This story was first published in the October 2016 issue of The Paragon Journal.

I first met Mavis five years ago, although it seems much longer than that. I feel I’ve known her all my life. It was knitting that brought us together. I decided I wanted to learn the craft, although looking back I’m not really sure why. I always admired seeing what was created, but it never occurred to me to try it myself. Todd had just broken it off with me. Not that I was crushed or anything, far from it. I liked him enough, but there was no love there, and I think he knew it. He said things like, “Sarah, I don’t see this going anywhere.”  I think deep down he wanted to continue the relationship, but he was looking for a girl to fall head over heels in love with him and that wasn’t going to happen with me.

So I had time on my hands, I needed something to fill the void, not in my heart, but in my nights. Anyway, when the adult education flyer from our school district came around, the beginner’s knitting class caught my eye, so I signed up. Little did I know I’d learn a lot more than knitting.

I liked Mavis from the start. She was a tough old broad, or at least that’s how she described herself, and it fit. She was in her sixties, about five feet three with white hair in a shaggy cut as though she couldn’t be bothered fussing over it. While short in stature she had broad shoulders and a posture that most likely in her younger days projected a tomboy image. But she had thin, feminine hands with long fingers fit for a pianist and no doubt helpful with knitting.

Her laugh was contagious, but when angry her tongue could be biting. Yet she had a heart of gold. We hit it off from the first day of class, although I’m not sure what she saw in me. When she went around the room asking why each person wanted to knit most said things like making gifts for relatives or friends, or creating something from nothing, things Mavis later told me she heard many times before. I just said that I was looking for something to do, which was the truth. I remember her smiling when I said that, and she later told me she liked my fresh, direct reply.

She also said that I “got her.” She didn’t have much of a filter, so her comments could be crude sometimes, and brutally honest. Once she told me a striped outfit I was wearing made me look like a walking bar code. I witnessed similar comments, if not worse, to others who were obviously offended, but I just laughed along with her, and she liked that.  But I think it was more than that. I suspect she sensed I was lost and adrift and that she could help. As I said earlier, she had a heart of gold. Mavis was not one to shy away from the most difficult knitting pattern and I think she saw me as another kind of project.

Knitting didn’t come easily to me. You need dexterity, persistence and patience, all of which Mavis had. I was not blessed with an abundance of those qualities. Perhaps that was another reason Mavis took me under her wing. I was slower than the others in learning casting on, and maneuvering the needles was a challenge. I made plenty of mistakes initially, yet Mavis never lost her patience or enthusiasm in working with me.

“Sarah, try to catch your mistakes early on,” she told me, “so you can tink and avoid frogging.”

“What?” I said, not having heard those terms before.

“Tink, which is knit backwards by the way, is undoing knits to get back to the point of the mistake. You would usually do that when you notice the error right away and only have to go back a short way. Frogging is basically unraveling to the point of the error, or the whole thing if needed. It’s a much more drastic technique.”

“Why do they call it frogging?” I asked.

“Because you have to ‘rippit, rippit, rippit.”

She spent extra time teaching me the finer points of knitting until I came to enjoy the process despite my struggles. It was during those extra sessions that our friendship formed. Mavis said that knitting created not only garments but relationships.

“It’s a sisterhood,” she said to me, “we help each other with projects and give advice on how to overcome difficulties or how to make things better. You’ll see.”

And I did see, with her anyway. As we got to know each other we went from talking about knitting to discussing other things and eventually our most inner secrets. Yes, I can make socks and scarves now, not nearly like the ones she made, but good enough. However that’s not all I got from our lessons. As time went on we would sometimes get together socially. Mavis loved sports, especially baseball and football, almost as much as knitting and many nights we’d have pizza and some beers at a sports bar to her heavenly delight. Other times we’d hang out at her place and while she was not one for word games or crossword puzzles so was no fan of Wheel of Fortune, she liked Jeopardy and we’d often keep score of how many each of us got right. She’d always win, and always phrased the answer in the form of a question.

After about a year or so, as my tension became more consistent and I got better at working the needles, my knitting improved so our lessons got fewer as did talk of knitting. It was one night at her favorite sports bar after a supreme pizza and a few beers, that she told me her story. She had asked me if I had a “young man” as she put it. I didn’t bother telling her about Todd, that was old by then, so I just said no.

“You’re not one of those lesbians are you?” she said, but somehow in a non-judgmental way.

“No, I like men fine, I just haven’t found the right guy, and actually, I’m okay with that. I’m happy just the way things are.”

She gave me a doubtful look and said “Sure sweetie, if you say so.”

“What about you?” I said ignoring her sarcasm.

“Just because I like sports doesn’t mean I’m gay,” she said as she waved to the waitress for two more beers.

“I mean,” I said, “don’t you have any men in your life?”

