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Casting On

15 years ago I lived in a shoebox apartment in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was a neighborhood transitioning from not-so-nice to VERY nice. Everyday as I walked from my apartment to the little preschool where I taught, I would pass new stores and restaurants preparing to open for business. There were upscale sushi restaurants, tiny, jewel-box bakeries, cozy tea shops, and clothing stores where the resident designers sat stitching in corners beside the cash register.

One of the new stores was filled entirely with yarn. Floor to ceiling shelves were stacked with the stuff -- a tweedy cornflower blue was jammed next to a shimmery lime green, which in turn lay next to a bulky charcoal gray. There were literally thousands of skeins of yarn, each shouting with color and texture, warm and glowing like a sunset from every season at once.

It was early fall, the slim trees lining the avenues were just barely tipped with red and yellow, the air carrying a little nip beneath the city’s heat. I knew how to knit, but not well. I’d started several scarves, and never finished any of them. I’d lose interest or move house, and somehow the scarf would disappear. Entering that yarn store, I began to feel the itch. I wanted to make a scarf -- a beautiful scarf -- a Christmas present for my mother.

So, the second time I went in, I forced myself to stay until I’d picked something. I finally settled on a handspun yarn, dyed in shades of magenta and ochre. It was a dense wool, and seemed strong and warm, exactly what my mother would need for a cold Minnesota morning. It was also wildly expensive, and my hands shook a little as I handed over the bills from my thin wallet.

I brought the wool back to my apartment, along with a set of large wooden needles, and got to work. I wanted the scarf to be wide, and long; long enough so my mother could wrap it around her neck as many times as she wanted. My father had died the winter before, and I kept imagining my mom, warm and cozy with that big scarf. I wanted it to be wide enough and long enough to keep the cold at bay. I wanted it to be wide enough and long enough to comfort her when it seemed nothing else could.

I knit every day after work, and during my lunch break. I had soon knit myself through the first skein of yarn, and the scarf couldn’t wrap around my neck even once. I went back to the shop for another skein. And another. And another. I bought the last ball of that yarn left in the shop before I flew home, and I came to the final few inches of it as we taxied on the runway in Minneapolis. The scarf was done. All in all, it was the most expensive gift I’d ever bought anyone, but I was sure it would be perfect.

It wasn’t. In the candlelight of our Christmas Eve gift exchange, the scarf glowed like rubies and amber, but when my mother put it around her neck it looked more like a sad hybrid between a scarf and a coat, too big to be the former, not big enough to be the latter. It was wide alright -- it spanned the space from her neck to mid-back, but looked strange and lumpy from my beginner's erratic knitting, dwarfing my poor mother beneath its rough weight. “I love it!” my mother said. “It’s perfect.”

I wasn’t around to see if she ever wore the scarf, but when I moved back a few years later, I found it neatly folded at the back of a closet. I was a much better knitter by then, and I took the scarf back, carefully unraveling every stitch till it lay in a giant purple and orange pile at my feet. I re-knit it, and when I was done, returned it to my mother, who still wears it through the coldest days of winter.

When I finished re-knitting, however, I was left with a large ball of excess yarn. That ball of yarn has moved with me everywhere since -- from Minneapolis to Maine, and back again, and then across the wide prairie before settling, finally, in western South Dakota.

It feels like fall suddenly. The tips of the leaves in the windbreak are just starting to turn, and there is a nip in the air beneath the prairie’s heat. Yesterday, I cast on the first stitches of that last ball of yarn. With it I plan to make a tiny, woolen bonnet, because our family is expecting the best possible Christmas present this year. It will be the kind of bonnet a baby girl, born in in the first days of winter, will need to travel home from the hospital. Home, where her grandma, visiting all the way from Minnesota, will be waiting to greet her new granddaughter, the same bright colors keeping them both warm.

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