A murder of crows
An unkindness of ravens
Walk into a bar
The Prayer Shawl
By Nancy McAtavey, Carbondale
My neighbor made my prayer shawl; dark blue with specks of white running through the yarn, the pieces of fringe threaded with silver beads and hearts that read “love” and “peace” and “hope.”
My Google search brought me to “The Prayer Shawl Ministry Home Page” and an explanation of how two women combined their love of knitting with prayer to provide comfort for others. The article gave directions for the shawl as well as an assortment of prayers: for someone with a terminal disease or for someone grieving over the death of a loved one, for the celebration of a marriage or the birth of a child. Or a prayer for someone who just needed to be wrapped in a warm shawl when the night air set in. My neighbor’s shawl arrived toward the end of my mother’s battle with cancer and my struggle to nurture and care for her in those final months.
I decided to pass on my neighbor’s kindness. I made my first shawl for my friend’s mother, a woman I loved from the moment we met and she fed me warm sticky buns. She was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, having fled her country at the age of twelve with her father and four sisters. In this country, she nurtured three children, supported her husband in his business career and devoted her life to her church and civic activities.
But, what fascinated me about this woman was her love of food. How every day, every occasion, whether happy or sad, revolved around the food of her native country. Her foods were spicy compared to the blandness of the meals served in my Irish-Catholic home. Even the names were exotic: lamejun and babaganoush and bird’s nest pastries. Her rice pilaf was unlike any other I had ever tasted. I questioned her about the secret ingredient. “Chicken fat,” she said. “Oh, my,” I replied.
In her later years, chronic pain slowed her body. Her brain remained sharp but the pain became debilitating, keeping her at home and isolated from her many activities — especially her cooking. My prayer for her was simple: may all these strands of yarn embrace your soul and surround you with love.
My second shawl was for my sister-in-law. At first, her family noticed small behavioral changes; how she would stand too close to us when she talked or how she would forget the name of a simple object. Eventually, as her behavior became more erratic, there were safety concerns. She became angry when she wasn’t allowed to drive and frustrated when she couldn’t go out alone to sweep the neighborhood walkways. The diagnosis of semantic dementia was devastating to her family and to everyone who knew her as a co-worker or a school board member. I gave her the shawl at Christmastime.
She looked puzzled when she opened the box and read my prayer. So, I simply told her how much she was loved by everyone and that the shawl would keep her warm as she watched TV or napped in her favorite chair.
So now, it’s time for another prayer shawl. I found my knitting bag right where I left it, on the top shelf of my son’s closet next to his baseball cards and Star Wars comic books. The bag is full of needles of every size — some straight, some circular, some double-pointed. A smaller pouch holds crochet hooks, needles and round plastic markers. My yarn is soft and multicolored in hues of blue and green and rose and gray. “Ocean,” the dye lot says. A perfect color destined for the California coast. I wind the three skeins into balls and cast on fifty-seven stitches. My beginning prayer is simple: please let this be my best piece of needlework ever. Let there be no errors, no dropped stitches, no curled edges.
And so I begin the pattern of knit three, purl three to the end of the row. I turn the piece and repeat. I work slowly at first. It’s been some time since I’ve had these wooden needles in my hands. But, then I develop a rhythm that calms me. This is a shawl that I never expected to make… a shawl for the mother of my first grandchild…a baby girl. And the prayer? I will find that in the stitches.