I come from a family of knitters and needlewomen on my Mother’s side. Well, okay, with a few buts. To start with, and though I’m not that “PC” this is a decidedly pleasing thought, they weren’t all women! My Great-Great Uncle Manny (he was really called Manuel, and there were reasons for it, but was always known as Manny, and to his dying day rather proud of the fact that the first ever Labour MP, Manny Shinwell, went by the same name) was a fisherman and could knit both nets and cable sweaters with the best of them. By which, at least when it comes to the sweaters, he meant with the best of the women. I never knew him. At any rate I never met him. He died almost a decade before I was born. I’m sorry about that, but at least it spares me that desperate trying to remember someone who held me in their arms when I was a baby and feeling guilty when I can’t.
Might as well get the other but out of the way. It was by no means (hackneyed expression alert!) an unbroken chain. And I’m one of the chainbreakers.
Even my Gran on my Mum’s side (who, thank Goodness, I most definitely CAN remember), often blithely said that she was hard-pushed to darn a sock or sew on a button, but was as proud as proud can be that Mum, after it “skipping a generation” , didn’t let the side down, and kept the thread (this is all too easy when you’ve started!) spooling. Both in her words and her genes.
My Aunt Millie went to the Royal College of Needlework and you’ll find her name on the credits for various costume dramas. She’s even done the bridesmaids’ dresses for one of the minor Royals. But her sister and mine, my Aunt Phoebe, can barely thread a needle and not just because she’s short-sighted. You’d think that meant we got on splendidly, fellow-feeling and all that, but though I AM very fond of Aunt Phoebe and know that (as Mum and Aunt Mollie always make a point of stressing) her work as a radiographer is valuable and important, we still often rub each other up the wrong way.
You see, there’s a kind of inherited doctrine in the family that whilst it’s fine for an odd (possibly in both senses of the word!) person not to be good with their needle, and they’re never (theoretically) looked down on or anything like that, it comes with the caveat that these unfortunate, ungifted persons such as Gran and Aunt Phoebe and Yours Truly should, as Aunt Phoebe put it, know their place and be dutifully admiring and humble. Oh, and a bit about Yours Truly. Let’s just say this. I can thread a needle (though I’m not sure what to do with it after!), and I can knit squares for Oxfam blankets (if you give me enough time!), but for all that I definitely fall into the “unfortunate” camp. In fact it may make me worse than the absolute total non-Needlers!
So Aunt Phoebe and I shouldn’t rub each other up the wrong way. And I suppose all things are relative, especially when it comes to relatives. We can muddle along most of the time. But there’s always the snag in the thread.
I could cite umpteen episodes, but one fairly recent one has lodged in my mind. Aunt Mollie was – justifiably enough – talking at length about the commission she had just obtained restoring the curtains at a local stately home. And when I say curtains, boy, do I mean curtains! Or do I? I I’m talking about curtains that seem to be as big as some houses, and with elaborate tapestry pictures on them. And it IS tapestry, not embroidery. Not that Aunt Mollie couldn’t restore that. She gives the lie to that “Jack of all trades and master of none” stuff – as long as all the trades involve needles or threads in some incarnation. But in our family knowing that the Bayeux Tapestry wasn’t really a tapestry is more or less compulsory, as is pointing it out to other people.
“I know I’m going on about it,” she said, in one of those tones of voice that was a cue for immediate and heartfelt contradiction. “And, Phoebe –“ Phoebe’s eyes had glazed over, but whether she’d have kept her own counsel otherwise, I don’t know, “I know your work is vital, too.”
Phoebe did not keep to the script. “Oh, so do I, Mollie, so do I,” she said, “But the “too” is superfluous and frankly insulting. You see, there’s a difference. My work actually IS vital. Yours – is pretty enough, and I suppose it requires a certain skill, but it’s not vital.”
“Phoebe, please, love,” my grandmother on my father’s side, who’s still very much with us, and has probably missed her vocation at the UN, said. “We all have our different flairs!”
“Nan, I mean you no disrespect,” Phoebe said, in a gentle, but firm tone. We all call her just Nan, and it serves both as an abbreviation of her name, Nanette, and as an endearment for a grandmother. We all like her, too, but I sometimes wonder why she doesn’t try to get out of more family gatherings. I wouldn’t blame her! I’ve done it myself before now. “But you weren’t brought up in this family – and believe me, when I say that, I envy you. “
“Phoebe, please,” I said, ineffectually. I could never make up my mind whether to call her Phoebe or Aunt Phoebe. It mattered to her not in the slightest.
