Tatoos of Devotion: A Lesson About Love and Forgiveness

At this writing it is early on the morning of December 11, 2011.  My five-year-old son is standing in front of me as I type. He wears a sheep-skin aviator hat (as I do, actually) and a Mighty Mouse t-shirt, brown woven pants, white socks. He is happy. He is dancing. In his hand is an instrument made of blue webbing and large jangley bells which he shakes vigorously as he sings real and invented Christmas songs in an impromptu performance for which I am the only audience member.

I am still smarting from what happened last night, filled with a silence and sadness. If you have been following this blog, you know that I have been working on a new Ella Coat. This coat has been the devotion of my hands and creative thoughts for three months. I began it on a teaching trip to California in mid-October. There were a few false starts where I had the crazy idea to knit it more densely than the pattern and change all the math with that recalculation of gauge. This work kept me busy on the long flight to San Francisco but I then gave it up in favor of following my own pattern . . . with a few innovations.

By the time I was flying home from my whirlwind visit to four shops I had finished the bodice and nearly half way finished with the skirt, I finished the skirt (almost kissing my ankles but minus the ruffle) on a trip to Georgia in early November. The ruffles at the bottom and the front plackets were finished in Michigan a week later, the sleeves finished and ruffled after I came home . . . by then it was late November. Since then, I have been doing bits of finishing: knitting a pile of flowers for decoration (still many more to knit at this writing), seaming the sleeves so the stripes match perfectly, setting in the sleeves. All of this work is a pleasure to me, a measure of my devotion.

It has been a long time since I have given myself so fully to a project for the deliciousness of following my own fancy, writing nothing down. Knitting for pure pleasure, no care as to whether I could be followed or not.

Last night I decided to begin the task of weaving in the ends. This work will be the occupation of many hours, for I am deliberate about it and I will not rush. The original Footloose was playing and I alternated between watching it and turning my attention to the ends. Our son came in to join us when he woke up from a very long nap and snuggled next to me. I remember lifting up the sleeve I had began with and saying to my husband, “Look at all these ends!”

Later in the movie, I left the room during a commercial break and returned before it was over to find my son with the little orange handled scissors in his hand, a pile of cut ends next to him. He smiled up at me and said, “Look, Mama.” Written in his countenance was pure love, conviction that he had just saved me some time. Maybe even a bit of wonder that what seemed to take me so long had taken him only minutes.

He had been so careful, too: cutting down to the very fabric of the dress the ends that were so carefully knotted together in square knots as my own father taught me–they hold better than their cousin the granny knot. He had even cut off the knots so that the strands were scarcely visible where they had once wrapped around the neighboring color, like pinkie fingers crooked together as two people walk side by side.

When he saw my expression, he began to cry, whispering, “Mommy. . .  mommy . . .” I can only guess what he must have seen there: the color drained from my face, the look of anguish, disbelief. I said, as though asking him to point out the location of the toad he had spotted in the garden, I said, “Show me where you cut.” Along the inside of the very sleeve I had worked on, the ends were shorn to nothing for about three inches. And then a six inch swath where the left plackett meets the bodice. A hole was already forming in the placket where he had cut off some ends. The worst of it I will wear over my heart when I put it on.

I sat with my head in my hands breathing as he stood before me still whispering Mommy. . . mommy. . . I thought I was doing a good thing . . . his hands twisting around each other. The coat now lay on the floor between us, to me a beautiful wounded bird. I knelt down and showed him the hole in the placket, tried to explain about weaving in ends, that the strands of yarn now had nothing to hold onto. . . and he cried harder, pleading that I could fix it with glue, that I could sell it now. And even in their ludicrousness, his suggestions were so sweet and well meaning it even now puts aches in my heart. How do you explain these things to a little boy, even a little boy who seems so grown up sometimes he might understand? How do you explain three months of impassioned work? How do you explain what it’s like to make something from the sweetest part of your heart and see the possibility that it will fall to pieces in front of your eyes because of some efficient slices?

The coat, however well I save it, will never be whole again the way I had once wanted it to be. This both seems right and makes me yet ache with regret. It is right we not be too attached to our things, even our own creations. We must be able to, even willing, to let them go. Because clinging to the thing is, in a sense, really to try to cling to what is most ineffable and fleeting: the act of creation, the very place from whence ideas, and garments, and stories spring. It is like trying to hold sunlight in your hand, or to stop time because today was magical. We are doomed to fail. And we should fail.

After my son was quiet in his bed, the house quiet, and I was alone with my wounded bird, I confess I shook with sobbing, breathing out to my sister’s comforting words, “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. . . I don’t know what to do. . .”

