yarn comes back to me, and it is at once endearing and painful. It's idealized in my imagination, I know, but it's the quintessential picture of a mother-daughter moment, the little girl at her mother's elbow, trusting that she will make everything right. I've missed having that trust in my own mother, especially throughout this pregnancy. Not that she would have had any way to influence the outcome of this baby's life in his first tenuous weeks, but on an emotional level, I needed to know she would be an ear that would truly listen. Which she hasn't been for so long partly because I've been too skittish to try confiding in her, afraid of being hurt by her response, distracted or otherwise. Again, it's the risk of misunderstandings I shy away from.
After a second, I take the mess of stitches from my mother's hands and lay the work on the table, stretching it apart in search of an answer for her. I don't have my grandmother's knitting intuition, but I do have the pattern my mother's been working from. I lift it from the seat next to her and scan the instructions for clues.
"So you put one piece on top of the other and knit across the rows simultaneously to join them?" I ask, looking at the half-completed graft.
"Yes, but then I realized I had dropped the stitch and needed to undo the row again," my mother says.
This has to be where the problem lies. Sure enough, I can see that my mother has started to unravel the row properly on one needle's piece of her cowl but not on the other. In fact, she's dropping or twisting her stitches each time she tries to separate the pieces further, hence the wild variations in her tension. But how to fix this? I can't even begin to trace where the errors originate. Reluctantly, I explain what I've figured out. "I'm sorry I can't tell you what to do next, though," I say.
But my mother's hands now spring into action. "I know what to do," she reassures me. And with the point of a needle, she works column by column, sometimes fishing up a length of yarn, sometimes untwisting a loop and returning it to her other needle, and suddenly, like magic, the tangles are transformed. There are her two panels of knits and purls, whole once more.
"Finally!" my mother says. "I would never have understood what to do if you hadn't explained the problem to me."
I laugh in amazement. "I thought you needed Nga Po to do the repairs!" I say.
"No," my mother says. "I can fix it once I know what I've done wrong." She pats the soft wool and then puts her needles down.
We are neither of us experts like Nga Po. But maybe that is what I need to remember more often about my mother and motherhood -- to trust that she may surprise me with what she does understand when I'm least expecting it.
All the same, I don't pursue any deeper conversation for now. As we both roll up our knitting for the day, it's enough for me that we've solved this practical problem together. That we are a mother and daughter still at peace.
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