I’ve moved at least 20 times in as many years. At each unpacking of the recently packed, the first thing I do is to find the hand-crocheted blue and white afghan my godmother made. Before unpacking the kitchen or setting up the television with cable or hanging all of my clothes or putting my bathroom toiletries in their designated space, I need to feel the scratchy cotton blend of yarn that is this decades-old blanket. My godmother had gifted it to me for my eighteenth birthday—a present for my soon-to-be dorm life. I do not take lightly the feat of daring and surprise that was accomplished in its making. Aunt Kitty learned to crochet in secret and constructed it while watching baseball and bowling and golf on television. Questions about my favorite color or what I was taking to college never registered as anything more than curiosity designed to annoy; I was busy making plans. Plans that amounted to what I would do when I no longer lived at home. Attending Hofstra University was a forty-minute drive from my parents’ house; I insisted on living in the dorms. I could. I got a full ride to the university. The house I grew up in was my home until I left and then returned, a stranger to my parents, my siblings—even, in some regards, to myself.
At my birthday party, a month before I took that long drive to college and what I thought would be freedom, I opened a huge, clunky box with a blue ribbon wound round the flower-patterned wrapping paper. I laughed as the blanket tumbled out around me and filled my lap. Where did you get this? I asked.
I made it, Aunt Kitty said. Every stitch is mine.
At first I didn’t believe her. I shouted: No way!
Aunt Kitty replied, Yes, I did. Really.
My mother chimed in: You have no idea how long or hard she has been working on this for you. Don’t be ungrateful. Then she puffed furiously on her Marlboro Red box cigarette waiting for me to apologize for my ingratitude.
But I wasn’t unappreciative. I was shocked. Aunt Kitty had self-proclaimed on more than one occasion that she had not one domestic bone in her body. To counter my mother’s snipe, I shouted: I love it! Then I sashayed around the orange and brown shag carpeted den with the afghan wound around my body as if I were a queen. I launched into a string of I can’t believe you made it! For me! I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. But I gotta believe it. I do. I do. I do! I gotta believe!
Everyone laughed at my imitation of Tug McGraw and his phrase “Ya Gotta Believe” from the 1973 season when the NY Mets lost the World Series to the Oakland As in seven excruciatingly exciting and heartbreaking games. My mother’s accusation was minimized—for the moment. Aunt Kitty smiled and patted my mother on the knee as I came over and gave my godmother a kiss on her cheek.
Aunt Kitty wasn’t my blood relative, but she may as well have been. My mother and she were friends from before they spoke in complete sentences. They grew up in an Irish and Polish Brooklyn neighborhood and attended the same Catholic schools where they taunted the nuns, putting thumbtacks on chairs and nailing shut drawers. They sent one particularly fragile novice into a closet when they realized they knew the song that had been her and her sweetheart’s from before the war. What they didn’t know was she became a nun after her boyfriend had been killed in World War II. They’d assumed he’d just up and left her, but no, his death forced her into the convent life. They gulped their drinks—Aunt Kitty’s a Johnny Walker Red on the rocks, my mother a Manhattan I’d made—as my sisters and I listened to their reminiscences around the kitchen table as the sun went down and everything, including us, cooled off. Then they sighed at the horrifying remembrance of listening to the nun’s sobs emanating from the closet before busting out in laughter until tears streamed down their faces at all the delinquent things they’d done.
When my mother married my Sicilian father, Aunt Kitty was her maid of honor. My mother never had the chance to reciprocate. Aunt Kitty had a small coterie of single girlfriends who watched the New York Mets, travelled to Florida to golf, and played together on a softball team. She was, in those days, considered a tomboy, the cover for her difference and the reason why she never married. She arrived at family parties with a group of her girlfriends in tow; they brought off color jokes and Johnny Walker Red to drink with my dad. If anyone asked why she didn’t have a boyfriend or why she wasn’t married, she’d remind everyone who cared to listen that she hated housework and didn’t want to sit around ironing or darning socks. She raised her eyebrows above her glasses and took a swig of her drink as if to end the inquiries, and it usually worked. Her response was the official answer as to why she wasn’t married. But that was not the truth. This 6-inch x 6-inch blue and white squared 6-foot long rectangle is more than an anachronistic moment. Each stitch embodies her devotion to me and, most importantly, to my mother.
I don’t want to put a label on something my aunt was never allowed to name in my parents’ home. She’s gone. All of her friends are gone. Only my mother remains. And what I would say about my aunt’s truth is that my mother never knew. She never realized how close Aunt Kitty felt to her or why she stuck around even after my mother married my father when it was clear she could not share certain parts of her life with my mother. I often wonder how she felt getting drunk and laughing with my dad. Those two were more alike than my mother and my godmother. Perhaps my mother found a man who reminded her of her best friend. My aunt in turn relied not on my mother when she had some financial difficulties, but my father. He figured some things out for her—my mother never knew until my aunt’s death. The two of them—my Sicilian American dad and my Polish American aunt—bonded over the love they had for my mother, and my mother has remained clueless about how much they both felt for her. How much they both felt the same things for her. And even writing these words causes me to hesitate. What right do I have to name a love that was never named? What do I know of it? And all I can say is, I have the afghan to prove it.
