It was in college that I first encountered this such parents, buying the kiddies coloring books with whimsical titles like Medieval Women Composers. Inside, presumably to instill a dedication to historical accuracy, were instructions like, "Color Hildegard von Bingen's wimple gunmetal."
Instructions. In a coloring book.
Of course, it's easy for me to tease because I don't have children and it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that I ever will. If the stork dropped a squalling bundle on my lap, I'd probably buy the kid a mobile that played selections from Pagliacci, and I am quite certain that by age four it would be sitting on a cushion working an alphabet sampler.
Thing is, though, you never know what's going to stick in a child's head and what isn't. You can spend thousands on tutoring and piano lessons and Baby Einstein books and still wind up with a dolt. Or, you can spend a dollar and twenty-five cents on a paperback book and rewire your son's brain.
I started mulling this over this week after digging into the "Print o' the Wave" pattern in Heirloom Knitting.
I've been working on what you might politely call a lace sampler (if you're impolite, it's a pointless and weird-looking swatch) for about the past two months. It's nothing but a ten-inch strip knitted from what was supposed to be sock yarn, but turned out after purchase to be rather too itchy for my sensitive, princess-like feet. I wanted to try out all the stitch patterns from my Stitches Midwest classes in Orenburg and Estonian lace.
It has been fun, and great practice, but it was only this week as I worked my first Shetland pattern that I got that feeling of "Wow. This is beautiful. And I made it!" If there is a better feeling in the world that you can talk about in front of your mother, I don't know it.
This spring when I was in Belgium (oh, I get around) we sailed into Antwerp and all 70 of the old ladies I was shepherding about ran berzerk in the lace shops. The Belgians are no dummies (no matter what the Dutch say) and they know what tourists want. Every other storefront in the cathedral square sells lace (and the ones in between those sell chocolate).
I looked, and it was beautiful stuff. Frightfully complicated to make, or so it seemed from watching this woman at work.
For heaven's sake, look at all those bobbins and pins. Her fingers were flying around like Horowitz's at the climax of a molto allegro movement. Yet if she ever made a mistake or even hesitated, I never saw it.
Anyhow, while the ladies on the trip were whipping out credit cards and buying enough tablecloths, placemats, tray covers, and shawls to smother the west front of the cathedral (hey Christo...you reading this?) I quickly realized the only thing I could afford would be a machine-made bookmark.
I was already knitting steadily at that time, and I think it was then that I resolved to try knitting lace.
My whole life, this has been a primal impulse for me. I see somebody making something beautiful, and I feel compelled to try doing it myself. Unlike most of my primal impulses, which remain mysterious in spite of the best efforts of well-paid therapists, I know where this one comes from. In fact, I can pinpoint the moment it was born.
One year during the Christmas season, my parents picked up a book at the supermarket that was an inexpensive holiday mish-mash for tiny tots. I don't think they make this sort of thing any more, because it wasn't tied to a breakfast cereal, a Nickelodeon show, or a Disney film. It was just stories, carols, and bits of dubious history and culture with lots and lots of color illustrations.
If I read it today, I suspect the treacle-sweet fiction would make my teeth curl. But when I was five, it was hot stuff. I loved that book so much I took it to bed with me like a teddy bear. There was one story in particular that I read over and over.
In retelling, it's like a Very Special Episode of "The Waltons" with shades of "Little House on the Prairie." The setting was a small town during the Great Depression, and the protagonist was a girl from a large family who had been asked by her parents to do without Christmas presents that year because they simply had no money for them.
The heroine was terrified that this would publicly humiliate her in front of her arch-rival, a Nellie Olsen type who (I remember this so well) had a fur-trimmed coat. (Her parents must have owned the local meth lab.)
Because you see, the entire town had a Christmas assembly at which carols would be sung and speeches made and then, as the finale, presents for the children would be distributed from the big town Christmas tree. The little girl could not face sitting there, getting nothing, while Rich Girl made a big show out of her new pony or a personal bodyguard or whatever Depression-era kids would have considered the equivalent of a custom iPod.
Now, the little girl (are you all enjoying this as much as I am?) came from a poor family but had a practical mother, and had learned how to sew. So she made herself a doll out of scraps of cloth and old buttons and chicken bones and whatnot, and she planned to sneak it onto the Christmas tree with her name on it.
But on the big night (please get out your handkerchiefs) as everybody was filing into the town hall, she saw a Desperately Poor family arriving. If I remember rightly, their tiny daughter didn't even have shoes. So the heroine, at the last minute, scratched out her own name on the doll's gift-tag and wrote in Shoeless Girl's name instead.
Excuse me, please. I need to go have a moment.
Okay, I'm back.
Before the story faded out to swelling violins there was a passage that struck me so hard that it is imprinted on my brain forever, along with the theme song from "The Facts of Life" and my social security number.
The presents had all been given out and the heroine was watching everyone leave. Shoeless Girl was clutching her new doll and smiling, and Rich Girl was leaving with her new pet ocelot on a leash or whatever and pouting, and the heroine realized - let me see if I truly have this by heart...
"She realized that Lydia would only ever have presents, while she would always be able to make things more wonderful than any that came from a store."Yeah. I know. It makes Louisa May Alcott sound like Dorothy Parker. But it made me think. And I was five.
I come from a family of do-it-yourself people. We weren't poor, but we had the usual working-class limits on our income. My parents dealt with this by being creative and resourceful.
My father could build and wire anything we needed or wanted, from furniture to an extra room. My mother could upholster furniture, and sewed us practical things, like school clothes and curtains; and less practical (but even more wonderful) things like matching Christmas pajamas for the whole family, not to mention the best damned Halloween costumes in three counties.
I'm doubt they meant to send a message by doing all of this, but they did. You want something? See if you can make it yourself. Because if you make it, you own it. If you make it, you can make sure it's good or better than what can be bought. If you make it, you are that much less reliant on others. If you make it, you can be proud of yourself for making it.
As I said, I don't know anything about parenting. But I wonder if the parents in the mansion across the street from my office–who send their four-year-old son to tennis lessons in a limousine–would be surprised at how much you can accomplish with a $1.25 book of stories and a good example.
And How's This for Timing?
Yesterday I got a call from a coworker who was very puzzled about a box that arrived on her desk. The university's mail service had mangled it on receipt and partially removed the label, so they weren't sure to whom in the building it should go. They sat on it for what must have been two weeks before calling our receptionist to see if she could identify the recipient. They opened it, examined the contents and said it was probably for "some woman" who works with her.
They brought the box over. She looked into it and immediately phoned me. "Did you order some yarn from Canada?"
Well, not exactly. Awhile back, I got a very nice letter from a blog reader who had some non-knitting-related questions. It was a pleasure to answer them, and not at all difficult, but he said he wanted to send me a little something in thanks.
And what he sent was this.
It's merino. It's hand-painted. It's lace weight. And he spun it himself.
It's completely gorgeous. I've never had anything hand-spun to work with before. This is so even and fine I almost can't believe it was done by hand. I have no idea what it's going be yet, but I can tell you it's going to be carefully thought-out and it's going to be special.
Ted, my dear fellow, there aren't words. Well, there are two: thank you.