Why I won’t be moving anytime soon

Before we bought the house I am now in, I had moved twenty-five times in about as many years. For the first eight years of my life, my dad was in the Navy, so of course we moved every time he was transferred to a new duty station: to Nova Scotia, then Florida, then California, then Tennessee, criss-crossing the country. When he had shore duty, my mother and brother and I moved with him; when he was at sea, we returned to my grandparents’ house in Kentucky while we waited for his ship to return. At the early age of two, I learned to hold tight to my favorite doll on moving day and not lay her down even for a moment, lest she get packed into a box and disappear for a year or more.

Even after dad got out of the Navy, we continued to move every eighteen months, as though he were still receiving orders to ship out. Those were unhappy years for my parents, but I didn’t know that at the time. Usually we just moved from one rental house to another, so I didn’t have to change schools that often. But I must surely hold some kind of record for having lived in the most houses that have since been torn down and turned into parking lots. (When we used to go back to my hometown and I would point out the places where I used to live, my children thought I had actually lived in the parking lots.) There was the two-story house my grandparents owned on Jackson Street, the three-story mansion on Hamilton Street, the small frame house on Clayton Avenue that we rented from the college, the large farmhouse across the tracks, the two-story bungalow on Willis Avenue, and the one-story bungalow on Walnut Street. Possibly there were others that I am not aware of.

Now I find it almost impossible to believe that I have been in the same house since 1989. And it’s not because it was my dream house or anything. There are plenty of things not to like about this house. In fact, if I had known I would end up staying here so long, I would have bought a different house, one with more character, more yard, less suburbia. One with an actual garage that was attached to the driveway and not bizarrely located down the steps. I do like the wooded back lot, however. You’d think, though, that having moved so often in the past, I would have plunked my furniture down here and refused to move another thing. But instead, over the years I have completely rearranged the house numerous times. I’m not talking about moving the couch from one wall to the other. I’m talking about completely repurposing rooms over and over again. Maybe, like my dad, I’m still searching for something I can’t find, only within a smaller frame of reference.

Now that the children have grown, and it’s just the two of us most of the time, our latest plan is to turn the downstairs den into a space where we can hold old-time music jams and square-dance parties. But obviously, we won’t be dancing and playing music all the time, so I’d also like it to be a multi-purpose room, where we can sit by the wood stove and read or knit or work on projects. We need an open space for dancing, but we also need decent storage and work space for our projects. We need plenty of straight-backed chairs for musicians, but we also need comfy chairs for reading. We need a smooth surface for dancing, but we also need rugs for the coziness factor.

Last spring we hired a contractor to take out a wall (one we had actually put in ourselves years ago to make a bedroom for my older son when he was a teenager and needed to get away from his little brother). Before the contractor came, we had to move everything out of what had been a fairly traditional bedroom and a den (in the bedroom a queen-size bed, a dresser, a wardrobe, and large shelves full of boxes of things left behind by the boys when they moved out; in the living room a love seat, a rocking chair, a coffee table, a television and stand, shelves and shelves of books, a NordicTrack; and in the “hall” between the two a chest freezer and a four-drawer file cabinet). Now that the space has been cleared out, we are trying to be very thoughtful about what we move back in.

I have decided this challenge definitely requires a professional, so I have made an appointment with a designer this week. I have great hopes that he will be able to come up with an awesome plan. The same designer picked out a fabric for a wing chair I had reupholstered last summer, and I am loving it. It was exactly the right fabric, but I didn’t know it until I saw the chair next to my stone fireplace.

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Reinventing our living space

When we first moved into our house many years ago, my sons were 9 and 2 years old, and the downstairs made a perfect den for two growing boys–finished enough to look civilized but not so fussy that I worried about damage. We put down a heavy-duty industrial carpet that refused to show dirt. The holes in the wall behind the dart board could be patched easily enough. The furniture could be reupholstered. The downstairs was the kids’ zone. Over the years the den has been transformed many times to suit their changing needs. At one time the room featured a pingpong table and mini trampoline. There was plenty of room to set up race tracks or electric trains or make tents with sheets and light-weight blankets over the furniture. Later, the entertainment center took over, as the kids gathered their friends around to watch movies or play video games.

Likewise, the bedrooms in the house changed over the years to meet the changing needs of the family. At first my older son liked the room tucked away in the back downstairs, away from meddling little brother and parents. But before too long, he felt lonely and wanted to move upstairs with the rest of the family. We gave the boys the 11 x 22 foot master bedroom, with their bunk bed set down the middle to delineate Matt’s side from Isaac’s side of the room, and we parents took the smaller room next door, which at least had the advantage of windows facing the woods, so we woke to morning sun and birdsong.

