Knitting Tears Into Blankets

Ana waved goodbye to her parents as they drove away.

"Omi, what will we do today?" she asked her grandmother, as they walked with arms around each other into Omi's house. Ana was pleased to have her grandmother to herself for twelve whole days while her parents took a trip.

"Well, Annchen," Omi said, using the name Ana loved to hear, "I think today I shall teach you to knit."

"Really? I've never seen you knit," Ana said.

"Well, I haven't much, since your mom grew up, but I was eight years old like you when I first learned."

"Can we start right this minute and can I knit something to keep?" Ana asked, all in one breath.

Omi laughed. "Of course! Let me see, how about a little blanket, for your dolls?"

"Yes! For my Emily doll! She'll love her own blanket. And then could we make her a little dress too, to match?" Ana asked.

Omi smiled. "Let's just see what you have time to finish before your mama and dad come back for you."

Ana watched while Omi reached deep into a closet and came out holding the handle of a large, worn basket. Ana lifted the lid of the basket and caught her breath. There were balls of yarn in every color. She felt them one by one, a fuzzy blue, a pink with a shiny strand of silver, a chunky green, a sunset reddish orange, and a silky smooth purple. Then she held up one that looked like a fluffy snowball.

"This one. I'd like white, for Christmas, Omi," Ana said, fingering the yarn.

"It will be beautiful," Omi said.

"What did you make the first time you knitted, Omi?" Ana asked.

Omi was quiet for so long that Ana looked up to see if she had heard her. "I made a blanket,too," Omi finally answered, "but mine wasn't for my doll."

"What was yours for?" Ana asked.

"It was for my mama and me, to wrap us up together."

"Why? Why did you need to wrap up with your mama?" Ana asked.

"Oh, it is such a long story," Ana's grandmother said.

"Please tell me, please. I want to know everything about it." Ana said.

"You always want to know everything, my Annchen," Omi said. "Come on, let me show you how to knit. Then if we have time, I will tell you."

Omi cast on a row of stitches and handed Ana the knitting needles. Then she sat Ana on her lap and reached her arms around her to guide Ana's hands and needles. Ana liked the feel of Omi's warm breath on her neck and her ample chest against Ana's back. Ana held the needles and watched them duck and loop and slide at Omi's direction, clinking all the time.

"We're doing it!" she exclaimed.

Then Anna stayed silent, concentrating hard, until she thought she had the moves memorized and could do them by herself. She slid next to her grandmother on the couch and knitted several stitches without help. Then she set the needles down in her lap and turned to her grandmother, "Now, Omi, now tell me about the blanket you knitted."

Omi laughed. "Oh, all right, then."

You already know I grew up in Germany, before I moved here, to America. When I was eight years old, there was a war going on in my country. We lived in Berlin. That is a big city. Many bombs dropped on our city. I knew what to look for. We all did. A bomb starts out as a dark speck in the sky. Then you hear a whistle that gets louder and louder and turns into a whining as the bomb gets lower. If it looks like it's not heading straight for you, you run anyway. That's because they don't come down in a straight line.

One day, one of the bombs landed in our back yard. We had just reached the bottom of our cellar when we heard it hit. It left a crater big enough for me to climb down into. That is when my mother loaded me on a train and took me to my grandmother's farm, far away from Berlin where she hoped the bombs would not fall.

Mother didn't stay with me. She didn't want to lose her job. Jobs and money were hard to come by then, and my father hadn't been able to help us for a long time. He didn't believe the war was right and had been put in jail for speaking out against it. Then he was sent to the battlefields. We hadn't heard from him in many months.

I cried when Mama got on the train headed back to Berlin. My grandmotheru2014you were named after her, Annchenu2014held me a long time until I stopped. She took me home and gave me a bowl of cream to eat. "You are so skinny, my dear," she whispered to me as she skimmed cream floating at the top of the big milk can. During my stay with Grandmother, she gave me cream many times even though it was forbidden. Each day we were expected to milk Grandmother's cows and place the cans of milk outside the front door to be picked up by the army. They knew how many cows we had and how much milk, with cream, should be there every day. We were not to drink it ourselves. We were not allowed to eat meat either. These precious things all went to feed the soldiers.

The first days after my mother left, I cried often. I stood by the window looking down the driveway hoping she had changed her mind and I would see her walking toward us. Grandmother let me be. She didn't try to shush my tears. She kept on doing her work, but she never went far from where I was. She'd cook in the kitchen where she could still see me by the window. She folded the laundry on the bed I was lying on. When she had to go outside to tend the cows, she asked me to carry a milk can to keep me near her. And at night, she had me leave the spare bed empty and climb with her into her big featherbed.

I think I had been there about five days when Grandmother and I finished the last milking of the day, and it was beginning to get dark. We walked from the barn back to the house and Grandmother said, "Put on some long underwear under your clothes. We are going somewhere tonight."

"Where?" I asked.

"You'll see," she answered and went to the closet and pulled out a thick, heavy wool blanket. She also handed me a knitted hat and mittens.

