My granny taught me to crochet when I was five or six years old. Since I am left-handed, she had to transpose the instructions for me. I don’t know how she did it, but it must have been a gentle, easy process, because I don’t remember any struggle or confusion, just the joy of acquiring a new skill. I crocheted granny squares, and then I found patterns for doilies and Irish lace and I crocheted lots of things, fascinated by the geometry and the patterning, mathematics dancing before my eyes.
My mother crocheted an ambitious granny-square afghan before she was married. Large enough to cover a queen-size bed, in dense, three-ply wool in bright, rich colors and bordered in black, the afghan was my childhood sick-room comfort zone, wrapped around anybody recovering from a stomach-ache or a bad cold.
I still treasure that afghan; I still haul it out to comfort the couch-bound. Though it’s seen many years of hard use, its colors are still bright and fresh. The heavy, bright wool is comforting to the cold and feverish. The wool seems to press down on you, to embrace you, it seems stronger than you are, firmer, more solid. It seems to stand guard over your shivering frame until you recover and kick it off, when, folded back into its place in the linen closet, it awaits its next call to service.
The granny squares make the perfect entertainment for the convalescent eye. Edged in a deep, warm, glossy black, each square is made up of one, two, or three bright colors, sometimes a whole square in one color, just to soak in its richness, a scarlet or emerald green or a bright yellow. Other squares join complements—green and red, or blue and orange, while others show more thoughtful experiments: a line of pink around a tiny square of red, a row of yellow shading into orange, then burnt umber.
I look at those squares now and I see my mother in her twenties, the youngest child and only girl, last to leave home, living with her parents in their newly-built house in the outskirts of the city. I think about the faded color photograph where she holds a dinner-plate-sized dahlia up to her face so her dad could beat his neighbor in their annual dahlia competition. Their new garden produced giant tomatoes, rosebushes with huge, round creamy blossoms, massive peonies, six-feet-tall sunflowers. All of the garden’s richness and color, along with my mother’s dreams for her future life, seemed to migrate into my mother’s afghan.
Granny squares also remind me of the 1970’s when they suddenly became hip. My high-school classmate Judith Killeen started a business making granny-square purses. She earned enough money so that she could hire a dressmaker to sew her clothes. I was deeply impressed with her enterprise, and not surprised at all when Judith went on to engineering school, one of the first women to enroll in the early 1970’s. Her innovative spirit was easy to spot even in high school, as she found a way to exploit the possibilities of the humble granny square.
Crossing Central Park West in New York City one spring day a few years ago, I passed a woman in a scarf made of tiny granny squares, crocheted in a yarn finer than lace-weight, in a bouquet of soft pastels. I was smitten, and ever since, I’ve thought about making a similar scarf, even though I know I couldn’t match the delicacy of the one I glimpsed on the street. I’ve thought about using up all of my crewel yarns, perhaps, or using Rowan’s Kidsilk Haze for a soft effect. So far, I have amassed a few of the squares. Much crocheting is still ahead.
But every square takes me back to my sixth year, sitting beside my granny on the side of her bed in her sunny bedroom on a side street in Detroit, watching her skilled hands, fingers bent inward with arthritis, gently moving her crochet hook in and out, as I hold mine, our heads bent over our work, until I tire of concentrating and rest my cheek against the starched rick-rack at the top of her apron strap, watching as she finishes one more square.