“Oh I’ll mess around sometimes, not often at my age, but when I want some I can get it, trust me honey. There was a special someone once though” she said, “but you don’t want to hear about that, it’s not pretty.”

“Yes I do,” I said. “C’mon, I’m interested, I can take it.”

“All right,” she said chugging from the new bottle the waitress had just put in front of her downing nearly half of the contents. “Here goes. It was the late sixties, I was a junior in high school when I met him at a party; he was a sophomore in college. You can just imagine how that was, an older guy taking an interest in a young girl. I felt special; I was the only one of my friends seeing a college guy. Nate was handsome and charming. He was nearly six feet tall, had light brown hair and blue eyes that twinkled when he smiled. He would hold doors open for me, pull out the chair when I sat, the whole bit. We’d go to movies, picnics in the park, and talk about our future. I was young and impressionable, and he showered me with attention. I loved it, I loved him.

“He dropped out of college in his junior year and got a decent job in retail at Sears. After I graduated high school we got married, his plan was to go back to school and get his degree so he could eventually pursue a management position. Of course that never happened.

“We lived in an apartment at first. I got a job at Caldor, a department store of the day that has since gone under, like me, a relic of the time. Nate inherited a small fund from his grandmother and after a few years we were able to buy a starter home, a small raised ranch with a garage, basement and even a fenced in yard. I was happy, for awhile at least. The change came gradually. Nate began stopping at a bar after work with some co-workers and he’d come home half drunk. We started to argue a lot, can you blame me; I went from the center of his life to being neglected.

“One night I accused him of seeing another woman and he hit me. I was shocked and he was immediately contrite, falling to his knees, crying. He told me how his father beat his mother and he never wanted to be like that. He begged for forgiveness, which I gave, attributing the incident to his drinking. But that was just the beginning.

“It wasn’t long before the strikes became more frequent as he drank more. That escalated to verbal abuse when he was sober and before long he’d hit me whenever he felt like it, even if he hadn’t been drinking. Those blue eyes turned from twinkling to menacing. I see that look you’re giving me, why didn’t I leave him? It’s easy to judge from afar, but unless you’re in the situation you don’t know what it’s like. I was afraid. I couldn’t make it alone; my parents had moved to Florida and had little contact with me. They disapproved of the marriage in the first place, I couldn’t turn to them. Besides, he had threatened to kill me if I ever left him, and I believed him. He would track me down and kill me, he was capable of that and I had no doubt he would follow through on his threat. When life gives you lemons it sucks, and did you ever suck a lemon?

“It was knitting that kept me sane. That piece of wool is always there, reliable, there to work with, comfortable. Knitting would take me to a different place, relax me. Like the eye of a hurricane, it would provide me peace and quiet between his rants. You’re almost there, you’ll see, but when you get proficient enough you can knit and do other things like think. You know how we always talk about tension on the yarn and how it should be consistent for the proper tightness of the finished product? That’s what my knitting did for me. While he was boozing at the bar, I’d be home knitting and thinking, pondering my situation, my future. I’d work those knitting needles like synapses in the brain, connecting, creating.

“One night was particularly bad. He came home smelling of alcohol, as usual, and he was furious that his dinner wasn’t waiting for him. I had been knitting a sweater and was nearly done, just about ready to cast off, you know, finish it, and lost all track of time. His fists started flying, and while most of the time he avoided my face so he wouldn’t leave any marks, this time he struck me just above my eye. I dropped out cold. When I woke up he was gone. I staggered to my feet, and it was at that moment that I decided I needed to “cast off’ this relationship. I’d had enough. I found Nate on our bed, still in his clothes, snoring loudly. I knew from past such poses that he would be out for hours. The timing was perfect to put into actuality one of my fantasies dreamed up while knitting. No, I didn’t use my knitting needles for anything violent; I would never desecrate those precious tools that way.

“Our bedroom was right above our garage. I went down to the garage and stuffed towels in spaces around the garage door. Then I started our Dodge Dart and let it run. I kept the door from the garage to the inside of the house open, got my purse and went for a long walk. I stumbled upon the local bar; one of the ones frequented by Nate, and went in to have a few beers. I should have been nervous I know, but I wasn’t. I was finally doing something to take back control of my life. Like controlling that piece of wool and forming it into something useful, if not beautiful, I was doing so for my future.

“After spending some time at the bar I took a bus to the mall and walked around for awhile. I was gone most of the evening and when I returned home noticed the flashing lights as I approached the house. In my daydreams I would remove the towels and call the police selling the story that I got home and found Nate on the bed and that he must have forgotten to turn off the car in his drunken state. I didn’t know that Nate made plans with a friend to go to a ballgame that evening, and the police were called by Nate’s friend who heard the car running when he didn’t get a response after ringing the doorbell. As I walked down our street toward the house I briefly toyed with a suicide angle, but realized that wouldn’t work. There would be an autopsy and his blood alcohol level would be revealed. Drunks don’t commit suicide, at least in such a thoughtful deliberate manner. I was too tired to come up with any other ideas.