Bundled up in our warmest clothes and boots and carrying the blanket and a basket that Grandmother took out of a cupboard at the last minute, we went out to the barn to the horse's stall, next to where we milked the cows. Snow covered the ground and the trees. I think it was November, before Christmas, Annchen, like it is now.

Grandmother bridled the horse and handed me the reins. Leading the horse, I followed Grandmother to the back of the barn where she began dragging a huge piece of canvas off the top of what I had thought was farm machinery. I stared at the biggest, fanciest sleigh I had ever seen. The seat was cushioned and covered in shiny black leather. The sides of the sleigh swept up into high scrolls at the back. It was a sleigh fit for Santa, Annchen!

Grandmother harnessed the horse to the sleigh and then opened the back door to the barn. We were going for a sleigh ride! Under the stars!

The horse snorted and started us off quickly. I think he was as excited to be out gliding through the night as I was. It was so cold we could see our breaths. Grandmother tucked the thick blanket around our laps and legs and wrapped my hands in it, too. The blades on the sleigh made a steady swishing sound over the parts of the snow that were packed. Through deeper spots we made hardly a sound. There were no clouds in the sky and after a time I noticed a half moon had come out to join the stars in lighting our way.

It was too beautiful to even talk. We rode silently over country roads, past other farms until after a good while we came to a long lane. Grandmother pulled gently on the reins and made a clicking sound with her tongue to signal the horse to turn.

The horse brought us to a stop next to a dark little house.

"We're here," Grandmother said.

She took the basket and we climbed down from the sleigh. The door to the house opened and a lady with her hair in a bun called to us.

"You've come! Hurry in and get warm."

I was cold by then and glad to follow Grandmother into the house and into the living room. There were no lights on anywhere. There were only small candles burning from sconces that hung on the walls. That was how all houses were in the evenings. It was that way so the planes that flew at night would not see the lights and know where to drop their bombs.

The living room was full of women. No men, only women. All the men, except the very old, were gone, gone to fight in the war.

Grandmother introduced me to her friends. Then she sat down on a chair and reached into the basket she had brought from home and took out knitting needles and a ball of yarn and a piece of knitting that looked like the front of a sweater. I sat down on the floor next to her basket. All the women had knitting on their laps. They talked and knitted, and they sang. I remember their singing. It was like being in church.

After a little while, Grandmother reached into her basket again and took out another pair of needles and handed them to me.

"Choose a ball of yarn," she said. "I will teach you to knit. It will help you. Like it helps us," she looked around the room.

"And that's when I started my blanket, Annchen. I chose white, too, like you have. I chose it because I wanted to make something to remind me of the sleigh ride. Of course, by the time I finished it, I had long since run out of white yarn and added many other colors, but it started with white."

"Did it help you to knit, Omi, like your grandmother said?" Ana asked softly.

"At first, it just felt clumsy and hard, but every day I added more rows. The blanket grew, and an amazing thing happened, Annchen. I didn't think so much anymore about how I missed my mother. Instead, I thought how surprised she'd be to see my blanket and how big it was. I just kept picturing Mama and me wrapped in it together."

"How long did you work on it?" Ana asked.

"Until she came back." Omi answered. "She brought Father with her. The war was over, and I was a year older."

"What happened to the blanket? Do you still have it?" Ana asked.

Omi thought for a moment then rose from the couch and walked down to the basement and into the cedar closet. Ana followed. Omi dug through some boxes until she said, "Here, here it is."

She pulled out a much worn, faded blanket with many snags. It looked to Ana big enough to wrap ten people in.

"It is nearly sixty years old, Annchen," said Omi. "You may have it if you want it."

"Oh, thank you, Omi," breathed Ana, gathering the blanket to her heart and laying a side of her face in it. "It is the most beautiful blanket I have ever seen."

In the next days, Ana worked hard on her doll blanket and sometimes Omi knitted a row or two for her. She had almost completed it when her parents called and said they were cutting their trip short and would be back early to get her. War had broken out between Ana's country and another.

On television news, Ana and Omi watched American war planes drop bombs on people in a far away land. They listened to the president explain why the killing was just. He said there were people hiding in that country who had killed Americans and they had to be found.

"Are the bombs just hitting the bad people, Omi," Ana asked.

"No, Annchen. It doesn't work that way," Omi answered.

"Do you think there are children running from our bombs, like you did, Omi?"

"Annchen, they're not our bombs–the president's and the country's, yes, but not yours and mine."

"But the children, are they running?"

"I think they are," Omi said, putting Ana on her lap and holding her tight.

"Then how can it be right?" Ana wanted to understand.

"I don't think it is," Omi told her.

"Why didn't you get to be president, Omi? You wouldn't let this happen."

"Oh, Annchen, people who think like I do don't get to be president. But it won't always be this way. I believe there will come a time."

That night, Ana climbed onto her bed and reached for Omi's blanket from the bottom of the bed where she kept it. She spread the blanket out and then wrapped herself into it, with the extra folds making an island around her. She leaned against her pillows and thought of Omi, the little girl in the dim, war-time living room with all the women knitting and, for a moment, thought she could hear their singing. The blanket held Anna as she waited for sleep to come, wondering how many wars, and how many children learning to knit, it would take before someone like Omi could be president.

January 25, 2002