Knitting History

One of the reasons I no longer (well, rarely) walk around with headphones in is because I like to be open to interact with the people around me. [If I have my headphones in, it is likely because (a) I’m listening to a really good program on cbc radio or (b) I don’t want to talk to anyone so leave me alone.]

Last Thursday was one of those days when I was glad I had the headphones out. I’ve been knitting regularly for about 8 months – my Oma tried to show me how to knit when I was eight or nine but it didn’t stick. I actually gave up after about two inches of a scarf for my teddy bear. I re-learnt 17 years later when a long Pacific crossing from Japan to Hawaii forced me to learn a hobby or go crazy from boredom and cabin fever.

All of that is to say that knitting doesn’t seem unusual to me. I knit. A number of my friends knit. Sometimes we all get together and knit together. However, sometimes I discover that I am more unusual than I had thought.

Last Thursday I was sitting, and knitting, at Swartz Bay, waiting to board the 11am to Tsawwassen when an elderly gentleman sat down next to me. With a thick European accent he commented on my knitting. He was so happy to see me knitting, he said, leaning towards me with joy in his face.

It has been a long time since I have seen a young woman knitting.

I immediately thought back to Oma and her generation. So many of them knit and made clothes for their entire families. It must have been a common practice. I could see the elderly gentleman being transported back in time to his youth at this memory.

He then asked me when I had learnt. I explained that I had only seriously been knitting for less than a year, but that my Oma had first taught me when I was a child. At the mention of “Oma” he perked up once again.

Oma… you are from where? My family is from The Netherlands, near The Hague. Ah, Holland. I am from North Friesland, near the Danish border.

With that, he launched into a story of his activity during the Second World War. It was an interesting conversation: part recollections, part justifications, and part desire to pass on his story to another generation. He told me of sailing through the North Sea, watching out for Allied ships. He told of occupying the Netherlands but bringing food to the young families starving in the villages he and the army (he never actually said it was the German army) occupied. He spoke of his fear of being shot at by resistance groups and later Allied forces as they liberated the countryside… he didn’t like the word “liberated” as he felt he and his companions had looked after the villages in their charge. As he told his story, I continued to knit.

This exchange was perhaps the first I’ve had with a soldier who was on “the other side” during the war. It could have been the young family of my Oma, Opa, Aunt, and Uncle that he was bringing food to while he occupied their village, though I know it wasn’t. This gentleman, probably in his 80’s, shared with me, a complete stranger, some of his challenges during a troubling time. It was like he wanted me to know that those we so often think of as the enemy are not evil: there is humanity on both sides of every conflict.

Then the gates opened and the masses surged onto the ferry. I didn’t see him again but am thankful for the conversation that knitting opened up – to hear a part of his history and his story.

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3 thoughts on “Knitting History

  1. Very touching story. My father was a high school teacher, and our high school staff boasted a biology teacher of Bavarian descent and a Canadian teacher about the same age. They fought on opposite sides during WW2 (not likely in the same conflicts). They were best of colleagues and friends. My own wife’s family (German immigrants to the US at the turn of the twentieth century) were separated from their German counterparts for most of a century, because of the wars. It was only in the 1980s that the German relatives tracked down the American descendants of their “Omas” and “Opas” and my wife was the first American descendant they had ever met (we’re now all on Facebook!). Humanity at its most basic level, the individual and the family, is always the victim in these conflicts.

    • History puts our past conflicts into a different perspective I think! I may be half Dutch (and the first generation to be born in Canada), but my other half has a German component who immigrated probably a few generations before Ann’s family. The most powerful part is, I think, as you’ve said, when we can put that history aside and befriend those with whom we may have been in conflict.

  2. Pingback: 16th Century Portuguese Architecture in the Ethiopian Highlands | gillian's island

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