The Magic Stash

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.

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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.

39 thoughts on “The Magic Stash

  1. I was curious as to why I haven’t got any notices from your blog Sue and then it dawned on me I had to change my email address!! So here I am (sorry about the absence) I enjoyed the memories of you being 8 yrs. old. I am not a knitter but my brother Pierre did knit me a sweater some 20 yrs ago when he and his wife were into that. I still have it but don’t wear it often, I want it to last! My sense of smell has always reminded me of memories mostly good ( ; .
    I have had problems with my sense of smell for over 30 yrs now. It comes and goes not sure why but I do miss it for the most part. Especially when it comes to tasting foods. Merry belated Christmas! lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aha! That explains your absence. I had sent a few messages to you with no reply and of course I wondered if something was amiss, totally forgetting you’d changed your email. Argh.

      Strange thing about your sense of smell. I have another friend who has a similar issue and no known cause.

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  2. Gawd that was just a beautiful read ❤
    I never did learn to knit or crochet. I cling to each item my mother makes me. And when they first arrive, I just sit and smell them a while, cause they smell like her.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You have so beautifully evoked your memories of that wooden chest, wool and your Mum. I am the daughter of a knitter but cannot knit. In the height of the pandemic I went to wool shops for mum to choose wool for her. I have to say I loved the possibilities and riot of colour. Thanks for a beautiful read.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I loved this story about an object in your life that has so many memories attached.. I will be starting on my memoir after Christmas this year. Strictly for my children of course. My daughter keeps pestering me like Josh has done to you. You do need to write it, most certainly. Mine could be the script for a soap opera. 🙂 Your memories trigger so many in me as well and you tell them in a way that pulls us in. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, Marlene, that’s an excellent idea to write a memoir just for your family. My brother has done something similar though I think it was a much for him to sort out some mysteries as it was to explain himself to his kids. All worthwhile endeavours!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this deeply felt remembrance – and by “deeply felt”, I mean I have tears in my eyes.

    It could be the sentiment of the season, or of this dang-blang crazy year, but I am also very relieved to read that the treasures of your childhood still reside within the family.

    Beautiful piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, Maggie, I didn’t mean to make you cry though I can see how the events of this year layered on top of this story could do that. I am sorry. For once, for me, with this piece, I had mostly happy memories of childhood and remembering them brought some relief to the nihilism I feel about 2020.

      I don’t know what to do with the ship’s wheel which is in the furnace room of our basement. It is too large for our small living room or any room in our house but I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of it. So there it waits.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A writing teacher, a long time ago told me that if you can make a reader “feel” then your work is heartfelt, and more to the point, well written.

        And no worries, but thanks – mine are bittersweet tears – mostly sweet.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Exquisite, Susanne.
    While the stories of knitting and the chest as part of your family history helped me understand more of who you are, it is the story of the ship’s wheel that grabbed me. Your father’s acquisition and your mother’s acceptance of his contribution. Wonderful.
    And look at you going to university in Newfoundland – my, my. I am beyond impressed with your sense of courage and adventure!
    Bravo!
    Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Our family living room was no Home and Garden setting, that’s for sure. By far the most elegant thing in the room was the chest. The wood colours between the wheel and the chest were similar so I suppose there was some sense of unity but it really was an odd thing. I wish I knew more about both items. As to the Newfoundland adventure, there’s a bigger story there that someday I’ll write about when my kids are a bit older or when I get to an age when I don’t care anymore what people think. Do you think that will ever happen, Sheila?
      Hugs to you and Pretty and merry Christmas.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Susanne, I confess that by the title I could not have guessed that this was going to be about wool, knitting, mother and memories.Beatiful and evocative. Took me back to my childhood and ofcourse memories of my mother who knitted sweaters, cardigans, gloves and vests. Cables, diamonds, seeds and what not! Unbelievably, Delhi winter temperatures used to go to a minimum of zero and a maximum of 12 degrees Centigrade upto mid 70s!!! She gave away dozens of her creations selflessly. As moths were a problem, she later started knitting with acrylic and polyester yarn. Me? Never learned to knit but your blog helped me to relive those lovely times. Thank you. Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas and let us all have a happy new year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m stunned to learn that temperatures in Delhi used to drop to 0 centigrade! No wonder your mother knit. It seems that knitting is one of those universal crafts like weaving, spinning, etc. that you find everywhere. When we were in China those many years ago, we often saw women who worked in market stalls knitting when they weren’t haggling with customers. that was before I was a knitter. In recent years when I travel I always pop into yarn shops to see what they have and how their wares differ from what we have in Canada. My mother switched from hand knitting to machine knitting sometime in the mid 1970’s and at that point everything she made by machine was in acrylic, too. My husband still has a couple of those sweaters. they’re indestructible!

      Happy holidays to you, too, Shubha. Stay healthy!

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  8. i fell for the “click-bait” too, but was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find what it sounded like I’d find!! But you never know! Susanne could surprise me, I thought!

    My mom learned to knit late in life and became a master in short time, knitting me all sorts of things I still cherish. I never learned to knit, but have crocheted over the years, starting with the granny square blankets. Maybe something I’ll return to again to while away idle hours in front of TV. Right now I’ve become a sudoku addict. Not creative, but challenging and surprisingly satisfying (especially when I win!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it is quite funny how knitters refer to their yarn stockpiles as a “stash”. Maybe that’s a recent thing because I don’t recall my mother using that word. I’ve tried Sudoku but am quite hopeless at it. I find that for some reason I need to keep my hands busy lately as we move into month 10 of staying at home as much as possible. I wonder why? Is there something about the brain-hand-eye coordination that occupies the mind more than other activities?

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      • Yes, a hand and eye compulsion, and a hand to mouth compulsion as well in these covid times, it seems
        I have to admit I was a bit hoping your stash was a nice green bag of weed! That too it appears has grown quite popular in these trying times!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Lovely work, m’dear. Even better than your usual fine efforts. I know I’ve harangued you about writing a novel, but perhaps you’d be more comfortable doing a memoir. This selection showcases a keen bit of recollection and some seriously enviable writing. So, at the risk of sounding like CD stuck on a single, constantly repeated tune, it’s way past time for you to write a danged book, girl! Y’hear? [Smile] Oh, and have a Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your memories are so richly written that even though they are yours, they serve to conjure up my own memories.

    As your hands trace the curlicue path of the chest, mine were mentally feeling the groves of the large upright piano that sat in our living room … paths which I loved to roll marbles along until my mother would shout at me to stop. Wow – I hadn’t thought of that memory in a million years! Thanks for taking us with you on this trip down memory lane!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Knitting certainly concentrates the mind I find. And something as complicated as working a fair isle would definitely keep you focused. That’s a mighty impressive accomplishment, knitting fair isle sweaters for all your family members – wow! I made a fair isle hat once and its my favourite but I don’t think I’d have the cojones to tackle a whole sweater.

      Liked by 1 person

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