“And YOU can stop it with the Phoebe, please too, Sylvia,” she said. In fairness, she wasn’t imitating my voice, but somehow it FELT as if she were. “You know exactly what I’m talking about! I’m not asking or expecting you to stick up for me – I can stick up perfectly well for myself. But have a bit of pride, for God’s sake! You’re a teacher – and from what I gather, a ruddy good one,” She wasn’t one of life’s praisers, so it meant something, but I still didn’t like the way the conversation was heading. “And I expect you get it all the time, as well.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to “get” but I don’t “get” this, either,” I said, resorting to trite wordplay.
“I rather think you do. If there’s one thing that runs in this family as much as needles and thread, it’s the art of damning with faint praise. We’re a family that tends to have daughters rather than sons, which has nothing to do with the needlework business, despite what some so-called geneticists would say, but until recently it’s just as well. Now I’m all for not conforming to gender stereotypes. You’ve said often enough you’re sorry you didn’t know Manny Hammond, Sylvia, well, I did, and I liked him very much. But you all might as well admit it – if a family member has a son now, your first thought – well, after being glad he’s healthy, I will at least credit you with that – would be oh, thank goodness nowadays he’ll be able to keep up the tradition without anyone looking askance. I’m not going so far as to say that you think nothing else counts as a proper job, but deny it as much as you like, you think you have the right to look down on people who don’t have this wonderful, marvellous, mystical gift and aren’t obsessed by it. And yes, I WILL say it, there are jobs that are far more useful. Not that usefulness is everything, but you’re living in a bubble.”
“That’s a very easy insult to use on people who don’t agree with you,” Millie said.
“And that doesn’t stop it being true sometimes.”
“You’ve never exactly made a secret of the fact that you think the only stitches that count are surgical ones.”
“Now who’s using cheap insults? Anyway, I’m not a surgeon …..”
“And doesn’t that rankle?”
I suspected it did, but Phoebe carried on as if she hadn’t heard it. “But I’ve never heard of anyone’s life being saved by needlework.”
“Clothes do tend to be generally regarded as a good idea,” Mollie, who could do a nice line in sarcasm herself, pointed out.
“True. But with the exception of an odd very nice sweater – and I’m not denying it – when has this family made anything that would be either much use or within the expenses of the vast majority of the population?”
I often wished I knew if there was more to the dispute between Mollie and Phoebe than the needlework business. Or did I? I asked Mum once, and she said, sadly, “I honestly don’t know, love. Being a much younger sister has that disadvantage – or advantage!” Those sentiments mirrored my own!
“You know I generally try to keep out of squabbles on your side of the family,” Nan said truthfully, “But I can’t help being relieved that none of the children are here at the moment. Before anyone says anything, of course families have their tensions.” I wondered if Phoebe were about to point out that the only tension they were interested in was the sort in a knitting pattern – if the thought had occurred to me, it most certainly would have to her. For once, she held her tongue. “Show me someone who says their family never argue and I’ll show you a liar or a doormat! But there really is something – disheartening – about two intelligent adults, both extremely good at what they do, picking quarrels with each other more or less on principle.”
If either of them says, she started it, I thought, I might just scream. I have enough of that with the Year 2 children! They didn’t. But I didn’t doubt they were thinking it. And Phoebe wasn’t prepared to let it drop. I sighed as she turned to me. Well, at least, I wanted to! “Sylvia – I know the children you teach are too young to have much in the way of realistic career ambitions and most of them want to be either ballet dancers or astronauts – irrespective of gender, I hope!”
“Well, we have one aspiring research chemist,” I said, truthfully, and hoping (but not with much conviction) that I might sidetrack her.
“Good for them. But if they were a bit older, and one of them said they wanted to go into handicrafts,” (Millie looked in physical pain at the use of the word “handicrafts”) “how would you feel?”
“Very pleased – if that was what they were good at and what made them happy.”
“Correct answer, as it says on that irritation insurance ad. But now, please, be honest. If you weren’t a member of this family, even if you did, as any good teacher would, want them to be happy doing what they were good at, wouldn’t there be a part of you, especially if the child in question were bright, that thought, oh, what a shame, or oh, that’s a bit bizarre!”
“I honestly don’t know!” I said, but my somewhat feeble response was eclipsed by Millie’s demand, “Are you saying I’m thick?”
“Not for one minute, and you know it. Some of those – patterns or whatever you call them,”
“You know perfectly well what we call them!”
“Would challenge a quantum physicist, at least, that’s what I reckon. But intelligence can be put to better uses!”
The family gathering broke up on polite terms, largely thanks to Nan, though I tried to do my bit, but to say they were friendly would be pushing it.
I’ve always had a certain cynicism about the notion that things happen for a reason and that good can come out of bad and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that. And even when it comes to that good old idea about “putting things in perspective” – well, I console myself with the fact that I’m certainly not the only one who, seeing news reports of some natural disaster or terror attack or whatever, says, I’ll never whine about a bus being late or the sink getting blocked again, and within a couple of days promptly and predictably does just that. But there can be a grain of truth in it. Sometimes.