“Officer Brennan, the lead cop on the case, fortunately, or unfortunately if you think about it, had a great deal of experience with spousal abuse cases. When he saw my black eye, he put two and two together and was a sympathetic ear. However, murder is murder and there was no getting away from that. Officer Brennan was kind enough to convince the District Attorney’s office to go for lesser charges, some level of manslaughter I think. My public defender worked out a deal combining prison time with probation and the judge accepted it. The sentence was ten years in jail with an additional ten on probation. With good behavior I served seven, my probation ended years ago, so I’m free and clear now.

“So there you have it, I’m an ex-con. I’ll bet you didn’t think this little old white haired lady could do such a thing, and I wish I didn’t have to. If there’s a hell I’m probably ticketed for it, maybe I can plea bargain there too, who knows. I feel bad that Nate is dead, I loved him once after all, but I don’t regret what I did, I had no choice. I hope you don’t think less of me.”

I must admit I was taken aback by her story. We didn’t talk about our past personal lives much; however I never suspected anything like this. But I certainly had no malice toward her, it seemed to me her actions were justified, if extreme.

“Of course not,” I said to her, “you were in a tough spot, I’m not going to judge you because of that and besides, you paid your price, that’s all in the past.”

“Thanks,” she said still sipping her beer. “I appreciate that.”

“How was prison though, I’m curious.”

“Pray you never have to find out. The first few years were horrible. To have every minute of your day accounted for and controlled by someone else is a shock to the system. To not be able to do what you want—you have to experience it to know what that does to you. But the worst part was that I missed my knitting so.”

“That must have been tough for you,” I said

“There were lot worse things I won’t go into, but I couldn’t turn to my knitting to escape, to relax, to think. It nearly put me over the edge. But I befriended one of the guards who became pregnant during my stay. I told her I wanted to knit a sweater for her coming baby. She took a chance on me and smuggled some yarn and needles in after I told her what I needed. She trusted me, but not totally, she’d bring the stuff to me at the start of her shift and then collect it before she left. She loved the little sweater I knit for her, it was one of my best if I do say so myself, and it wasn’t long before my talents got around to the other guards and eventually to the warden herself.

“I was commissioned to knit hats, scarves, sweaters, all kinds of things and was paid in the form of extra privileges. I’d have discussions with the warden about what knitting meant to me and how it helped me mentally. She got this idea that perhaps it could have a beneficial effect on others in her charge, and initiated knitting classes for the most trusted inmates. This was closely monitored, especially our needles, but it was then that I realized I had a knack for imparting my ability and my love of knitting. To this day I’m still very good friends with some of my students from those days. I figured if I could successfully teach them I could have similar success on the outside. So my rehabilitation was a shining example of the value of our prison system. I haven’t killed anyone since.”

She smirked as she said this and downed the rest of her beer as she looked around for the waitress to order another. She asked me again about my love life and I once again deflected her inquiry.

“Sarah sweetie,” she said slightly slurring her words, “it would do you well to get you some. But when you’re ready you’ll tell me your story.”

And a few months later I did. We became even closer after she told me her story. I felt she was so honest and open with me, she must have trusted me and liked me well enough to be so. I felt a connection to her after that night, the way she mentored me, cared for me, invited honesty in return. My knitting had progressed enough that she thought I was ready for a lesson in stranding.

“You’re ready for this Sarah,” she said. “Two strands of yarn at one time and it’s important to keep an even tension which I know you can do. But the fabric will be much stronger and you can be creative in your designs.”

I went to her house for my first stranding lesson, which didn’t go all that well, but it was a start. We gave it up just in time for some wine and a rousing game of Jeopardy. After being once again trounced by Mavis, we relaxed and just talked in her living room over some wine and cheese. She once again asked me about men and I finally told her about Todd.

“He was right,” I said, “it wasn’t going anywhere, I just wasn’t feeling it.”

“Sarah,” she said taking my hand, “I suspect you have trouble with your feelings. Please forgive me for saying that, but I feel like we have the kind of relationship where I can be up front with you.”

“Why do you say that?” I said.

“I think you bottle things up inside. And while you’re honest with me, and probably other people, I’m not sure you’re being honest with yourself.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” I said.

“Tell me about yourself. I mean you’ve never told me about who you are, you’re prior life, where you’re from, something that tells me who is Sarah really.”

I sighed. Maybe she was right, maybe I needed to reach down and share. Who better to share it with than her? She poured us each another wine as I squirmed wondering where to start.

“All right,” I said sipping the merlot. “When I was a little girl I loved my father. I don’t remember a lot about him, I just know that I adored him. He treated me like a princess, like I was the most special child in the world. Like I said I don’t remember a lot of details, just spotty things here and there, but I can remember how he smelled, how his clothes felt, how his hands felt on my hair as he tucked me into bed.

