This is an episode that has been brewing in my head since before I started the podcast. I’m skipping the usual segments of the show today because this topic will fill the show. I forgot to mention last week that on July 3, 2019, we reached the 9 year anniversary of the show. Never did I dream I would be able to continue coming up with shows for so many years but here we are. Thank you to everyone who has supported me along the way. Without listeners there would be no podcast and your input and feedback keep me going.
|My grandmother in front of the school that she attended and where she later taught briefly after college.
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|My grandmother's high school graduation photo. 1916
I come from a family of makers. Today I’m going to share some of my knitting heritage which began with my beloved paternal grandmother, Helen Emons, affectionately called “Momo” by her grandchildren and in later years, neighbor children. She was born in Southern Illinois on August 1, 1898 and was named after her two grandmothers: Helen, her Scottish grandmother, and Auguste, her German grandmother. Her father owned a furniture store/funeral home so they were probably upper middle class in the small town. I have many photos of her. One with her pony, one with her at the piano with a long braid down her back, and standing in front of her house at age 15 with a large muff covering her hands. Her father embraced photography as a hobby so we have more photos than most people probably do of her family and their daily lives. She went to Lindenwood College to become a teacher. After a short teaching career she married my grandfather, Walter Emons, and had to retire from teaching since married women weren’t allowed to teach.
My grandmother was an optimist and always cheerful. I cannot remember a single time when she lost her temper or even was in a bad mood, no matter the circumstances. I learned to love flower gardening from her as we often would take walks along her garden as she told me the names of flowers. On summer evenings we walked down the back alleys of both sides of their street looking at the neighbor’s gardens and sometimes chatting with them and being invited to see the gardens up close.
Momo was a maker of things. She loved crafts, especially working with beads to make Christmas ornaments of Styrofoam, velvet, ric rack, beads, ribbons and other oddments. We fondly call them “sputniks”. She would love the big box craft stores that we have today. Her only source of materials was the local Ben Franklin, which was a five and dime store. I did a little research and found out that Ben Franklin stores still exist today though not in great numbers.
My grandmother was a knitter with a capital K. She always had a knitting project or two in the works almost until the day she died at age 98. I have photos of my aunt and my father as young children wearing handknitted sweaters and I remember her telling me that she really started knitting when she was expecting her first baby and the first sweaters did not turn out well.
Our grandparents lived close to us (though not within walking distance) and we spent a lot of time with them as we were their only grandchildren that lived close by. A big highlight of our year was when our two cousins from northern Indiana visited for a few weeks and we spent extra time there.
During the day she was too busy to knit. There was always cooking, gardening, and laundry, which included ironing which she did seated with sweat dripping down her neck in the summer. She kept a handkerchief stuffed down the front of her housedress to mop her brow. Despite her housekeeping duties, she always found time to play a game of canasta with us on the back porch in the summer. Our glasses of cold iced tea or lemonade beaded with condensation on the card table set up for games. She loved the back porch, and especially the house wrens who nested just outside the window. She and my grandfather counted the days until the fledglings would take their first flights out of the nest and this was a major event that we kids were encouraged, though not forced to watch.
My grandfather did not drive though he did have a license. Each day she cheerfully drove him to his dental office, returned home, picked him up for lunch, took him back after lunch and a short nap, and then made the return trip when his workday was done. He would give her a quick call with one word, “Ready”. Whatever was simmering on the stove or in the oven was put on hold as she grabbed her purse and headed for the garage. When we were too young to be left alone at their house, we all piled in the car, sometimes with our cousins if they were visiting in the summer, and rode into town with her and back. When we asked her what we were having for supper, she would usually answer, “Whatever falls out of the icebox.” Her refrigerator was filled with bits of leftovers and had to be opened cautiously. As we grew a little older we were able to stay at the house during the twenty or so minutes she was driving our grandfather to or from work. This gave us a little time to raid the cookie jar. Our grandfather was fond of ginger snaps and ice box cookies. At home we weren’t allowed to have cookies so she turned a blind eye.
After dinner, when the dishes were done, she picked up her knitting, always in her chair in the living room where the black and white television was. On one side of her there was an end table piled with wool and knitting accessories. On the other side of her was a walnut sewing box, the kind that had legs and two lids that opened on top. A magazine rack nearby held some McCall’s magazines and knitting patterns, although she didn’t usually use patterns much. My grandfather had a chair opposite her, also facing the television, where he often smoked his cigar and watched his favorite show, Perry Mason. Actually when he watched Perry Mason he preferred that we kids stay out of the room so he wouldn’t miss anything.
|Leggings, sweaters scarf, and bonnet knitted for me by Momo.
As babies we all had handknitted outfits knitted by Momo. I have a faded pink sweater that she made for me, probably started as soon as she heard that her second grandchild was a girl. My cousin, a boy, is only two weeks older than I am so my grandparents had their #1 and #2 grandchildren close together. She knitted us each complete out fits when we were a year old. My cousin’s outfit was a lovely shade of blue and his helmet style hat closely fit his round face. His mother, my aunt was an accomplished knitter as well.
