I come from a long line of tenacious women, which brings to mind the famous line attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “A woman is like a tea bag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” For my family I would tweak that to: “A woman is like a matzoh ball—you can’t tell how she’ll hold up until you put her in chicken soup.” Each had been tested in her own way, but retained her indomitable sense of humor.
Years ago, my mother gave me a 75+ year-old handmade cotton cardigan sweater, a collaborative effort made by my great-grandmother and my great-aunts. The Freed women could tell you with confidence the right way to do everything–like Heloise on steroids. One thing they were exceptionally gifted at was handicrafts: crocheting, knitting embroidery, and needlepoint. My Nana may have been the sister-in-law, but she was of equal talent. Cooking and baking was her forte. Her mother, my other great-grandmother, owned a Kosher restaurant and schooled her in the art of making the perfect knish, among a number of other savory and sweet delicacies. Nana was also no slouch when it came to sewing. Before immigrating to America, her mother had been a seamstress for Russia’s Tsarina Alexandra Romanov by the age of sixteen.
The body of the sweater is made up of 345 individual crocheted navy and white granny squares. The solid navy blue sleeves are hand-knit with tiny stitches so perfect that they appear to be machine-made. A few stitches have come out at the back of the collar and I had to tack down the hand-sown interface in a few spots, but the sweater has held up miraculously all these years. At first I was afraid to wear it, but like the Freed women, it’s strong, resilient and closely knit, as well as precise and full of pizzazz, with its mixed pattern and multi-faceted shiny blue button at the top. Unlike the formerly brunette sisters who all went blonde when they started to age, its white stitching is beginning to grey. All the possible meanings for stitches are appropriate for my family, from handiwork to healing to humor. They are a family that leaves you in stitches.