Friday, June 26, 2009

"A Stitch in Time," Virginia Sousa

I was born in Angola, a Portuguese colony located in Sub-Saharan West Africa in the charming seaport town of Lobito. Due to the warm climate, I didn’t require woolen garments and I certainly never had any desire to take up knitting. On the contrary. At one point, I seriously considered adopting the traditional attire of the native girls and going topless. However, I did take up other “crafty” projects.

Angola was part of the Portuguese Empire and I grew up during the New State years, when Salazar’s government praised “The Woman” and called her the “Goddess of the Family” and “The Pillar of Society”. In his idea of a perfect nation, Salazar envisioned the woman exclusively as a wife and mother. Work outside the home was not considered feminine.

In tune with our dictator’s blueprint for my gender, by the age of six, I was learning a variety of crafts and I began the process of filling a Chinese camphor chest from Macau. In it went a miscellaneous selection: crochet tea towels, fine needlecrafts sheets, embroideries of all sorts, and other things from remote places. Such a dowry was the perfect bait for a future husband … or, should I say, mother-in-law. But, Salazar had in mind much more when he encouraged the so-called pillars of society – the mothers and wives across the country. Without even noticing it, they were contributing to the wealth of the economy by keeping the linen factories in mainland Portugal and throughout the empire producing tones of fabrics and yarns!

To tell you the truth, I still have the Chinese camphor chest and some of those linens and I proudly use them to decorate my Canadian home. And when I’m gone, they will pass on to my daughter-in-law. The thing is I don’t know if she’d really like them. They’re a nightmare to iron. Just to straighten them you need to use spray starch and it takes forever…. And let’s face it, forever doesn’t fit the fast-paced framework of a Goddess today!

By now, you can envision the hours of creative work we girls had to endure. I say endure, because living in beautiful Lobito and being part of the late 60s generation my mind was already veering off in another direction. In Africa, surrounded by the freedom of the vast outdoors, I engaged in all types of physical activity. And the beach was right across the street from my house. This meant that every day the fresh, blue waters of the Atlantic came in direct competition with Salazar’s vision of the feminine ideal.
Sitting on our balcony, watching the sea and hearing my friend’s voices and giggles floating on the breeze, was a perfect torment. I remember power crocheting, by feeding the fine yarn through my sweaty little fingers in a frenzied frustration to try and join my friends. But if my work wasn’t up to standard, my mom would make me redo it. “Gina what are you doing rushing your crochet work? It is through your work people will see how neat you are! Do it again. I don’t care if your friends are at the beach. You are not going anywhere until I say so. ”

My sister Carla – Queen of crochet – immediately would tease me and say, “Your boyfriend is swimming with Rita!” She was never in a hurry to go out. Oh! But, that is another story.

By the way, among the girls and ladies of the nation there was this talk about the dictator - still a bachelor himself - and the fact that no woman in the Empire had big enough chests to impress him! Maybe he was allergic to the aroma of camphor! Or maybe he could not handle big chests! Weird man.

And then one day my life changed. The dictator died. Portugal lost its colonies. The war in Angola forced our family to move to the cold northern hemisphere. On the Azorean Islands, my body shivered and screamed for warm clothes. Gone were the days when I dressed in shorts and envied the nude bodies of the native girls.

Money was scarce, so I decided to crotchet my own pullover. After all, I’d made countless tea towels. Why not a pullover? No big deal! However, I was disappointed with my first effort. The crocheted pullover was not fluffy and it looked distorted. When I tried it on, I looked weird. At first, I thought it might be the cheap mirror in my room. It was as if my torso was sideways, my shoulders where out of place. I looked as if I had some sort of problem with my spine.

I am not the type of person to give up. Although the wool was almost disintegrating in my fingers, I redid the pullover … several times. But the more I tried the worse it went. And so I decided to learn how to knit. As they say, “While in Rome…

The Carnation revolution in Portugal occurred in 1974. That coup–d’état transformed the country’s dictatorship into a socialist system which was drifting perilously towards communism. Two years later the government nationalized most of the private companies and the Azorean Airline Company where I worked at the time was no exception. As employees, we had the time of our lives. There was no pressure, and more and more benefits came our way each day. There were rights for everything! Can you imagine? We even had the right to knit between phone calls!

All the girls at the airline knitted between phone calls. I was working for the reservations department and during the winter, the influx of calls slowed to a trickle. Even our supervisor worked with wool around her neck and needles in her fingers. We always had something to occupy our hands and alleviate our boredom while we waited for the phone to ring. These were the golden days of airlines and unions.

I was 20 years old and newly married. Love was in the air! It was at this time the seed of Salazar’s goddess ideal, implanted during my childhood, took root and blossomed. I decided to knit something special for my husband! How difficult could it be? One of my co-workers kindly took it upon her to be my knitting teacher. And so began my career as a knitting wife/ reservation agent for the Azorean airline company!

Excited with my new project, I bought skeins of yarn, needles and a knitting magazine. Between phone calls, my co-workers helped me decide the design for the pullover and by mid September, I began my project targeting its completion for Christmas. The yarn was a fluffy tobacco brown and the pattern was an elegant rib stitch. If I could manage not to strangle myself in the process, all would be well.

My husband is a big man, so there was little room for error. After carefully measuring one of his shirts to ensure a perfect fit, I worked diligently for the next few months. My co-workers thought the pullover was getting too big. I kept assuring them, my husband was not like most of the Azorean guys. He was a robust man. His body had developed well under the African sun. I have to admit, I was a little worried. But not about it being too big. What if I’d measured incorrectly and it was too small? I wanted to surprise my husband, so I never took my knitting home.