Eventually, though, little brother was 7 years old and big brother was 13 and very much needing his privacy, so we decided to put up walls in the den and build him a room of his own.  However, before we could finish building his room,  his 13-year-old cousin Melissa came to live with us. The boys still shared the big room upstairs, and technically, we had a spare bedroom downstairs that we could have put Melissa in, but we wanted her to feel welcome, so the adults moved bedrooms again–this time downstairs to the room in the basement that Matt had started out in. (We doubted very seriously that we would feel “lonely” down there but were certainly willing to take our chances.)

Years later, the kids have moved on and built lives for themselves. Matthew is 32 and a captain in the Army, with one son and two stepchildren. Isaac is 26, married, and finishing up his PhD in molecular biology. Melissa is 32, a registered nurse, with a 3-year-old and a new baby on the way. I have remarried, and it’s time to transform the house again to fit our new lives. Although it feels like moving backwards in some ways (and I feel somewhat bad about losing a space that was so important at the time), we have taken the walls back out to open up the space again. We took up the carpet and painted the floor, boxed in the duct work and the support poles, replaced the ceiling tiles, put in additional lights, and added a 3-way switch at the bottom of the stairs (and by “we,” I mean the contractors who actually know how to do these things, as opposed to the earlier remodeling project that we did ourselves and which took months, if not years, to finish).

We have in mind a place we can have people over to play music and dance, but we still have extra bedrooms for family to spend the night.

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Kisses and Hugs, Spiders and Bugs

Okay, so I haven’t written every day, as I had hoped, but I did finish another square for the afghan I’ve been knitting, so maybe that counts for something. This square—called Kisses and Hugs, Spiders and Bugs—was almost as much fun to work on as the tree I made last month. It was designed by a woman named Judy Sumner, who says she often gets inspiration for her patterns (or the names of them) from her twin granddaughters, whom she is also teaching to knit.

This Aran square was designed by Judy Sumner, who says she got her inspiration from a birthday card she received from her twin granddaughters. The card had little cartoon bugs and spiders, and Xs and Os.

I finished this square in the car on the way to Lawrence, Kansas, for a contra dance and then immediately began to work on another square. I’m not sure this next one is going to be quite as much fun to work on, but it should at least keep my brain active. Each of the patterns in the book The Great American Aran Afghan shows a photograph of the completed square and presents the instructions in both words and charts, along with complicated keys and descriptions of the various cable stitches. There is also a glossary at the back of the book that explains common abbreviations and a “knitter’s school” that provides steps and diagrams for the basics (cast on, knit, purl, bind off, graft). Most of the patterns have at least three or four charts, each with a different number of rows in the repeat, so the challenge is to keep track of which row you are on for each different chart.

I look at the photograph a lot as I work, but since I am basically a “linear person,” I generally find it easiest to follow the written instructions, not the visual charts. Part of the challenge with following the visual charts is to remember to read the chart from right to left for the odd-numbered rows and from left to right for the even-numbered rows. I use four different colored counters to keep track of the rows, plus markers to identify where each pattern begins and ends.

On the surface, the Tipsy Cable square that I just started seems easier to work on than some of the other squares I have done, because it has two small cables on the outside of the square and two larger cables on the inside, separated by sections of twisted knit and reverse stockinette stitch. However, the tricky bit is that the pairs of matched cables are mirror images of each other, so in essence there are four charts to keep track of, not two, as I had originally thought. For example, the outside cables are represented by Chart A, so I happily started Chart A on row 1, as expected, but when I got to the outside cable on the other side of the square, the instructions told me to start at row 21 of the same Chart A.

The larger inside cables were even more confusing. Again, it started out clearly enough, even if a little complicated, with the first of the larger cables represented by Chart B and the second by Chart C. And I could look at the photograph and the visual representations of the charts and see that they were mirror images of each other, so that made sense. However, I nearly threw the whole thing out the car window when I got to row 2 of Chart C, which told me to follow row 24 of Chart B—which told me to “Repeat row 14.” I felt like I was on some sort of insane scavenger hunt. I just keep telling myself to concentrate on one row at a time and to pay attention, and it should all work out. The curious thing is that this pattern is not considered to be one of the more difficult in the book. At least, the editors of the book don’t consider it difficult. I’m still not convinced. But they thought the square with the Spiders was difficult, and I just thought that was just plain fun.

