My friend Jennifer and I like to lunch. When we both lived in Iowa we met in small towns between our two municipalities. We crisscrossed Eastern Iowa looking for interesting eating nooks housed in odd places such as a former funeral home (Le Claire), a pioneer butchery (Anamosa), a historic downtown (Mt. Vernon), and a modern grocery store (Cascade). Homemade pie was an often unmet requirement for getting our luncheon business. Occasionally we did find it and savored each bite between smiles.
After lunch, which had to be at a minimum two hours in length, we would mosey through the local shops drawn especially to the antiques of our state’s European settlers’ past. Moseying often turned into pawing through piles of handiwork linens and lace and more than one purchase. Giggles accompanied our purchases as we imagined (and rightfully so) our husbands’ bewilderment for our need for old linens and lace.
My grandmother Lillian was an avid producer of handiwork. She kept her hands busy with needles and crochet hooks seemingly during every spare moment of her day. Lillian spent countless hours making sure her five children, eleven living grandchildren, and maybe the first couple of great grandchildren were amply supplied with clothes, quilts, afghans, sweater vests, and an assortment of crocheted lace. To say she was prolific is a gross understatement. At last count I alone own thirty-three pieces of Lillian’s handiwork including:
- 1 child’s sweater vest
- 2 pillows
- 1 afghan
- 2 quilts
- 1 quilted soft turtle
- 1 lace collar
- 4 dresser scarves
- 9 lace doilies
- 12 snowflake ornaments
It’s hard for me to imagine the life Lillian lived in an era in which making food from scratch every day and often for every meal and washing clothes using a ringer before hanging them on the line to dry was the norm. Her days were filled with manual chores with little time to sit. Early in her life she faced her mother’s debilitating illness and adulthood brought joy as well as sometimes empty cupboards at dinner time, a loved one’s addiction, her child’s polio and its aftermath, the great depression, World War II, and years of limited resources. Yet Lillian, like so many women of her time and before, seemed to live their joys and sorrows through their hands often in the spare and stolen moments of the day.
When I was about ten or so, Lillian taught me to crochet. We sat on our living room sofa, the one neither of my grandmothers could get up from because it was too soft. She calmly and quietly showed me the basic stiches. First casting on, followed by the slip knot, then the chain stitch, and finally single and double crochet. At the end of a series of lessons, she gave me one of her crotchet hooks which was green and plastic. For a time I happily made potholders for my mother at Christmastime and blankets for my dolls. Eventually however my energies went toward other things as I grew up and away.
Lillian died while I was in college. Years later my mother gave me Grandma Lillian’s bright green, vinyl, homemade case full of crochet hooks as a remembrance. Hooks of all sizes and colors, fourteen in all, fell out of the case when I opened it. Some were plastic and some were the fine metal hooks Lillian used to crochet lace. I added my green plastic beginners hook, a gift from the master, to the bunch wanting to so very much take up crocheting again.
Oh I tried, maybe a decade after Lillian’s death. First I was befuddled, then distracted, and finally quit. I wondered if classes held up the street from my Chicago apartment would help. But life intervened before I committed to getting help. Years later I tried to teach my eldest son one very cold winter evening. He insisted on black yarn making it hard to see the stitches. We were somewhat successful but I was no Lillian in craft or patience that was for sure.
Bits of Lillian’s lace still carpet our home. One of the dresser scarves dances in a window as a valance. Two more dress up a side table and a book shelf. The snowflakes dangle from branches along with twinkling lights during Christmas and Epiphany. The presence of these pieces warm up our living spaces with their beauty and the love in which they were made and given.
I wonder sometimes if Lillian’s lace could speak, what it would tell me. Would it remind me that skills such as crocheting teach us to attend to the simplicity of each stitch and to count our way through tasks including times of hardship? Maybe the lace would say “pay attention,” reminding me that time slips quickly away just like string slipping into and out of knots with the flick of fingers and wrists. Or maybe the lace would say something quiet such as handiwork is a way to keep breathing stitch by stitch, count by count, and breath by breath when life throws its inevitable punches to our guts.
Jennifer and I lunched last week again after a year’s separation. We met in a historic hotel downtown Dubuque. Afterwards we wandered into a dress shop instead of an antique store. We ended up buying the same dress which I’m sure stumped our husbands even more than the old linens and lace we were formerly known to bring home. We then found homemade peach pie in an old neighborhood bar of all places nestled against one of the many limestone cliffs of this river town. We savored the cinnamon of the sugared peaches while trying not to look at the big screen television.
Later in the afternoon I drove south on Highway 151 toward home. I passed many towns Jennifer and I had succumbed to the allure of old linens and lace in. I remembered we also bought other trinkets in some of these towns as well. One time we both took home large bunches of curly willow branches that barely fit in our cars. Lillian’s snowflakes now dangle from these same branches in my living room.
My children will never have the images imprinted on their brains of this quiet yet regal woman named Lillian expertly knotting fine thread into lace as if it were as easy as walking. This habit no longer exists in we who follow Lillian in her lineage. What these pieces of lace will mean to my children as they come into adulthood is yet to be revealed.
So for now I cherish my pieces of Lillian’s collected work and in these words hope to pass on a bit of something about their meaning. Lillian left me a lot of love and maybe even a bit of cloaked advice. But possibly of even more importance, Lillian left me an amalgamation of her gratitudes, her worries, her prayers, her humanity, and her hopes for the future of her family…one lovely stitch at a time.