Louisa's shawls and scarves are exquisite to say the least. Her lace knits are intricate works of art.
When I was around eight years old my mother decided that I should come down from the trees, put my cowboy guns down, stop chasing my brother, stop torturing the cat (or the other way around?) and be more ladylike. I refused, of course. Being a tomboy was way more fun than being a lady! As a punishment, my mother sat me down with a pair of knitting needles and a bowl of yarn. It was a lemon-green colour. I really liked the colour so I started with a good attitude. It was the beginning of a wonderful relationship with yarn and needles and the beginning of the end of the relationship with my mother.
I never imagined that what was supposed to be my punishment would become, in time, my love for creating, my form of expressing love, my therapy, and my own way of dealing with the loneliness of exile.
I abandoned the yarn and the needles shortly after my mother decided to make a lady out of me. I was a disappointment, she said. I did not pick them up again until I was a teenager. By then I had learned the basics of knitting and dealing with my mother.
It was a pleasant spring day, that September 1973, when Chileans’ lives changed suddenly. From the window of our second floor apartment in Santiago, I watched Hawker Hunter jet fighters flying low toward the presidential palace. On the street, the police and military were out in force. Gunfire was heard throughout the night. The military declared a 24-hour curfew the first few days. Then the country was subjected to a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Television stations ran the same images over and over, the radio only played military marches. The electricity was cut off in selected sectors of the city. The Chilean military imposed an atmosphere of terror that would stay for the following seventeen years. I had to endure, like many of my country men and women, the horror of a fascist dictatorship. Friends’ family members “disappeared”, teachers were taken from their homes or schools, young people were burned alive if they dared to protest. It was during those dangerous, turbulent times that I reconnected with my knitting. Stores were closed and money was scarce. I asked my brother for one of his old sweaters and I took it apart and, using the back of the chair, I unraveled it back to a hank. Carefully I washed it in warm water and hung it without wringing it. Since it was one hundred percent wool, when it dried, it looked like new. For a long time my brother was very suspicious when I was eyeing his sweaters; he was afraid that they would suffer the same fate. My project kept me occupied at least during the day. Nights were long and full of anxiety. At fourteen, knitting was my way of confronting the knowledge of the horror happening in secret torturing places.
In 1982, after the illegal detention of some of our friends who were brutally tortured, and having so far escaped the same fate, my husband and I were advised by international human rights organizations to leave the country as soon as possible. Canada was the first country that opened its doors for us.
We were asked at the Canadian Embassy in Chile where we wanted to go. Quebec, we replied, would be a good place to start a life. The Canadian officer was not very impressed. We explained that it would be easier to learn the French language than English. He just frowned. I gathered that he was not a Quebecois. A couple of weeks later we were flying to Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a political refugee you don’t have a choice. In my mind it didn’t really matter. I was “away”. Away from my language, away from my culture, away from my family. Away from everything familiar to me. But in my mind it was only going to be “away” for three years, maximum. Almost 40 years later we are still here. By choice. This is now our other home.
So, how to heal. How to face this new life away. How to endure my loneliness. I did not speak the language, I didn’t know anyone, I did not have a radio to listen to music. I couldn’t read English. Soon my husband got a job, which kept him away all night, and in time I also got a job during the day. We rarely saw each other. I had no idea what I was going to do. Depression soon invaded me.
On a trip to the supermarket one day I discover that there was a craft section. I bought a pair of needles and a skein of yarn. It was the end of April. I had not experienced a Canadian winter yet, but I had a few months before the first snowflakes would fall. I knitted a beautiful red toque, but unfortunately the material was so cheap that I only wore it once since I was forever scratching my head. A few years later it became the comfort blanky of a pet Hedgehog that we had. I gave up knitting for a while.
In January of 1985 I was not feeling good and I went to see my doctor. She gave me the first good news in a long time. I was pregnant. I told my husband who was in the waiting room that we needed to rush to the wool store. I did not stop knitting for 23 years. I knit for my baby boy sweaters, toques, mittens for every occasion: Christmas, Easter, Valentines, September 18 (only Chileans understand this date) etc. I remember when my boy was going to Lakehead University and he kept losing his mittens. I crocheted a long cord and put it through the sleeves of his jacket as I used to do when he was in Kindergarten. He had no shame in wearing them like that. My son moved to Ottawa to study a second degree when he was 23. I stopped knitting. I did not consciously decide it. I just stopped.
My yarn and needles are very loyal to me. They always take me back. This time I was not going to abandon them. For the first time I started experimenting with Victorian lace shawls. I really needed to concentrate on something complicated. The relationship with my mother was at its lowest possible. It was, quite frankly, toxic. My mother hated me. Seriously. She told me so. For decades I had tried to build a normal mother/daughter relationship with her to no avail. But I never gave up. I used my knitting as therapy. After she died, I went into a deep depression. I came to the realization that my time had run out and I had failed in my task of gaining her love. I could not overcome my sadness on my own. I sought professional help. One of the exercises that the counsellor asked me to do was to draw a line in the middle of a page and write in one column all the bad memories of my mother and the good memories in the other. I ran out of space very quickly in the bad column. I really made an effort to recall my good experiences but three words kept coming to me. “I have nothing”. Except, knitting. I remembered once when she came to visit and I was knitting a cardigan in my favorite color, red. For the first time she showed interest in what I was doing. The pattern that I was using was my own and it was quite intricate. She asked me to teach her my technique and to share my pattern. For hours we sat side by side, teaching and learning, laughing and having tea. After, she praised me by saying that the student had surpassed the teacher. In turn I said that only happens when the student has a superb teacher. It was so nice to have that warm feeling of having her so close to me and interested in something that I was creating. Even if it only was for the knitting lesson. She had taught me how to knit when I was a child. And not knowing it, she had given me the tools and the weapons that I needed to build and defend myself in life. When I finished the cardigan, I mailed it to her. I think of her every day. There still is pain, but I am glad that I had the courage to tell her in time how much I loved her. One day I’ll think of her with dry eyes.
I am not away anymore. I am here. Here is where our son was born, where my friends are. Here are the people that embraced us thirty nine years ago. Here is home, here is Thunder Bay. Today I am concentrating on what I have. And I have a lot. In fact, I am rich. I have friends that are family, I have a wonderful son and his partner that love me. I am healthy and I have my knitting to help me surf the turbulent waves that humanity has been enduring this past year. I also have my best friend/spouse always unconditionally by my side.
One of my favorite Argentinian authors, Julio Cortazar, wrote that “women knit when they discover that it’s a fat excuse to do nothing at all”. I don’t agree, of course. But my partner tells me that if I can create my intricate Victorian shawls it is because he does all the cooking and kitchen chores in our home. I agree. I don’t need an excuse. I add shamelessly that people say I am a talented woman. I respond that they have not seen me in the kitchen or that would drop me a few notches from my “talented” pedestal! I have no inclination or desire for such activities. I am useless in the kitchen and I am a spoiled spouse. From eight to four, five days a week I am a High School Secretary and I love to work for the students. In the evenings and on weekends I am a knitter, a proud artisan, a partner, a mother and your friend.