When I’m Sitting I’m Knitting

I’ve done it again–started a major project that will take me years to finish. This time I am knitting an afghan for my son and his wife. It was originally going to be a wedding present, but they have already been married for over a year now, and the afghan is only about 25% completed. Fortunately, they are very good natured and don’t seem to care how long it takes me. With luck, they will get it long before their tenth anniversary, at least.

I always like a challenge, and I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again, so I decided to make an Aran sampler afghan. The blocks I have made so far have been everything I hoped for–interesting and challenging, but not so difficult that I get frustrated and give up. The problem with samplers, though, is that by the time you figure out exactly how the pattern goes, it is time to move on to the next one. I am knitting with100% washable wool from Peru, in a brilliant blue yarn that I got at the Yarn Barn in Lawrence, Kansas, one weekend when we were in town for a dance.

There are several knitters who attend the dances in Kansas, and we like to compare projects when we see each other. One woman is making a gorgeous lace shawl. It’s a good way to keep motivated, knowing that people will expect to see progress the next time you show up at a dance. I used to knit while watching TV, but now that I no longer watch television, I mostly knit in the car while criss-crossing the state to various contra dances and square dances.

The pattern I am knitting is from a booklet called The Great American Aran Afghan, which consists of 24 original designs by 24 knitters (20 blocks for the afghan itself and 4 more to make a couple accent pillows). I am currently working on a block by a woman named Judy Sumner, whose square (which she calls kisses and hugs; spiders and bugs) was inspired by a birthday card from her twin grandaughters. I am having a great time knitting this square, making the bobbles that form the body of the spider, and watching the leafy vine emerge along the left-hand side of the square.

Here are the squares I have made so far.

This Aran square designed by Hanna Burns combines two DNA strand-like patterns with the Trinity Sticth to represent the Holy Trinity in Christianity.

Barbara Selesnick designed this square to remind her of the treasures people carry inside lockets and the stories they inspire.

Ann Strong got her inspiration for this square from pomegranates. She used the Seed Wishbone pattern and the Double Texture Cable to illustrate the contrast between the smooth exteriors and the seedy, bumpy insides of the pomegranate.

This tree by Ada Fenick was incredibly fun to knit. It represents the Tree of Life shared by many cultures. The cables were taken from the wedding invitation of a good friend from college.

My spare room looks like a USPS substation

photo of priority mail packages

After hearing that some of the soldiers who deployed to Afghanistan last summer with the Fourth Infantry, some for the third and fourth time, had not received any mail after nearly two months at war, I decided to “adopt” my son’s platoon. Of course, I realize that this means that in addition to worrying about my son’s personal safety, I now have twenty more young men to fret over. But that is the least I can do. It is not right that I am able to sit in the comfort and safety of my own home night after night, while these brave young men sacrifice so much. (I realize that many of the soldiers fighting and dying these days are women, but my son’s unit is still an all-male unit.)

I know very little about what they have been asked to do, but I know they have few comforts and must work long hours with little sleep in the part of the country that has come to be known as “the volatile south.” They are not far from the Arghandab valley, where several men from their sister platoon were killed shortly after arriving in country. Fort Carson, home of the Fourth Infantry, has lost seventeen soldiers in Afghanistan this year and sixty-one in the country since the war started, including three scouts killed last week. My son acknowledges that “it’s hard,” but they carry on “by sheer will and brotherhood.” What choice do they have?

My plan is to send each of the privates and specialists in the platoon at least one care package per month until they all come home next July. And I pray they all do make it home physically safe and mentally sound. When I first mentioned my idea at work, I was surprised at the number of people who wanted to help. Several of my coworkers said that they had been meaning to do something like this ever since the wars started, but they didn’t know how. A few years ago, people could send care packages to “any soldier,” but that program was discontinued because of fears for the security of the troops. Now, unless you know the name and APO address of a specific soldier, it is hard to know how to help. And unless you go searching for news about the wars, it is difficult to find out what is happening. Gone are the days when the major campaigns made headline news. In fact, plans to embed journalists were recently canceled for the second time in as many weeks, so news is hard to come by. The best source I have found is icasualties.org, which I check religiously several times a day, but I know that even with the wealth of information available online, I am only able to access a tiny fraction of the truth about what these wars are costing everyone involved.

