by Annie Lin
I didn’t learn to knit from my grandmother, even though she was a knitter.
She spent almost every summer in the backyard of our house in suburban Southern California, perhaps because plane tickets out of Taiwan were cheaper then or perhaps because it was a way to escape the humidity of Taipei in July. When she wasn’t weeding the garden or laundering our clothes with a bar of slippery brown soap, she was sitting in a lawn chair next to a plastic bag of green or gray yarn and knitting on long bamboo needles for my grandfather, who usually sat next to her. He would grumble to her about how scratchy the sweaters were, but he also never fail to wear them around the house.
Sometimes I picked up tiny red loops of yarn from the carpet and wondered why these mysterious bits were scattered throughout the house. Later I would realize that these were homemade stitch markers, which my grandmother had fashioned out of a contrasting color of yarn.
Knitting was something that I constantly saw my grandmother do, but it was never something that I considered trying. I could spend hours sewing dresses for my Barbie Doll or baking tiny chocolate cakes in the Easy Bake Oven, but it never occurred to me that I might be able to turn yarn into tiny acrylic doll sweaters or potholders.
Many years later, I was reeling from the heartache of a broken engagement when a friend asked me a surprising question: would I like to learn to knit? I said yes, and she spent an evening patiently guiding me through those first rows of garter stitch. She took me to our local yarn store (ImagiKnit in San Francisco), where I bought a circular needle and a ball of alpaca that was pink and forgivingly pliant. She sent me home with a battered copy of Stitch N Bitch Nation, and after many nights of trial and error, I found myself knitting ceaselessly every night, as if I wanted to cushion every surface, as if I wanted to make myself a soft place to land.
I wanted to talk to my grandmother about knitting, even though I had not seen or even talked to her in nearly a decade. Years ago, my parents had made a bold decision to leave Taiwan and start over in the United States. It was obvious that geography would keep them from seeing their friends and families, but I wondered sometimes if they had any idea of how much cultural and language barriers would further widen the gulf. I had never written a letter to my grandmother before, as I could not write in Chinese. I did not even have her home address or phone number. When my grandmother had cancelled her flight to the United States for the wedding, which of course had been called off, I told my parents that I wanted to visit her in Taiwan.
This was how I ended up waiting nervously outside a rail station in central Taipei. At first, I didn’t recognize the woman who limped toward me with an unfamiliar cane. Her eyes had turned blue with old age, but she gave me a wide grin and pointed to her scarf, which I immediately recognized. It was an Oriole lace shawl, the very first I had ever knitted and that I had asked my mother to mail to her.
The arthritis kept her from walking as well as she used to, but nevertheless she was the one who navigated us from train to shuttle to bus to taxi to bus as we made her way out of the city. The arthritis also kept her from knitting, so she told me that she wanted to give me her needles and her entire stash. Later, at her request, I would carry home a brand new suitcase that barely held all of the yarn: hanks of space-dyed Chinese wool, fine balls of mohair she had bought in Japan, and the rough brown wool from the sweater she had knitted for my grandfather and then washed, unraveled and re-skeined when he died.
On the train, she watched me attempt to unravel ball of yarn and asked me what I was knitting. I told her that I was making a scarf, but that I had managed to tangle one of my last skeins of yarn into hopeless knots. “Give it to me,” she said.
The skyscrapers quietly slipped past us through the window as she worked the tangled knots of yarn with her fingers and told me about how she had learned to knit in school, about how she used to make all of her own clothes, and what it was like to grow up during the war. Our journey on public transit took us from Taipei to the outskirts of the county, and the skyscrapers were eventually replaced by betelnut stands and fields of banana trees that grew in the shadow of electronics factories.
As our train pulled slowly past the famed Grand Hotel, the massive pagoda that stands at the edge of the city, my grandmother handed the yarn back to me, wound in a perfect center-pull ball.
Annie is an entertainment attorney based in San Francisco and a former touring singer-songwriter whose records can surprisingly still be found on iTunes and Spotify. When she’s not knitting or digging through crates of 78s, she helps her mom with the food blog Taiwanese Cooking.