We remembered the day when I broke my mother’s dishes. I, like my child, was motivated to help my mother. I had, in the earnestness of this desire, taken all the dishes out of the cabinet in order to organize and arrange them. I knew how beautiful they would look when I was done, and how happy my mother would be so see my work. Because I didn’t want to put the dishes on the floor, a deep prohibition against such a thing unquestioned in my heart, I put them on a sturdy refrigerator box that my sister and I had made our plaything for days. Our parents had given in to our pleas to leave it in the kitchen for our pleasure. Stacks of blue and white dishes of all sorts–the entire set for 12 from Aunt Bessie, her good English patterned China. “Don’t get in the box,” I said to my sister. Why did she hear “Get in the box”? The slightness of her movements set the dishes in motion and I will never forget the cascade of crashing that followed, my horror, my love for my mother, my lovely intentions, my faulty thinking shattering with the dishes onto the floor. I couldn’t stop crying.

I repaired the hole in the placket as we talked, and through the blur of my own tears I was able, I think, to tie most of the tiny ends along the front placket back into tiny knots. I thought of Soma’s suggestion that I use glue like we did with the stamens in the flower book and maybe that will work . . . a tiny dot of glue on each knot. I might have to make another sleeve, but I’ll try a few things before I consider that. I always tell my students, use mistakes and the unexpected as a spur to your creativity. You can make it more beautiful. You just have to find a way. . . there are at least three ways . . . what are they?

As I worked, my sister said, “Now this coat is woven with your son’s love for you and your love and forgiveness for him in away that it would never have been. Before, this coat was only yours.”

And she is right. In spite of my wish that the coat be whole in its strange perfection again, every end woven in with my own fingers, no need for repairs, now there will be dots of glue covered up by red velvet ribbons, sewing machine stitches shoring up the seam of one sleeve, a flower sewn over the repair on the left placket, the tatoos of my son’s devotion right over my heart.

8 thoughts on “Tatoos of Devotion: A Lesson About Love and Forgiveness

  1. My heart goes out to you. I wish there was a way to come alongside you and “fix” everything, but it seems you are already in process. Though this will be difficult, I know you will work things out in a way that amazes us all.

  2. Ah Nora. We’re all mourning the “old” coat with you. Your sister is so right and wise. Your sweet and sensitive son will remember this much like you remember the dishes and it is part of his learning, and yours. The coat, in later years, as he grows up, will be even more special to you than it would have been otherwise, and even more than it is now. These are the things of parenting our mothers could never explain to us in advance, even if they tried. Love is amazing, isn’t it?
    (And what a beautiful piece of writing you have given me to start my day! 🙂 )

  3. Oh, Nora. I was literally holding my breath while reading this. Poor little guy. Poor Ella coat. Your sister is right that the coat will now have more meaning than it otherwise would have. And you know that he was trying to help – and that’s what makes it so heartbreaking. I’m trying to imagine how I would have reacted had Noah erased 3 months of my work (or Dave’s) through simple good intentions and I don’t know that I would have reacted nearly as well as you did. Oh my goodness. Big hugs all around.

    • Dear Natalie, and Saloni, and Beth,
      Thank you so very much for your lovely and heartfelt comments. I want you and others to know that Ella will be saved and that I will write about this process as I work through it. Some of that saving I was able to do that night, tying tiny knots. Re-knitting some spots. I have taken my son’s advice to try some glue. Also working. I will use some tiny sewing stitches to do others of the repair work and shoring up of the dangerous spots, but this work is important and sooner or later all knitters are faced with it. More to come on the details as I think there may be lessons for us all in the ways we save our knitting from the ravages of time, pets, moths, the sweet and good intentions of little boys (or girls), or our own misunderstandings.
      Yes, Ella will now ever occupy a place in my heart that she wouldn’t have done. And that is as it should be. She has, in her very structure, evidence of my child son and his sweetest nature, his love for me. That is a priceless gift, for such things can be captured no other way, but in the traces of their passing.
      Thank you for reading. Come and read, again.

  4. You have created two wonderful things, Nora, your beautiful son and a knitted work of art. We can all produce knitting whether to our own design or following a pattern, but your gorgeous son is unique. You now have something so precious in your coat that both you and he created, nothing can replace it.

  5. Oh, Nora. So sad. And yes, it will be different–filled with love and forgiveness. And it will be beautiful because of it.
    I found this just today, by way of a link on Adrienne Martini’s blog (www.martinimade.com) –“However your life goes, that’s the story of how you ended up where you are, and therefore, every turn your story took, whether sad or happy at the time, is part of how you achieved whatever joy you have.”

    • This quote that was shared is perfect, really the best way to put things in perspective for all of us. I am thankful Lee shared this.

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