I can’t help but think that if we at home had to suffer more—if the draft were reinstated or if gasoline and coffee were rationed, for example—we would pay more attention to what is happening and would demand a resolution to the conflicts. It is too easy for many of us to distance ourselves from these wars,  a position that was not possible when the draft was in effect and anyone with a son or brother or husband or father had a personal stake in any conflict or potential conflict. At least in previous wars, people “on the home front” were more likely to knit socks and bandages or raise Victory gardens or buy war bonds or make other sacrifices that, if nothing else, served to keep the war in the public eye. Even during the Vietnam War, lists of local soldiers and their APO addresses used to appear in the newspapers, so people from the community could send cards and letters, especially around the holidays. The year I was fourteen, I copied down a long list of names and addresses and sent Christmas cards to soldiers, using money I had made from babysitting to pay for postage. I didn’t know much about the war, but I could easily imagine how hard it would be to be fighting for your life so far from home and how much worse it would be to think you had been forgotten.

Tonight I will finish packing up the last of twenty boxes to send to one small platoon currently fighting far from home, in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I very much appreciate all the people who have donated materials and personal notes to place in these packages, as well as cash to help with postage.  I hope these care packages bring some measure of comfort to the soldiers. My son assures me they are much appreciated. I  told him I wish I could do more for his platoon and for all the soldiers and civilians caught in these endless wars. I mentioned something about how people used to knit socks for the soldiers, and he said, “Oh, please, don’t!”

Cutting the steek

Now that the evenings are getting cooler, I am ready to get back to work on a sweater I started knitting last December. This is the most complicated pattern I have ever knit, but I am very happy with the way it is turning out so far. It is a two-color Shetland pattern; the yarn is fingering weight wool, and the colors are plumberry and ash.

Unfortunately, I am now at the point where I must cut the steek or abandon the project. My friend Amber, who has already made a sweater by this same pattern, assures me I can do it, and several helpful articles online indicate that there is little risk of unraveling a sweater with a steek cut. But the idea of cutting through a tube of knitting that took so long to make is completely counterintuitive, and so far, I have resisted taking a pair of scissors to my work. The woman at the shop where I bought the yarn was no help, either. When I told her about this pattern, she said, “On, no! That’s too scary! I would never do that.” Not much of a sales pitch, I must say.

Nevertheless, I can see the advantages of steeking, especially for Fair Isle sweaters and other complicated patterns. With the steek, you knit the sweater in the round, with the right side facing, which allows you to follow the intricate pattern more easily. Having a steek means you don’t have to knit the sweater in sections (back, front, sleeves) and then sew them together, because you knit the entire sweater in one piece. Amber says that once I’ve mastered steeking, I will never again want to sew in sleeves. The steek itself is a kind of bridge of approximately six extra stitches knit in a tweed-like pattern to reduce the chance that it might ravel after being cut.

At this point, the sweater is a tube with a steek on each side where the sleeves will go. I have already basted down the center of each steek and run a machine stitch along both sides of the basting and across the bottom and top. The time has come to cut the steeks along the basting, so I can pick up the stitches around each opening and knit the sleeves into my sweater. There is another steek along the front neck, which I don’t completely understand, but I hope its purpose will become clear eventually.

Several people have been following the progress of my sweater since last December, including my aunt Juanita, my mother-in-law Ruth, and several women from the dance group in Lawrence, Kansas, who watched me struggle when I first started work on the sweater. I spent most of the first weekend casting on the 125 stitches, knitting a few rounds, discovering that I had twisted the stitches and was unknowingly knitting a Möbius sweater, and then taking the stitches back out. After I finally got the stitches cast on and then knit enough rounds to convince myself that the stitches were not twisted again, I went through several rounds of knitting and un-knitting the border pattern. Until I was able to see the pattern emerge, I kept losing track of where I was on the chart. But eventually, I got into the rhythm of the pattern. After that, each time I returned for a visit with my aunt or my mother-in-law or attended another dance in Lawrence, people would ask to see my sweater and comment on how much progress I had made.

The last time I worked on the sweater, however, was on a long drive to visit my mother over Memorial Day weekend. At that point, I had done all I could do until I got brave enough to take my scissors to the steeks. My excuse was that it was way too hot to sit with a pile of wool in my lap and knit in the summer. And I would almost have believed that excuse myself, except for the fact that I then proceeded to knit an alpaca wool scarf in the meantime.  But now that there is a slight chill in the air some evenings, I’m reminded how much I would love to be able to slip my arms into the sleeves of this beautiful sweater come winter time. So here goes.

Cutting the steek

After the steek is cut, it's time to pick up stitches around the opening and begin knitting the sleeve.