Building On What Came Before Us
Many years ago, my mom declared that she would knit each of us, her four children, a sweater. She had lots of other stuff she was interested in doing, though, so she never quite completed the project. I’m pretty sure she finished my younger brother’s sweater, and she may have finished my older sister’s. In any case, when we went to clean out her house after she died in 2004, I discovered most of the sweater she had been making for me in a knitting bag with (fortunately) the pattern book she was using. I was touched; I decided to take it home with me and finish it someday.
So here I am, twelve years later, finishing the sweater my mom started for me sometime in the 1990s. I thought it would be a nice way to connect with her, and it is. It’s easy to imagine her working on it: getting irritated when an instruction didn’t make sense; swearing softly at having to undo and redo a mistake; her crooked smile of satisfaction at a beautifully complex bit of finished work. And most of all, thinking of her thinking of me.
I’ve also enjoyed the mystery-solving aspect of it. It’s a cardigan, and she had completed the back, both fronts, and most of one of the sleeves. So I had to determine where she was in the sleeve (there’s a cable design running down the middle, so I had to figure out exactly the correct row), and which of the six available sizes she had chosen to knit. And since I had only one skein of the yarn she was using, a yarn that hasn’t been made for many years, I had to find more of it (thank god for ebay). Finally, I had to figure out what size needles she was using in order to finish the ribbed trim on the front, neck and pockets. I tried the size called for in the pattern, but that made stitches that were bigger than hers; I tried a couple of different size needles, knitting a few rows, pulling out the work and redoing it till I got it right. (You can see how it’s going in the picture above.)
Most of all, though, doing this is making me realize that I generally don’t give my mom enough credit for the foundation she provided to me throughout my life. So much of who I am as a professional, a parent, and a human being is grounded in her good example. She taught me how to think critically; inspired my love of language and of writing; taught me that a parent’s job is to provide the tools kids need to create their own life and the moral compass to assure that life is one of contribution and value to others and to the world. She taught me that humor can ease tension, and that it’s mentally lazy to accept “what everyone knows” as truth. She insisted that I take responsibility for my mistakes, and she was quietly proud of my accomplishments. She (and my father) taught me that judging, dismissing, or hating others for some part of who they are – skin color, sexual orientation, country of birth – is just plain wrong. She raised all four of us, two boys and two girls, with equal expectations that each of us would find work we liked and were good at, and build loving, strong relationships and families.
And as I’m reflecting on this, on my own failure to acknowledge her gifts to me, I’m wondering if we aren’t all guilty of this to some extent. It’s too easy to believe that everything now is “new,” that we’re starting from zero every day and having to invent everything as we go. But even though almost every aspect of our world is changing faster now that at any previous time in history, we are able to navigate through this time of seismic change by virtue of the foundation laid down by those who have gone before.
Just as I can finish this sweater because of the start my mom made on it and the knitting skills passed down to me by her and many others, all that we do builds on the discoveries and advances of previous generations. The fact that I, a woman, can be accepted and respected as an author, speaker, consultant and business owner is built on the efforts and sacrifice of my feminist mother, my suffragette grandmothers, and millions of other women of past generations all over the world. The fact that I can share my thoughts with you here, one-to-one, perhaps without ever having met you, is a tribute to thousands of generations of humans who created language, invented ways to write it down and disseminate it (including the printing press), then created ever-more sophisticated computers, and finally harnessed the power of the internet.
It is both humbling and inspiring to acknowledge that we are links in this human chain. It makes me feel very grateful, and it makes me want to leave a legacy that will help move the world and everyone in it toward more joy, more collaboration, and lives of prosperity, independence and discovery.