Knit and Purl

As a restless spirit in my youth, I responded with impatience and irritation if anyone mentioned the word ‘crafts.’ Such endeavors took skill, time, patience, and reasonable coordination—none of which I possessed. I flirted with a sewing machine but lost interest if the project took more than 2 hours.

Now, slowed by the progression of arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis, these later years fill with the reverence of small accomplishments. That somehow kindled a desire to work with fabric and thread or yarn and needles. While I admit to defeat in beading, recently I decided to learn how to knit. Asking a friend to teach me resulted in the advice to get a book, some needles, and yarn, and teach myself. So equipped with library books, YouTube videos, bargain store yarn, and one set of needles, I began.

After many dropped needles and mysterious stitches, after tangles, unexpected knots, and aching hands, a rhythm began to form—the slide of needles, the yarn whispering. Quite suddenly I was transported back to childhood and the vision of my mother’s hands, manicured nails pointed just so, guiding the soft yarn into form.

My mother’s hands. Large. Soft, no matter the weather or task, from her nighttime ritual of La Viola hand cream. Every week she manicured her nails— I never saw them chipped or ragged. Bright, shiny Avon-red colors. Her left hand always adorned with a simple wedding band and sparkling engagement ring. For washing dishes or scrubbing bathtubs, her hands encased in pink rubber gloves.

For shoveling snow or hanging wash on the clothesline in winter, she covered her hands in giant mittens, which she of course had knitted. The mittens and their memory always bring a smile. She had made them large, so she could layer them over a pair of wool gloves—blue and yellow stripes that resembled giant bumble bees.

My mother’s hands were loveliest at the piano—fingers curved elegantly, wrists bent, hands lifting from the keys with each note. The hands of a queen, I used to think. While visiting my grandmother in the Ozarks one summer, we sat together at the piano, three generations, and sang our way through an old hymnbook. My mother gamely played each of our requests. After nearly two hours, she closed the hymnal, and I grabbed another—ready to keep going. My grandmother patted me gently and said—“I think your mother is tired.”

Those lovely hands that had danced across the keys were swollen and red—naked of the wedding rings. Filled with the poison of cancer that soon took her life. I learned a new vocabulary—mastectomy, radiation, prosthesis. I watched my mother’s waist-length hair chopped into wisps, and then I watched my mother die.

Click go my knitting needles, as I concentrate on a legacy—one of survival. I too encountered breast cancer. Such a legacy made me aware, not fearful. I was vigilant but confident in medical advances. And when I found a lump on my own breast, I calmly made the phone call to my doctor. The busy office had openings several weeks away. By the time I saw a doctor, a second, then third lump had appeared. Somewhere along the line was a mammogram with bright spots that looked like stars, a biopsy, and other doctors. Next was the wait to see a surgeon and two visits to the oncologist.

Finally—almost 6 months after I had found the first lump—I underwent a bilateral mastectomy. The cancer had spread from its earlier boundaries. Chemotherapy followed.

I am alive, and I am grateful. The cancer was identified in its early stages. I had great health insurance. I encountered a compassionate, knowledgeable team of specialists. Friends and coworkers cheered me through times of discouragement and shared in the victories.

I also encountered a bumbling primary care physician whose intention to calm panic when women discover a lump could have cost me my life. I had to push for appointments, get second opinions, and follow a gut feeling. I learned that women (and men) often need to be their own healthcare advocates.

Now, in my sixties, I am full of goals and dreams for the future. My mother was filled with such wonder too, but she died short of her own 57th birthday. Weddings, birthdays, holidays, the birth of my children—all without my mother. How I miss her.

I share my mother’s legacy of breast cancer. I believe I am alive because breast cancer awareness and prevention have been brought out of whispered corridors into bright, hopeful places. Get a mammogram. Check the boobs. Hug a survivor. Fight for a cure, and knit with hope.


  1. What a good writer you are! Enjoyed your life story. Ours are similar ones. I’m in my sixties and my mother died of breast cancer when she was 58. Never cared for knitting, but I may pick up the needlepoint after leaving it on the back burner for 30+ years. Just retired in December from public school teaching.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I am sorry that you also lost a dear mother to cancer. Congratulations on your retirement–30 years is a long time in the teaching field. I am am sure you miss different aspects of teaching, and I wish you a fulfilling next phase of life. Needlepoint–that is a lovely craft.

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