Sunday, 1 July 2018

When Love is Hand-knitted Scarf

Once upon a time there was no knitting in my house.

There was post-war snobbery that didn't allow for old work such as knitting. It was a view held if you were brought up in the Professional Class as I was.

Knitting had been superseded by factories and science. The world was now a modern superior place with high standards and we bowed down to its expectations. The wonders of Velcro had yet to reach West Manchester but we knew that we had been promised a bold new future in synthetics.

In 1966 when I started at Loreto Preparatory School the uniform was Bought-From-A-Shop and a very proper shop at that - Kendal Milne in Manchester. My mother drove us both in in her Mini and and the changing rooms had big curtains. I had to behave and there was undisguised muttering over the cost. It was an entire wardrobe really and then there was more work to be done such as Making-The-Elastic-Garters-For-The-Socks AND Getting-The-Name-Tags-Sewn-In-Onto-Every-Item. The one discretionary item not bought that day was The Official School Scarf. It was considered an accessory. It had been smoothly made at a knitwear mill alongside the School Cardigan. It was Factory Made and NOT Hand-Knitted. No other scarves were to be worn....At All.  
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Loreto Preparatory Blazer from Monkhouse School Supplies
Two years in and was finding my feet in the Convent School system. I was 6 years old and was being driven to and from school, there was homework and Indoor Shoes and Outdoor Shoes and Shoe Bags and a Hat and lots of rules, but I thrived. I only had to do my work tidily and I was praised for it. All quite easy really.

Things changed very suddenly in late October 1968. Dad and I were in a car crash and he died in hospital. Relatives arrived from Ireland and the house became full of sombre adults all trying to help. I had to really behave and be really good.

   In all the chaos, a older woman friend of the family sat down to knit me a scarf for the winter travelling to and from school. It was an act of love and helplessness all in one...what do you do in a time like this? 

I was now going in on the bus. You'll remember the rules about The Uniform Scarf from before. 

The one person who scared us at Loreto was Mother John Baptist. Vatican II was yet to have an impact on Mother JB hence the title -Mother- rather than -Sister-. She was Irish, tall and bony. Her reputation as a ruler-smacker preceded her and she was resplendent in full wimple, black floor-length veil and big wooden cross hung on the end of the Industrial Strength Rosary Beads through her belt.

The cloakroom was just to the left at the top of the driveway down narrow stairs...a former cellar of the building. So, there I am whipping that scarf on over the Uniform Gabardine Coat with the Uniform Navy Felt Hat with the elastic that I had learnt to replace myself with a needle and thread after Oisin the cat ate through up the steps to go out the front door down to the bus.....and wasn't Mother John Baptist at the top of the stairs On Uniform Duty that one day...

I think I froze because I couldn't hear properly.

-Ah child, how's your poor mother?

The polite response came -Mummy's fine, thank you, Mother-

I had been chanting out the response to anyone who asked as a formality. The hard bit was remembering to call her Mother rather than Sister like the other nuns.

-And who knitted this lovely scarf for you?...was it your Granny?

My blood had hidden somewhere in my ankles and I stammered -I don't have a Granny, I was a present.

When 6yr-olds are cornered they tell the truth but they keep it simple.

Sr John Baptist's big Cork hands were gripping the warm Non-Uniform Scarf. Her boxed-in face and the veil surrounded me. My blood had made its way quietly back to my chest and allowed me breath.

-Did your Auntie knit it for you?

-Yes, Mother John Baptist.

-Ah that's just lovely.

She straightened and the veil was hanging properly....and Mother John Baptist was smiling.

-Give my love to your Mammy from me now. Tell her we're all praying for her...will you do that now child?

Nodding, because my blood had now come back with a dizzying roar.

-Yes Mother John Baptist, I will.

-Now go and get on that bus before it's too late.

She was back to checking other pupils, tut-tutting and pursing her mouth.

I don't remember getting on the bus. I must have floated. I do remember telling Mum at home later.

My impersonation of Mother John Baptist and has gone down as A Family Story, alongside the one where I went out without my knickers on (I was 4).

Another time perhaps.

Fiona MacBride

Tin Shed Yarns

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