Family/CommunicationReflectionJuly 17, 20160Building On What Came Before Us

Even when everything is changing, we can draw strength, skills and wisdom from the past...

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, 12 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.

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