We had that odd sense of being betrayed when we heard that Millie had been in a serious car accident. Oh, of course we’d had our “shunts” and the like, but car accidents, real car accidents were among the things that happened to other people. Not to our family. But happen it did. One of those phone call from the hospital car accidents.
Even then, it could have been worse. She was quite badly hurt – she had concussion and a broken leg, and some internal bleeding. But the doctors managed to bring the bleeding, which was the worst of their worries, under control, and we heard the blessed, wonderful words, “No serious damage to internal organs”. Concussion had to be taken seriously, but her EEGs pointed to no lasting damage, and after initially being a little dazed, she now had her wits about her. The leg break was the worst – a double fracture, and she needed to be in traction for a week or so, but it should repair well enough, though she’d need physio, and as she had been gently told, perhaps she’d best not think about marathons for a while. She was philosophical about it. As she said, she’d never been much of an exercise freak, and would have been far more worried if there was a risk of one of her arms being weakened.
She was taken to the same hospital where Phoebe worked, and I gather the sisters had a heart to heart – Mum was there, too, but wisely, let her big sisters get on with it while she lent a sympathetic ear. Neither Phoebe nor Millie was that demonstrative, and though they gave each other a quick hug, there was no huge emotional scene. Millie, a proud woman, apparently admitted that, “I begin to see what you mean about useful and valuable occupations Phoebe. And – why I must grate on you at times.”
“Not just you,” Phoebe said, not shedding her frankness now she had established that her sister was still definitely in the land of the living and likely to stay there.
“I – well, I wonder myself sometimes, and being in traction in a hospital bed gives you more time to think, which is both a good thing and a bad one, if we don’t have our priorities wrong.”
“Now I AM starting to worry about that bump to your head,” Phoebe said, briskly. “For heaven’s sake, nobody’s expecting you to renounce the joys of – all that sewing stuff.”
“Oh – don’t fret – I don’t intend to.”
“Like you say – thank goodness, your arms are fine – would it – stop you getting all introspective if I brought in something – small and practical for you to work on?”
“Oh, please do! It might just save my sanity!”
Seeking advice on the matter from both family members and the staff at the stately home, she was furnished with a cushion cover and the necessary wools and what she called “implements”. I was with her went she next went to visit Millie who, to our relief, was now sitting in a chair in the day room, her bad leg propped up on a stool. As she said, she still wasn’t done with the “contraption” as she called it, but was now allowed spells of liberation. She thanked Phoebe for the cushion and said she’d make a start on it soon, but had something she needed to finish first. We looked, and saw what she had put to one side on the table by her armchair as she greeted us. It was a scarf – a pretty one, deep crimson with a silvery thread and a pattern of violets, but even my unskilled eye could tell it wasn’t a high quality or value thing. “It’s for Elsie,” she said, and went on to explain. “She’s in the bed next to mine – I think she’s asleep at the moment, probably the best thing for her to gather her strength. It’s a crying shame. She’s a lovely lady – 85 years old – I know her exact age as they’re always asking for ages here, and no disrespect, Phoebe, they’ve all been wonderful to me, but that does get on my nerves,”
“I’m not going to disagree with you about that,” Phoebe said. “But go on.”
“She was mugged on the High Street two days ago.” Her lips set, for a couple of seconds, into a hard line. “I’ve never been one of the hang and flog ‘em types, but – well, I can’t help half-hoping that in this case, what goes around, comes around. Apparently she was always such an independent lady before, remarkable for her age. Her injuries aren’t THAT serious, thank God, though at her age you always have to be careful. They were afraid she had a broken hip, but it’s only bruised.”
“That’s a mercy,” Phoebe said, quietly.
“Her face is a bit of a mess, but it seems it’s mainly superficial. What upset her most – far more than them stealing her purse – it didn’t have that much money in it, and her family have seen to -putting a stop on her bank card – was that her scarf got badly torn. It was her husband’s last present to her. One of the nurses had tried to repair it, but – well, she did her best. I tried to be as tactful as possible …..”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Phoebe said, but with the tiniest hint of a catch in her voice.
“And said I was a professional needlewoman, so perhaps I could have a go. I don’t think I’ve made such a bad fist of it.”
The most eagle eyed person with the strongest of microscopes would have struggled to see where the damage had been. The little patch that still needed mending showed just what a mess the muggers had made of the scarf. “Impressive,” said Phoebe, quietly, and took Millie’s hand in hers for a few seconds. She didn’t make a long speech about having wronged her and how what she did could be just as valuable and wonderful as anything else. She didn’t need to.
Well, did peace and harmony and unalloyed sisterly love come to reign uninterrupted in our family? Of course not! But we all had the feeling that more than Elsie’s scarf had been repaired.