This blanket has stayed with me through moves that took me from tiny apartments in the West and East Villages of NYC, to Jersey City, the cold clime of Central New York, and then the ocean in Rhode Island. Now it arrives at the border of Appalachian country in Morgantown, West Virginia; my godmother has passed away in the dark days of January, and this simple blue and white squared afghan holds the memories of who we were, who we wanted to be, even the detached almost twenty-something I tried to create. It serves as a reminder of the kind of people I come from: loyal and determined even when they cannot name who they are directly or completely. Even when they don’t quite understand the road I will have to travel or why I would want to leave.
The afghan my godmother stitched for me can never be just a blanket. It is an expression of love and secrets, of what I refuse to leave behind, even unconsciously. It unravels my present, transforming my relationship to my new home in an unfamiliar landscape by virtue of the history shared in the gift. It forces me to recognize that no matter where I go, I have people who care. My godmother cared by learning to crochet. She shared a piece of herself to help me on my way, and to nurture me in a way that she knew my mother could not. She knew I too was different, maybe not in the way she was, but she knew I’d have to figure stuff out without help from my parents. She knew my mother would not be capable. She knew I’d have my own secrets—perhaps some I’d never be able to name out loud as she never named hers, at least to my mother.
I believe I know the moment Aunt Kitty decided to crochet this afghan for me. It was a hot July day between my junior and senior year of high school. We were having a Saturday afternoon into evening barbecue at our house. Aunt Kitty was there with the requisite bottle of Johnny Walker Red. She casually asked how I was as I let her in the front door. Without catching myself, I answered, She’s fine. She stood up a bit straighter, cocked her head to the side, and stared through her big black-framed glasses. Is she? she asked. I realized my mistake. I was both surprised and embarrassed. I didn’t do that anymore. Talk about myself as if I didn’t exist outside of observation and yet, it had happened and with my godmother. To cover, I shrugged and replied, Yeah, I’m just tired. And hot.
It was July. It was a goddamn oven out, as my grandma Dooley would say, and my parents had invited my godmother and her friends so they could sit on our back patio and eat burgers and skirt steak and drink. There was no way I was getting away with my separated self; my godmother knew something was off. What’s going on? she asked.
Nothing. I’m just hot. And tired, I repeated.
She stared for a moment and gave me hug. C’mon, she said, let’s get something to drink. It IS hotter than hell out. You’re probably dehydrated.
And that was it. She never confronted me about what was happening or why I was talking in the third person. I was the well-adjusted one. The smart one. I was the one who no one worried about. But she watched me a bit closer over the course of that year. Each time she saw me, she made sure to ask how I was and what colleges I was applying to, but she never asked me about my slip. She knew my mother and I fought—a lot. That somehow, I now realize, but didn’t know then, my mother was already saying goodbye to me in the only way she knew how: by pushing me away. Calling me selfish when I wanted to apply to colleges away from home. When I insisted I wanted to live away from home. My aunt said nothing about any of this conflict. If she talked to my mother about it, it was away from my ears.
Instead, she learned to crochet. She gave me the blue and white afghan that told me I was loved—not just by her, but also by my mother. She made me the covering that would be there in dreamland with me for the next four years and then beyond my undergraduate days to the present. She did for my mother’s eldest daughter—a daughter who could have been hers if time and circumstance were different, what my mother could not do for her/me. My aunt gave me a covering that would protect and remind me even as it told me to move on. Each stitch whispers to me: Be you no matter how anyone else feels or say they feel. I haven’t always been able to embody that sense of who I am, but I haven’t forgotten the promise of what it might mean.
Today, as my mother’s frailty moves her between two worlds and Aunt Kitty is gone, I wonder if my godmother knew how this gift would affect and transform not only me, but also the way I saw my mother. I no longer buck against the memories. I know that my aunt saw something different in this woman who birthed me and she expressed it in each square of this blanket I still possess. But then, sometimes I become angry for my godmother. How dare my mother accept this love without understanding the depth or devotion? Did my aunt ever feel used or frustrated or angry? Did she want to tell my mother and then recognize that the friendship would end and so she settled for a half-life of intimacy without any closeness at all? I sometimes think this afghan was the last and best expression of devotion to my mother that my godmother accomplished. After I left for college, my aunt had a roommate—one of her friends. No one thought anything about it and even though the woman eventually moved out, they remained close until and into death.
Perhaps the afghan signaled a bit of freedom for my aunt as well. She had made a painstaking effort to remind me I’d always be covered no matter where I wound up or who I’d become. But hopefully, it reminded her too to hold onto possibility and find a space where she could live and share openly without fear of loss. I snuggle a bit deeper into my chaise sofa, pull the afghan up around my chest, and pick up my honey lavender tea. I blow on the cup until I know it is safe to sip. I want my aunt back. I want her to answer my questions. I want to give her the proper thanks for what she had done all those years ago, and to acknowledge all of who she was and could be.
Nancy Caronia is a Teaching Assistant Professor with West Virginia University. She co-edited Personal Effects: Essays on Memoir, Teaching, and Culture in the Work of Louise DeSalvo (Fordham University Press, 2015). Most recently, she guest edited a special issue on the Rocky film series for Italian Americana and wrote “The Language of the Women” for a special section on folktales in VIA. Follow her on Twitter @n_caronia