To think of springtime is to think of new lambs, fresh flowers pushing their way up through damp dirt, the smell of earth after the rain, the warmth of the sun on your face while the wind still bites. It’s a time of beginnings, yet not quite a month ago I was faced instead with an ending, as I said good-bye to my Nana, Iris, for the last time. I hope you will indulge me as I do this month’s blog just a bit differently and honour the fine woman who taught me to knit for the first time over 25 years ago.
My Nana was an incredible story-teller, and what I know of her life is made up of strands of those stories woven into the woman I knew. She was born in 1923 in Birmingham, England. She grew up with three sisters and two loving parents. She was top of her class at school and a skilled embroiderer and knitter. Also somewhat of a tomboy, she wasn’t afraid to get dirty or even injured playing with the boys.
She was a tough cookie, but you had to be tough then. The war broke out when she was only 16. She gave up sugar in her drinks to save it up for a weekly cake. She left home and worked in a doctor’s house where she learned the value of both hospital corners and whiskey. The war wasn’t easy on Nana. She left the doctor’s house and worked in a factory where she lost her hair in an accident and even had to go home for a time. She loved and lost, as did so many others. And she continued to be close to her parents, even after they divorced.
In any case, the wartime ended and she met my Granddad, Harry. They started a decorating business together and went job to job, with him on a motorbike and her riding sidecar. They married and had first my mother, Denise, and then my uncle, Rodney. She went back to work and lead her union to pay the women in the factory within one penny of the men’s wages, which she was equally proud and frustrated by whenever she told the tale. Knowing the current gender wage gap, I think she did spectacularly well there. She cared for her children and kept a nice home, and in the evenings liked to sit at my Granddad’s feet for him to play with her hair.
Time passed and my mother met and married my father. It wasn’t long before Nana and Granddad had followed them over to Canada to live. My parents had my three brothers and then me, and across the pond my Uncle and Aunt had married and had my cousin. Nana loved every single one of us. My grandparents went back to England often, and Nana continued to go long after my Granddad passed, until Alzheimer’s prevented it.
As I was growing up, Nana and I were thick as thieves. She was kind and caring, but stubborn and independent almost to a fault. She taught me to bake, lead me to craft, set me for hours making chain stitches on a bright blue piece of scrap fabric, taught me to iron using tea towels (for which she probably wants her time back, since I iron not at all), and of course, when I was about seven years old, Nana taught me to knit. She was one of the fastest knitters I’ve ever seen, even though she knit, and taught me to knit, English style. That first project was made in her favourite mauve colour and was intended to be a scarf for her but after weeks of dropping stitches and accidentally yarning over, the holey, uneven, wavy-edged cloth I made wasn’t large enough and I had no further interest in something so difficult. That is until my eldest niece was born of course, when we joined forces to make a little layette for her. I made the booties. Nana made everything else. By the end, she had 10 great-grandchildren whom she loved dearly, even if she couldn’t knit for them all.
There were a couple of things of hers that have been passed to me, due to my interest in handicrafts.
One is a book about needlework she received in school for being top of her class, and the second, a sewing table filled with her notions that she bought in Austria. I was looking through the table and found some little labels "for my special little girl" and I can't help but wonder if that was me. Her ever present measuring tape, some beautiful little buttons and a souvenir pack of needles are amongst my favourites from that little treasure box.
She was always in my corner, always knew just what to say, but would probably find it ridiculous that I am prattling on so sentimentally. With that, I will simply end by saying that I will be eternally grateful for knowing her, and will miss her always.