“But my clearest memory of him was that last day. I was five years old. He put me on his lap and his eyes looked wet, but I didn’t know why. ‘Honey,’ he said, ‘I love you more than life itself, always remember that. I’ve done some things, but I’m going to fix it, I’m going to make sure you’ll be taken care of.’ I saw a tear running from the corner of his eye and said, ‘Are you sad Daddy?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I just love you so much sometimes my eyes get so happy they overflow. Now go out and play and never forget your Daddy loves you.’

“Later that day when my Mother got home from her part time job I heard her scream. I ran into the house and up the stairs to see her standing outside the bathroom, my father on the floor with empty pill bottles strewn about. That is the lasting visual memory I have of him, dead on that bathroom floor.

“He left a note for my Mother detailing the trouble he was in, some sort of embezzlement or something, and that he did this to protect me. He couldn’t stand to see his little girl disappointed in her father and he figured the insurance would provide for me. He must have been under a lot of stress and not thinking straight because there was a suicide clause in his policy, so there was no insurance money for us. As much as she hated him for what he did, my mother blamed me too. ‘If it wasn’t for you,’ she’d tell me, ‘he’d still be alive; I wouldn’t be in this mess.’

“That attitude lasts to this day. My Mother resented me and we’ve never had a close relationship. Like I said, I loved my father, but I felt he abandoned me. I learned at an early age to be okay with myself, by myself, and that I didn’t need anyone else. I felt getting close to people only invited disappointment and pain, so why bother.”

I had never talked to anyone about this before and I suddenly felt a sense of relief, an unburdening. I didn’t realize that I had been leaning forward, my body tensed as I said all this and could now feel my body relax as I sat back waiting for her reaction.

“I’m sorry you went through that Sarah,” Mavis said taking my hand. “So much pain for such a little girl, it must have been tough for you.”

I just nodded feeling that I’d already spent my words.

“Did you ever hear of the Fibonacci sequence?” Mavis asked out of the blue.

“No,” I said.

“Fibonacci was a mathematician from the middle ages and he figured out this relationship of proportions. I don’t really understand it all, math was never one of my strong points, but the sequence starts with zero and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. So it goes zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, and so on.”

“Yeah?” I said, still not knowing where this was going.

“I know this sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me. I learned of this on one of the knitting web sites and that if Fibonacci’s idea is used in knitting it can create unusual designs. So I’ve decided I want to try it. It’s out of my comfort zone, and will be challenging, but I’ve seen some of the resulting designs and they’re beautiful. Who knows, I may wind up frogging the whole thing and it will have been a waste of time, on the other hand I can wind up with something rewarding and satisfying.”

“I hope you don’t want me to try it, I’m not sure I can even conquer stranding,” I said.

“No, that’s not why I’m telling you this,” Mavis said patiently. “I think you should try something similar. I think you’re comfortable keeping people at a distance, not letting them in. I feel honored that we’ve become so close, I think that’s a good start, but I think you need to be even more open. Come out of your comfort zone Sarah, find people to trust and let them in. Let love in. You may find something beautiful if you do.”

I was speechless at first. I didn’t think of myself as shutting people out, but her words rang true. I’ve always told myself I didn’t care if I had friends or if I was close to anyone, and that’s how I really felt. But after hearing this from someone I liked, no, I’ll say it, loved, it hit me. Maybe I needed to question my own feelings. Did I care, did I want to have relationships, maybe even a special someone? Would it be worth the chance of the pain of failure?

“Thanks for listening,” I said as I gave Mavis a hug. “I really should be going.”

“Oh,” she said, “I hope I haven’t upset you.”

“No,” I assured her, “not at all, you’ve given me something to think about.”

I never did pick up stranding. It was a few days after our third lesson when Mavis died. A massive heart attack they said. She always said that when it was her time she hoped she’d pass with knitting needles in her hands and a ball of yarn in her lap. But that’s not how it was. One of her ex-con friends found her in her favorite chair in front of the TV, an empty beer bottle on the end table. Somehow I think she’d be just as pleased to have gone that way.

I miss Mavis dearly. She left me with the gift of knitting, which I still enjoy and get better at every day. Who knows, I may try that Fibonacci thing some day. But more than that, she showed me good friends, good relationships, are their own reward, and they don’t have to last forever to be worthwhile.

I took her advice, although it wasn’t easy for me. I have a couple of friends now that I feel close to. And I’m “seeing someone” as they say. In fact I’m knitting him a sweater. Will the relationship last? I don’t know, but I think I love him. I’m letting myself love him and its okay. I’m prepared to lose his love if that happens. Like the sweater I’m knitting for him, both will be beautiful things and worth the effort no matter how long I can hold onto them.

The End

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