I closed my eyes and unzipped the container holding my stash and inhaled deeply. Nothing. Well, not quite. A vague aroma of sheep and dust lifted into the air, though it wasn’t the scent I wanted. But I plunged into the Ikea-container stash anyway and found a hank of chunky yarn that would satisfy my sudden craving to knit. I cast on 80 stitches for a toque and let the familiar activity release me from the present.
Within an intricately carved camphorwood chest my mother stored balls of yarn, knitted works-in-progress, and finished sweaters awaiting delivery to friends or family members. The chest is stained a reddish-brown and coated in shiny varnish that makes it look freshly hewn from a tropical rainforest. Inside my childhood home’s haphazardly furnished living room that included a wooden lamp Mom carried all the way from Chicago, and a refurbished wooden fishing boat wheel, the chest stuck out like finding the Eiffel Tower in the Prairies. Black metal TV trays painted with cabbage roses were tucked behind the over-stuffed chair where Dad snoozed after supper with the Prince Rupert Daily News folded over his nose, his muffled snores fluttering its pages. The chest represented to me, a little girl in the early 1960’s, a source of endless woolgathering and possibility.
I knew a world existed outside of Prince Rupert’s harbour and beyond its solemn hemlock and spruce rainforests; my Mother’s yarn chest was proof. Its smell reminded me of the Grand Café, the Chinese restaurant in town, and what I later learned was the bouquet of five-spice powder. The chest smelled like travel and adventure.
Dad managed a fish packing plant in Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia. Fishermen working up and down the coast from Rupert to Steveston, often brought bits and pieces of other people’s lives to the fish plant’s docks along with their catch. Was the chest a gift from a fisherman? Its unknown provenance added to its allure. Over the fish plant years, our family received assorted presents from fishermen and others in all aspects of the business: an ornate Japanese doll housed in a glass case, a set of elegant bone China teacups, a calfskin purse, and alcohol from all over the world.
One of Dad’s favourite acquisitions was a charred wooden ship’s wheel with brass fittings saved from a shipboard fire and turned into a glass-topped coffee table mounted on a huge pedestal. The wheel spun like a big lazy-Susan in the middle of the living room – dandy for sailing bowls of mixed nuts from one person to another without anyone having to move from their chairs. Even when sanded and shellacked, the badly singed handles retained their black scars. Why my mother agreed to this oddity occupying the centre of the room is as deep a mystery as the origin of the chest.
When bored, I would trace my eight-year-old finger along the chest’s sculpted wood curlicue paths winding through a miniature carved village, hypnotized by the slick surface and the unknown trail I followed. I finger-walked grooved routes in an unfamiliar forest as pungent as moth balls, where I imagined hungry tigers hid or a coiled python gripped the branches, where spider webs as big as fishermen’s nets waited to trap me. Sometimes my finger couldn’t find a way home and it jumped off the chest to the safety of the living room carpet. I’d lean back and gaze at the shiny wood wondering where it had come from and daring myself to set forth again.
Waves of bright yellow streaked the chest’s pink hued interior. And the aroma! As I inhaled, I felt lifted on the back of a camel, lurching through the desert, panniers heavy with treasures bound for bazaars in Persia or Cairo. I rode swells in a tall ship hauling goods from Malaysia to Liverpool, imagining myself the captain of a clipper ship with Shanghai behind me and Chinese silks and brocades in the hold below, the chest protecting the goods from moths.
When I was sick with a cold and a plugged nose, I would open the box, inhale the camphor perfume and play with the balls of wool stored inside. If I hovered near the opening, my nasal passages would tingle, then clear. Sitting on the floor, I lifted the bright yarn and sorted it by colour. I sniffed each ball before placing it where it belonged in the colour wheel in a circle with me as the bull’s eye.
My mother tried to teach me to knit when I was eight years old. She chose long needles from her supply as I dug into her wool treasure, breathed deeply, and picked the brightest yarn I could find. We sat side by side, our bodies touching as she showed me how to long-tail cast on. The needles were magic wands in her hands but in mine they felt like slippery saplings. My swatches were misshapen misfits and, discouraged, I would fling the disasters back in the trunk. But the memory of the yarn tickling my fingers, the warmth of Mom next to me, and the wool’s fragrance, lingers.
Every sweater my mother made carried the scent of the chest. She placed new wool immediately inside to keep moths at bay where it would wait until she was ready to start a project. After each sweater was washed and blocked, back into the chest it went, neatly folded, until ready to be given.
My first real-life adventure came when I attended university in St. John’s, Newfoundland thousands of miles away from home on Vancouver Island where we’d moved in the late 1960’s. The first winter in St. John’s nothing reminded me of the Island other than the air’s salt tang. None of my winter clothing warmed me adequately, and my Adidas were useless against the mounds of snow and ice-coated sidewalks. I hugged a hot-water bottle every night at bedtime – the only time I was remotely warm.
Every few months care packages from my mother arrived wrapped in brown paper cut from grocery bags tied with scratchy string. I knew right away if there was a sweater inside because I could smell camphor. No doubt she worried about my blue state described in regular letters home; in that first year I received several hand-knit sweaters including one that I still own. The arrival of a parcel – and a new camphor-infused sweater – magically shipped me back to Rupert where my eight-year-old self sat on the living room floor, clear-headed and dreaming.
In the 1990’s, I traveled to China and visited the Forbidden City where I saw similar chests that had been used to store imperial garments. How fitting that my mother used hers for keeping yarn and hand knitted gifts. Following the arrival of Europeans in China, camphorwood chests were used for shipping goods across the seas. Most likely that is how our family came to own our magic trunk.
I finally learned to knit when I was 52, connecting me by craft to my long dead Mother. She also came to knitting later in life. I sometimes wonder if the activity provided her with a distraction from worry, too. Worry about my alcoholic father and what he might do next to heap shame on our family. When I focus on a pattern or cuss my way through fixing a mistake, nothing much penetrates my concentration. Was knitting a psychological balm for Mother, too?
While my small yarn stash is full of possibilities, my projects lack a finishing touch – eau de camphor –because the trunk now lives with my sister, a better knitter than me. Happily, she continues the tradition of storing her yarn in the chest. My mother’s Chicago lamp graces our living room and provides light for my evening knitting. In the basement the ship’s wheel awaits a new direction and I’m optimistic that day will come as will the time when the world feels safe again. In the meantime, I return to knitting – and woolgathering.