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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Yellow Raincoats

by Michelle Valois

          We called them slickers.  Mine was hard, yellow plastic, with a tear under one arm that we tried to tape but the tape came off in the rain.  We had different names for things back then. 
My father called films moving pictures.  We called his mother, our grandmother, Mémay.  I once called my father a mold maker, but my mother explained that my father was a tool and die maker.  I asked the difference, and she told me that a tool and die maker was a man with a trade.   We called that sweet, carbonated beverage soda and then grew up to laugh at words like tonic and pop and soft drink.  I always wondered about soft drink and also hard liquor.  My father called those tiny bottles of whiskey and rum nips or sometimes toots.  He’d take them fishing.  They fit in his tackle box.
My other grandmother, not the French one, we called her Grandma, but my mother called her Mary.  She called the woman who gave her life her real mother and the woman who raised her Mary.  My mother’s real mother died when my mother was nine. 
Mary, some might call her step-mother, sewed and cleaned and cooked and made sure the children went to Sunday mass–though she herself was not Catholic–and kept the family together during the height of the Great Depression and stayed with the children’s father, my grandfather, who beat and belittled her.  Today she might be called an abused woman, the situation domestic violence.
My grandparents are gone now, my father, too.  It is a very different world that I inhabit, in some ways.  I have three children, but by some accounts, I am not their real mother.  I did not give them life or carry them inside my body or nurse them with my milk.  They call me Ma.  It was one of the first sounds the first child made so I claimed it for myself to feel chosen, to feel real, and because my father called his mother Ma.  The children call my partner, their other mother–real, by some accounts–Mommy, though just the other day the eldest declared that she might start calling her Mom.
          My mother, whom I also call Mom, is not legally blind but can only see out of one eye. She has had to give up knitting and driving and working, her independence, her once full life.  The other night she told me about spool knitting, which she did as a child. 
It was winter and my grandmother, Mary, herself barely twenty, had ordered the younger children outside.  It was a hard, biting cold, so my mother and her sisters took their play into the landlord’s barn.  There they found a box of yarn.  To keep them amused or to get them out of her hair, Mary had taught them how to use a knitting spool, which my grandfather made by hammering three nails, equal distance from each other, on the top of an empty spool.  Using a crochet hook, some yarn, and a lot of patience, the children could actually knit things–doilies, pot holders, baby blankets–each piece unraveled after completion since the box of yarn from the landlord’s barn was the only yarn they had.
          Before my next visit, I stop at a craft store to buy my mother a spool knitter.  The young man at the store has never heard of such a thing.  Later, I learn all the different names for my mother’s childhood toy: knitting nancy, bizzy lizzy, corker, peg knitter, bobbin doll, bobbin knitter, French knitter, doll knitter, punniken, patdocker, strick spiel, corking doll, knitting knobby, knitting mushroom, knitting bobbin.  Finally, I discover something called a wonder knitter.
My mother tears open the package.  The bright colors of the wonder knitter make it easy for her to distinguish the parts from the whole: the pegs from the spool from the green yarn, the only skein left from a lifetime of filling and emptying baskets of yarn in every color, texture, and fiber content.
She is awkward at first.  Her blue-veined hands and crooked fingers fumble with the green yarn.  Every part of her is trying to remember how the spool works.  She doesn’t read the directions; she relies on instinct and memory.  It’s been nearly seventy-five years since she has held such a tool in her hand. 
          I watch her fingers hold the bright yellow hook that came in the package.  All things are illuminated under the stark light of her magnifying reading lamp.  She is patient.  Within a half hour, she has knitted six inches of braided wool.  She wants to get one for my daughter.  Imagine, she tells me, how proud Grandma would be, her great-grand daughter learning to use a spool knitter.
          Yesterday, in an early morning drizzle, I walked the children to the bus stop.  Up ahead I saw a gathering of yellow raincoats.  My old one, I remember, had a hole in the pocket.  One morning, I put my favorite matchbox car in the pocket and walked to school.  Along the way, it fell through the hole and was lost forever.
          People called me a tomboy, a name I wore like a badge of honor.  Today, I suppose I am called middle aged.
          As we near the bus stop, I can make out three separate yellow-coated children huddled together.  I wonder if I can find a yellow slicker in my size and what I would call it if I did–and what would fall through the pocket and what would be lost forever.

Michelle Valois teaches writing and humanities at a community college in central Massachusetts.  She lives in Florence (Mass, not Italy, alas) with her partner and their three children.  Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Moon Milk Review, Florida Review, Pank, Brevity, Fourth Genre, North American Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, among others.

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