From being cared for to caring.
Our mum, she had worker’s hands. They fed us from the garden that she tended, and the countless meals she made us. Her hands clothed us in the garments that she knitted, so subconsciously that she barely looked at what she was doing. The endless hours of a mother’s work were visible in her hands, even if the work was invisible to us kids.
She was playing the game of endless tidying that I’d just learned. Like a whack-a-mole game, no matter how much of their stuff you put away children, and their mess, will outplay you.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I came to know the amount of work she’d done without me noticing. It was the kind of knowledge that could only come from the role of carer, a role I’d also taken on as a stay-at-home mother. Periodically, I’d head home with my babies to visit my parents, and would see for the first time how little mum sat down. She was playing the game of endless tidying that I’d just learned. Like a whack-a-mole game, no matter how much of their stuff you put away children, and their mess, will outplay you.
From afar, mum would send woolen jumpers, hats, booties and mittens for the kids, keeping them warm as she had done for my siblings and I. When my son was growing out of his largest cardigan, I sent her a photo of him wearing it, in which he looked particularly humourless, with the message: “Nanny Sharon this jersey is making me too staunch, will you please knit me a new one?”
“Haha. Yes,” she replied. Two weeks later a package arrived addressed to him containing two freshly-knitted jumpers, with soccer ball buttons because she knew my husband loved football.
Later that year, mum had a seizure and we slowly discovered that her body was riddled with cancer. Her hands were rendered almost immobile. In quiet moments, I’d look over to her across the room as she slowly opened and closed her favoured left-hand. She appeared confused at what was happening; how could this hand that had always done what it needed be failing her now?
I watched, as she watched. It was a quiet terror to bear witness to this seemingly benign exercise. Our mother was mortal.
During this time, one of my sisters told me she’d asked mum what she missed most about not being sick. Mum answered: knitting and baking.
It was at this point that I discovered how, despite how much I’d been awakened to my appreciation and respect for all she had done for us as a mother, that I still took her for granted. Just before she got sick, the storage on my phone was full and so I had deleted the text message history of a few people to save space. After we’d spent some time with mum and returned to our own city for work and study, I went through my phone to find my history with mum. I wanted to relive some ordinary moments between us, from a time before all of our moments became extraordinary. It was then I realized that my text history with my mum is one of the few I had deleted.
When every word becomes loaded with such desperate love, how do you say anything at all?
Mum and I, we didn’t have a phone call relationship, most of our communication happened via text or email. It was how I’d send her photo updates of her mokos, showing them off wearing their new clothes she’d made. When I did call, it would often be knitting-related as I would get her to decipher whatever random vintage pattern I’d stupidly decided to tackle. She would always then follow up via text or email with further information she’d found. Text messages can seem insignificant because they are so ephemeral, but for the way we communicated, they were the closest representation of how we actually interacted: directly, to the point.
When mum got sick, communicating via text felt trite. Typing out each word felt insufficient, and that’s because it was. How do you tell someone the things that you thought you’d have a lifetime to tell them? How do you ask them all the things you want to know, that you don’t even know can be known? When every word becomes loaded with such desperate love, how do you say anything at all? In the end, our only exchange remained as “Mum, we love you”, and her reply which I can’t remember.
I was also lucky enough to take mum’s book where she headed each page with the pattern she was knitting and the person who it was for, all of which was written in a script I knew so well.
When mum passed away, us kids came together, at our dad’s side but also at each other’s. Together we endured the pain of her tangi, and the inevitable lightness of being surrounded by people who you know will carry that pain with you. Together we spoke about our mum, revealing the different ways in which our relationship with her existed. When it was my turn to talk, I joked about knitting and my frustration that weeks of work would go into making a scarf that looked nothing like the pictures, only to give mum the pattern which she’d perfectly knit in a couple of hours. I’m not exaggerating. It happened with a hat I was knitting that mum also decided to knit, hers was perfect even though she couldn’t read the numbers properly.
At her nehu, as we walked past the hole in the ground to throw in some dirt, I threw in my favourite knitting needles.
The following day we drove back to our whānau home and began cleaning up. It was a process that was less about cleaning as it was about going through objects mum touched, holding them and talking about her. During this we found cupboards and chests full of knitted garments that needed sewing together. Turns out that I’m just like her when it comes to knitting – the hours of knit, purl, knit, purl are the fun part, but the few minutes of sewing are an almighty chore.
Through all of this, we each took balls of wool, needles, and half-knitted garments to finish up. I was also lucky enough to take mum’s book where she headed each page with the pattern she was knitting and the person who it was for, all of which was written in a script I knew so well. In it I found the two jumpers she’d knitted my son, the cardigan she knitted me for my wedding and the matching bolero she’d made my daughter.
On one page, I’d become a bit confused as I saw her signature written one under the other. I then realised how shaky her writing had become as the book progressed. Her signature, which I innately knew as I’d forged it many times to cover some lapses in school attendance, didn’t look like it always had. As with the moments where I watched her open and close her hand, this too felt like a private moment that I’d stumbled upon. One in which mum had noticed herself that there was something wrong.
Despairingly, I unraveled my side and the wool has been left to languish in a drawer (and my sister left to remain without her cardigan, sorry).
When she passed, mum had been knitting a cable knit cardigan for one of my sisters and I decided to take it on and finish it. It took a long time to be able to pick it up, before then having to decipher how mum had worked through it. Eventually, I muddled my way through a front panel of cable knit, for the first time having to make it through the parts I didn’t understand without being able to call mum for help. After a couple of weeks of work, I pulled the panel out that mum had knitted and realised that I’d knitted the same side as her. They didn’t look the same, the tension on my side was tauter, with a result that looked less comfortable and cosy than her side. Despairingly, I unraveled my side and the wool has been left to languish in a drawer (and my sister left to remain without her cardigan, sorry).
Inheriting this cardigan inadvertently brought with it other burdens. I wasn’t to know that the cardigan would bring me the books in which her hand was visible, mum annotated her knitting books and I still stumble upon her presence in various patterns. It’s been a long time since I unraveled that wool and abandoned the project as it was too associated with sadness and a reminder that I need to figure it out myself. It finally feels like it’s time to get on with it (my sister does too), if mum were around she'd already have finished it three times over. Here's hoping it looks like the pictures aye mum?
* The author of this story has chosen to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of her family.