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Sunday Journal

The well-knit wisdom of Auntie Sis

Published August 14, 2005

One Sunday my mother, my 95-year-old grandmother and I visited Auntie Sis in her nursing home in Florida. She sat small in her wheelchair, her translucent skin thin and delicate over her sharp cheekbones. Wearing double-knit trousers concealing her lovely legs, she said her dresses didn't ever come back from the laundry. Her walker was parked behind her, a crocheted pouch hanging from the handles. But her blue eyes were still lighthouse beams; her chuckle, an invitation to conspiracy and adventure.

Sis is really my grandmother's first cousin, but they grew up like sisters. I still have a picture of them when they were flappers, with bobbed hair pointing out from under cloche hats, their lovely dropped-waist dresses made of voile, their feet in matching Mary Jane pumps.

She loves to tell me stories, how she and my grandmother wore tight corsets when a handsome young doctor prescribed them to keep their female organs in line. The out-of-style contraptions resulted in quizzical glances from their young dancing partners, who could feel the whalebone through the backs of their dresses. And she boasted about how her Irish setter leaped out of the second-story window to chase the postman, and how her devilish son Dick once pulled the crystal chandelier down onto the coffee table after seeing his first Tarzan movie.

Sis represents the best things in life, the Venetian glass necklaces and Scottish knits she brought me from Europe, the old tales of Josephine Baker's banana dance, my first gin and tonic at 18 when I stayed with her in green, suburban Westfield, N.J., a world away from our dark, rundown Victorian in St. George on Staten Island.

Now she is the same bright, wry lady I've always known, trying to be gallant. There's no smell here, just blank walls with one bold-print calendar signifying the institution. A television blasts in the background. Down the hall a man shouts, "Turn it off! Turn it off!" And the wasted-away residents, slumped in their wheelchairs, inch past the door with their toes.

My mother and grandmother sit in the extra chairs in the room, and I perch on the edge of Auntie Sis' bed.

She asks my grandmother, "Are you still knitting those cotton dishcloths?"

"Oh yes. I still have some cotton left."

I sense that my grandmother wants to offer Sis some dishcloths but realizes she now has no dishes to do.

My mother asks Sis, "Do you ever knit?"

"Oh yes. I just made a baby blanket. It's in the drawer."

I get up and search through the drawers of the small dresser, stunned by how few possessions she has now. I finally locate a soft, blue knitted garment in a bottom drawer.

"Oh, this is beautiful," I exclaim and pass it on to my family.

My grandmother examines it closely and pronounces, "It's a bunting. But it would be too hot in Florida."

Quickly my mother and I chime in, "Oh no, not in air conditioning."

Sis smiles. "Fred says I should make a pink one too." Fred is her other son.

"Oh, that's a great idea," I say, wondering whom these things are for.

"That one took quite a while," she says. "I'll find a simpler pattern next time. Fred took me to get the yarn. The lady was so nice and couldn't believe I was still knitting, at my age. Then Fred and I went for tea. It was the best cup of tea I'd had since I don't know when."

We all sit for a moment, thinking of that tea in a china cup rather than Styrofoam. Suddenly Sis turns to me and asks, "Are you sure you're comfortable sitting on that bed?"

"I'm fine, really."

"But then you're younger, aren't you?" she adds.

In that instant the 50 years separating me from my aunt is not a great distance at all, as she well knows. The flapper, the mother, the wife, the woman seated before me in a wheelchair has seen the years slip by at an ever-accelerating rate. She's probably knitting for the great-grandchildren not yet conceived, trying to stay a step ahead.

- Kathleen Ochshorn is the fiction editor at Tampa Review.

[Last modified August 11, 2005, 10:08:04]

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