The pullover was getting heavier by the day and it covered my entire lap. What a cozy feeling! The office was cold and the pullover warmed me up.

Exactly one week before Christmas, the pullover was finally finished. I was very proud of my work. My co-workers admired it too and said,

“Wow! Your husband must be a giant?”

I bought colorful Christmas paper and carefully wrapped the pullover in it and put the huge package under our tree. When Christmas morning came, it was cold and rainy. But, nothing could dampen my spirits! I was so excited to see my dear hubby wearing his new pullover –handmade by me – to Christmas mass! However, when he opened his gift, he couldn’t understand all my excitement.

“Ok! It’s a pullover,” he said, his eyes still puffy from sleep and the Port wine of Christmas Eve. “What’s so special about it?”

“Do you like the colour? And the yarn? ” I asked, somehow expecting him to realize I’d made it.

“Yes dear! Of course I do. Where did you buy it? Seems a little bit too big…”

“I made it myself! For you! I’m sure it’ll fit you perfectly. I took the measurements from one of your shirts. It is perfect to the centimeter, my dear.” The anxiety of the moment had me fluttering around him like a butterfly.

“Oh! You made it! That was very nice of you! So much work! Is it crochet? ”

“No, silly, it is knitting. Put it on!” I said, with an enthusiastic smile splashed all over my face.

I helped him put it on. There was a moment of silence as we both admired my handiwork. Then our eyes met and we burst out laughing. I had been wrong. My husband was not such a big guy after all! The sleeves were down to his knees and the pullover looked itself like a mini dress! No wonder it took me months to finish it! Now I could understand the mesmerized faces of my co-workers. Ah well, enthusiasm can be blinding.

My dreams of knitting did not die that Christmas day! Thirty-two years later when I found out I was going to be a grandma, I decided it was time to pick up my trusty needles again! After all, I was living in Canada the knitting country of the north. I bought white and yellow fluffy wool, some baby fashion magazines and started a jacket.

“Are you knitting Gina?” My husband asked one winter night as we watched the news.

“Yes, I am for our grandchild. See this pattern? I’m knitting this design here…yes this one.” I said my enthusiasm for knitting re-kindled.

“Hum, is it for a newborn or for a college graduate?” My husband muttered.

This time my enthusiasm waned and I didn’t finish my little project. My grandson is now three years old – too big for the little jacket. But I haven’t given up entirely - I hope to finish it before they decide to have another baby. Or, on second thought, maybe I’ll take my husband’s hint and complete it for my grandson’s graduation.

In the meantime, I am NOW knitting words, experimenting with new patterns and materials like this one.

And so it’s to you I dedicate this tapestry of words. I am lucky, to be part of an excellent group who share my passion. Thank you for your support.

*

Virginia Sousa, also known as Gina, was born in Angola, southwest Africa. Then, one sunny day, a guerrilla liberation movement declared independence for Angola and Virginia forced, by the circumstances, had to move to Lisbon, Portugal. She moved to Canada as an adult. From the comfort of the airplane, she observed vast beaches of white sand from Yarmouth to Toronto – just like Africa!. Only when she landed did she realize that all that white sand was actually snow.
In her thirties and forties Gina contributed on a weekly basis to “Voice" a Portuguese newspaper in Toronto. She recently submitted a book written in Portuguese to a Portuguese Publishing house and is learning how to be patient with editors. She spends hours in her computer crossing Portuguese and English words in a great embrace of multiculturalism. On June 18, 2009, she gave a reading of a “A Stitch in Time” at CJ’s Cafe.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

4 comments:

  1. I loved it! its very engaging, you feel like you are right there along with the characters, its very easy to imagine the surroundings, faces and expressions. Its as if you can feel it along with the Hillarious! one can't help but to realate to it, be it on family realationships,love, traditions, youth enthusiasm, politics, the weather and even fate. 5 stars

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  2. Hi Gina,

    I really enjoyed reading your story. You have put great feeling and expression into your writing and it really comes through in the story. I found it very interesting and funny. Keep up the the great work and I hope to read more of your style of writing soon.

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  3. You're story was very descriptive and interesting. Also very funny about the pullover. I liked the fact that it is real and you can relate to the characters. I also give it 5 stars.

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  4. Olá Gina! Adorei eu o teu "conto" se é assim que posso chamar! Não sei se compreendi o título - pareceu-me querer dizer qual qualquer coisa como - não adies o que podes fazer já, senão tornar-se-á mais complicado (?). Achei interessantíssima a narração que fazes em paralelo com o tempo histórico, altura que aprendeste os chamados “Lavores femininos” e, que eu também “fui vítima” desse espírito da época. Fartei-me de rir com o desfecho da camisola e com o prognóstico da tua nova incursão no mundo do tricô, trinta anos depois - é preciso coragem - bem sei que a motivação foi grande, oxalá o teu neto chegue a vestir a camisola, mesmo que seja, no dia da sua graduação...Eheheh!
    É natural que me tenha escapado algum detalhe de cariz literário, mas percebi que se trata de uma boa narrativa, com expressividade e com humor, tudo o que faz uma boa história!
    Muitos parabéns!
    Um beijo grande e vai em frente.

    (comentei em português; se achares por bem traduz sff.)

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