MY grandmother, Clarinda Grace Cotterell Carson, was a knitter. Of course she knew how to sew, embroider, and cook. A woman born in 1905 had to learn all of the domestic skills. But Grace's defining activity, her art and her passion, was her knitting.
Before my parents were married, she knitted socks and ties for my father. Later, there were baby capes and booties and, of course, sweaters. As the family grew - Mama made up for being an only child by having the five of us - it took more and more of Grandma's year to knit a round of Christmas sweaters. Often there were matching mittens or a hat. Once David requested a picture of a horse on his sweater. Grandma swore she'd never try that again because the pattern was so complicated.
''And your grandfather gets so mad if I rip out a mistake.'' Her voice turned confidential. ''So when I make a mistake, I wait until Daddy is out working in the yard and then I tear out the rows and wind up the yarn real tight so he won't notice.'' It never occurred to her to leave a mistake.
For years I had begged her to teach me how to knit. When I was 8 she decided it was time. We sat side by side in the living room, my tongue as tangled as my yarn. It made me angry that the yarn wouldn't behave and that my fingers refused to do what hers did so easily. She was patient, though, and even then it was clear that I was learning more at her elbow than just knitting.
When she was no longer capable of making complicated sweaters, Grandma focused on slippers. Size nine needles. Twenty-seven stitches to a row. Knit nine, purl one, knit seven, purl one, knit nine. Those two purl stitches made the slippers bend up to fit the foot. A double thickness of yarn made them warm and durable.
Grandma made slippers by the dozens, by the hundreds. Every time we visited, Mama brought home a grocery sack or three filled with slippers. Eventually, there were sacks of slippers in every closet. Grandpa bought yarn by the armload. Grandma knit. Mama stored slippers. In our house, slippers were as disposable as paper towels. A hole in the bottom of one? Get out another pair. Can't find your match? Get a new pair. So what if walking on the sidewalk wears them out, there will be plenty more where those came from.
Except, of course, there aren't any more now. We take very good care of our slippers these days.
Daddy wears his until the bottom is more hole than slipper, and then he pulls out a singleton to go with the least worn one. Who cares if one slipper is brown and one green? Mama wears hers while she's choreographing dances for her ballet students. My favorite thing about my work, I tell people, is that I don't have to wear high heels, but instead can curl up with pencil and paper and an old pair of slippers.
''You've always said you'll teach me how to knit,'' my daughter Jessamyn dared me one afternoon last summer. ''How about now?''
My knitting basket was old and dusty, the wood frame broken. But it is a twin to the one Grandma used for so long, and I could never bear to part with it. The basket was a jumble of tangled yarn, needles, embroidery thread. And there, tucked in the side pocket, was the pattern for slippers - written on faded blue laundry paper in Grandma Grace's familiar handwriting.
''Mommy,'' Jessamyn nudged me for the fourth time, ''you said you'd teach me to knit!'' There is nothing the least bit sentimental about a 12-year-old.
Materials at the ready, I sat for several moments, staring blankly at the needles and yarn. How could I possibly have forgotten? In such situations, calling my mother is as natural as breathing.
''I'm teaching Jessamyn to knit,'' I explained, ''and I've forgotten how to cast on.''
Although it's been 20 years since she knit anything, she was back to the phone in a minute, materials in hand. ''You tie the yarn around the left needle, slip the right needle, loop around....''
I followed along as she spoke.
''... duck under like you're going to knit the stitch, only pull the yarn over the left needle to cast on.''
Of course. In an instant it came back, the comforting click of the needles, the way Grandma pulled the yarn out of the skein with her little finger, her voice telling stories in my ear.
Jessamyn wanted to jump right in and actually ''make'' something - slippers? - but was startled to find knitting more difficult than she expected. Her yarn, and tongue, quickly became as tangled as mine had been when I learned. Still, she found the process intriguing, perhaps as much for the attention of a mother at her elbow as for the knitting. Ariel sat on my other side, ''knitting'' on a daisy that produces a long cylindrical woven cord.
I found myself telling stories about Grandma Grace - how her preacher father took her to revivals, how at 16 she drove across the country, how every Christmas there was a hand-knit sweater for everyone under the tree.
Jessamyn became more impressed by the moment. She may or may not take to knitting. For me, it was far easier to be on the receiving end of Grandma Grace's talented needles.
My sweaters are worn out and gone, but I still have an intricate vest she made for one of my great uncles and the shawls I begged for, after I decided they were more grown-up than sweaters. What I also have - and hope my daughters will gain - is her persistence in getting over the rough spots in life, her diligence toward the task at hand, and her sense of perfection in her art. I now rip apart imperfect sentences the same way Grandma Grace tore apart knitting mistakes.
Her gifts to us may not have been a surprise, but they warmed our hearts - and our toes - all year round.