My outfit, which I do have stored in a cedar chest, includes 4 pieces, all basically in seed stitch and cables. pink leggings in seed stitch with a cream waist band and crocheted cord to hold them up, a sweater with a cabled yoke and seed stitch body, and a bonnet with cables along the top and two pompoms, one at each temple. There is a seed stitch scarf with a bunny embroidered in white angora. All the pieces are in excellent condition although the sweater is no longer pink, probably because it was worn and washed more often.
Black and white photos of my cousin and me in front of my grandparent’s home at Thanksgiving, just between our first birthdays, show us head to toe in our knitted clothing. My poor cousin was always compared to me in an era when I don’t believe people generally knew that girls were often ahead of boys in development. Even on the back of the photo it says, “She walks circles around him.” And on the back of another photo: “His feet are glued to the pavement”.
|My cousin and I as one year olds. Written on back of photo: "She walks circles around him!"
|"His feet are glued to the pavement." Poor cousin of mine.
My mother had learned to knit and her first project was argyle socks. She made a white sweater and cap for me that is beautifully knitted and in perfect condition. This was my “going home” outfit. Back then the mothers and babies stayed in the hospital for a week. Photos of all these knitted items are on the blog.
There is a pink sweater and bonnet that Momo made for me shortly after I was born. It is done in a fine wool with a very small gauge, probably 10-12 stitches per inch. The bonnet has cables running up each side and the sweater has bands of reverse stockinette in the yoke. This little sweater set is not in the best condition, but it is beautiful nonetheless.
Knitting for babies was one of Momo’s great loves. I remember that she would knit a small cap for a baby and then tell the mother that when Baby outgrew the hat, to give it back to her. She would take it all apart and knit a bigger hat. Thriftiness and frugality were in her nature.
During the years we were growing up we were not swaddled in sweaters and knitted items as one might expect, perhaps because she waited to be asked. I asked her to knit me a sweater with a colorwork yoke when I was in high school. I wore that sweater a lot. It had a blue body with pink and gray colorwork.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old I asked my grandmother to teach me to knit. My first project was a scarf in gray wool. I believe Momo sneaked in a few rows now and then when I wasn’t looking. It was the kind of scarf that had an opening so you could pull the other end of the scarf through. Then I aimed to make a hat. If you grew up in the 50’s or 60’s, you probably had one of these too. It was a band, about 6 inches wide, that covered the head and ears and tied under the chin.
|I'm wearing a wool hat my grandmother knitted and like the one I attempted later. That's my sister, Gayle. Circa 1961
Besides baby clothes, her favorite knitting was doll clothes. All of our dolls had sweaters, hats, and also sewn clothing for she had sewing skills as well. She liked knitting with fine wool, often fingering weight. When we were recently at my Mom’s to celebrate her 90th birthday she had some of these dolls and their handmade clothing out for her great grandchildren to play with.
I have some doll clothing in my possession also.
- · Tiny purse sewn in green velvet with a metal ring for a handle.
Although she would knit for any doll, Barbie dolls were her favorite. She never used a pattern and was always unraveling and re-knitting. She didn’t think twice about it until she got it right. Our Barbie dolls were always decked out. The style was a bit Jacqueline Kennedy with a bit of the Midwest thrown in for good measure. She liked to make fitted skirts and dresses with colorwork yokes, pillbox hats, knitted purses, and sometimes a poncho all in fingering weight wool. She bought Barbie knock offs at the Ben Franklin and dressed them from head to toe, then donated them to the church rummage sale priced at $3 to $5. I told her that was priced too low because one Barbie outfit cost twice that at least, but she so enjoyed making them that it didn’t matter. Sometimes she left out the Barbie knock off and pinned the outfit to a piece of cardstock. Those sold for less.
|Barbie doll clothing knitted by my grandmother when she was about 92 years old.
|Barbie without her poncho.
When I was in college I asked her to knit me a hat, scarf, and mittens in brown wool. The scarf was stockinette per my request. It rolled into a tube. She added garter borders and it still rolled into a tube. With all her knitting experience she didn’t realize that this was the nature of stockinette. I still wore those for many years. I had also asked for a string for the mittens so I wouldn’t lose them. I may have been the only student on the whole University of Illinois Campus wearing mittens with a crocheted string through each sleeve and the back. But I didn’t lose them. The hat had a brim and I sent my grandmother sketches of the different ways I could wear it: Tyrolean style, 1920’s, and so on.
|My aunt and my father in hand knitted sweaters and hats. Circa 1930
|My father and my aunt in more handknits.
|Momo and Papa on their 50th wedding anniversary.
So why wasn’t I knitting my own hat, mittens, and scarf? That is because knitting did not “catch on” with me until after I finished college and went to Denmark for a year on a Rotary International Fellowship…
(This part not scripted but is detailed in Episode 00 July 3, 2010.)
I have many family members who have contributed to the person I am today but here on August 1, 2019, 121 years after her birth, I remember Momo's love of knitting and the lessons she taught me, by example, about being optimistic, positive, resourceful, creative, and most of all, having unconditional love and setting an example for me so that I can be the best grandmother I possibly can.
Happy Birthday, Momo!