My paternal grandmother, Eilís Dillon, was a multi-talented woman. Author of over fifty books (mostly children’s novels, but also detective and historical fiction) and a keen amateur cellist, she maintained households and vibrant social networks on two continents, spoke several languages (studying Russian and Hungarian in her sixties), and generally gave the impression that there wasn’t much she couldn’t do.
Every morning, she sat down at her desk and wrote for three or four hours. (She acquired a personal computer some time in the 1980s – I bet she would have taken to the Web like a duck to water.) As she worked, she knitted. She said the rhythm helped her concentration. From her needles emerged a steady stream of jumpers and cardigans, which were distributed at regular intervals to her children and grandchildren.
She knitted while at leisure too, sitting in her high-backed armchair by the fire. I used to stand and watch her. When I was very small, I amused her one day by watching silently for a long time before saying, in a tone of fierce command, “Knit my cardigan!”
We were close when I was growing up, and to me she was always a most encouraging grandmother. Where she discerned an interest, she took care to nurture it. She bought me beautiful books of folk tales, a sweet-toned wooden recorder, piano music. (She also paid for my music lessons, although I wasn’t aware of that at the time.)
She wasn’t without flaw, of course, and I can see with hindsight the extent to which she favoured those interests that accorded most closely with her own. We happened to have a lot in common, which made things easy for both of us.
She helped me when I was learning to knit, showing me how to pick up a dropped stitch, and how to loop the yarn around my fingers for an even tension. I still often hold my right-hand needle as she did, like a pen. When she saw that I’d discovered sewing, she taught me cross-stitch and bought me a linen tablecloth with a pre-printed pattern of flowers. I still have it somewhere – unfinished, as these things so often are.
When I knit, I recall the rhythm of her hands, her needles quietly and inexorably advancing across each row, plain and purl, plain and purl, the tiny sound of their clashes whispering alongside the conversation. My output is rather different from hers – she mostly favoured the meditative repetition of stocking stitch, whereas I like a bit of fancy work to keep my interest – but the connection is strong.
Eilís died on 19 July 1994, fifteen years ago today. It feels more recent than that, and although the pain of her loss has faded, I am sad that she did not live to meet my beloved husband and my marvellous children, her great-grandsons.
The photograph above is of a pile of jumpers that she knitted for me and my two siblings when we were children. My mother dug them out a few months ago and passed them along for the Oyster (and eventually the Feaster) to grow into. It’ll be wonderful to see them worn again, and to remember the valiant woman who made them.