Grandpa stitches a new family tradition

Published April 20, 2007

Henry Brown started preparing for his first grandchild months before he knew when - or if - a baby would ever come.

It was January 2006 and neither son nor daughter, both in their 30s, had made him a grandpa.

"When I had my kids, I was in my 20s, but times have changed," he said with a playful roll of the eyes.

Whenever the time did come, Henry would have plenty stories to tell.

He could tell how his great-grandfather, W.J. Houlihan, was a Tampa City Council member and Gasparilla founder, that his wife, Mary, is the daughter and granddaughter of Gasparilla queens, and that her mother's maiden name was Swann, as in Tampa's Swann Avenue.

He's not good with dates, but he'd tell how he was a banker for more than 20 years, how he owned a company that made parade floats, then became a restaurateur for three whole days before a fire burned the place down.

He'd say how he did most of the family cooking - good ol' country ham with grits, biscuits and a little red-eye gravy for breakfast. (He had to. About the only thing Mary knew how to do when they got married was open a bag of Oreos for dessert.)

A 6-foot-3 Boss Hog-looking man, he'd surely have the full attention of the grandchildren, and just about anybody else in the room.

But one thing was missing in his attache of history to be handed down: The christening gown. It was gone.

After his mother died about five or so years ago, the family searched the house and couldn't find it.

Brown had worn it when an Episcopalian priest sprinkled his forehead nearly 64 years ago. His son and daughter wore it for their christenings, too, at St. Andrew's Episcopal.

Only one thing to do when a tradition dies: Make a new one.

So just as Noah built an ark before signs of a flood, Henry set out to make a new christening gown for family tree branches that didn't exist.

He had learned to knit just a few months earlier, in the fall of 2005. He was looking for a hobby. Kimberly and Hank had grown up and left home, and Mary was busy teaching fourth-graders at Christ the King Catholic School during the day.

A football injury from his college days left him with a bum knee, so he can't do much walking or running. Most days, he's at home with Tigger and Chloe. "Between me and the cats, we're the only ones here."

Then Kimberly told him about a place called Knit 'n Knibble on S Dale Mabry where he could take knitting classes.

"It was me, the only guy, and a bunch of women. And I kind of like that because I got a lot of attention."

A quick study, he finished the beginners projects, some Christmas stockings and wool purses, for the women in his life. One day he asked store owner Caroline Kerr if she had a pattern for a christening gown.

She showed him one, complete with all the symbols and shorthand for skilled knitters. It was Greek to Henry, so she translated the details into simple terms. He wrote out her instructions longhand, then typed them later on his computer.

He had the will to do it, she believed, but there would be challenges.

To make the delicate baby's dress, he would have to use skinny white yarn and a size 0 needle, about as small as they come.

The thing is, she said, "He's got these great big giant hands."

And the intricate pattern called for nearly 500 stitches to a row and 10 rows to the inch. The gown's skirt, not counting the bodice, was 36 inches of woven, seamless lace.

For hours each week, save for a few periods of rest, Henry sat on the worn cushions of his favorite chair. There, away from distraction, he began yet a new story to be told.

The ending wouldn't come for 11/2 years, on Easter 2007, when the gown was finally complete.

How it started seems almost prophetic now. It must have been just a few months into the project that something very natural happened.

And this Sunday, Emerson Swann Brown, the 5-month-old daughter of Henry's son, Hank, and daughter-in-law, Julie Brown (yes, the one who ran for City Council in March), will be christened at St. Andrew's just like her dad.

She shall wear a white linen slip embroidered with her initials and, of course, the white gown that her grandfather made.

When the service and then the family gathering are done, Henry will tuck the gown carefully, safely away.

For the next one.