Second-chance Knitting and Of Double Names and Anapests/ 2 memoir essays by Sue Books

Second-chance Knitting 

There’s a use-value to knitting. You end up with something: a warm sweater, a cute hat, a sweet baby blanket. But that’s not the heart of it. At night, when too brain-dead to follow a storyline, on page or screen, I often browse knitting patterns on ravelry.com. You can search by category (cardigans, blankets, hats, etc.), designer, yarn, difficulty level, needle size, and so on. Want a cardigan for which léttlopi (an Icelandic yarn) is recommended, and a pattern with a rating of at least 4 out of 5 stars, knitted on a needle at least as large as size 7? If so, you’ve got 74 options, most with tips from knitters happy to share their experiences and warn you of pitfalls.  Other knitters’ renditions invite dreams of your own. The reality never matches the dream, but the anticipation brings its own joy. 

Like a song that reminds you of a long-ago love or heartache, knitted garments carry your emotional life. I knitted most of my gray cabled pullover while sitting in my mother’s hospital room in the weeks before she died and completed much of my green-and-white cardigan during a trip to California when a relationship hung in the balance. The sweaters are not painful reminders, but rather testaments of healing. As I knit the thousands of stitches, one to the next, I sat with these sorrows and anxieties.   

Although discerning what the designer is asking you to do is often easier said than done, if you follow the directions, something almost always takes shape. Mistakes happen, but there is almost always a fix. For errors you catch fairly soon, you can tink (“knit” spelled backwards): unknit stich by stitch. For errors further back, you can frog, as in “rip-it, rip-it” with your fingers, row after row. You’ll have to decide: Can I live with this mistake? And the answer cannot be either always yes or always no. If you knit on after every mistake, you’ll be disappointed in the end, whereas with no tolerance of any error, you might never complete a project. The craft requires judgment, and you learn to exercise it.

“Wool is very forgiving,” knitters often note. This is true in that wool fibers tend to even out mis-sized stiches. Also, when you block a wool garment (wash, then lay flat to dry) you can massage it into a slightly different shape. Yet there’s more to it than the properties of wool fibers. Reknitting somehow always goes quicker. The redoing feels good, in a quiet, nourishing way, much like forgiveness. Frogging and reknitting costs nothing besides a little time, and almost always improves the end result.  Best of all, the option to do over is always there.  No special talent required, and no scarcity of second chances.

Of Double Names and Anapests 

I named my daughter Cora Mae, after carefully considering the close contenders of Eva Mae or Ella Mae. I liked the sound of the three-syllable cadences. Plus, I wanted Cora to remember her Southern roots. I hope I consulted Cora’s father, but I’m not sure. Cora was born in Pennsylvania, grew up mostly in New York, and now lives in Connecticut. Still, as far as I’m concerned, she’s from the South.

The double-naming tradition became popular in England in the 17th century. It seems that after Charles James Stuart was baptized with a double name and then became King Charles I, upper-class parents took note and started saddling their children with multiple names – sometimes as many as ten – as a way to denote their status.  “Poverty in name signaled poverty in general – and possibly disgrace,” Stephen Wilson argues in his history of naming in Western Europe, The Means of Naming. The tradition spread through Europe. When the Scots and Irish in particular immigrated en masse to the United States, and in large numbers to Appalachia, they likely brought this tradition of multiple names with them.

Double names often include the name of a saint, and the belief that this will ensure the child’s protection. Godparents’ names also often become part of a double name, perhaps for much the same reason or just as a way to affirm the significance of the relationship.

I never used a double name. I grew up as Susie, then became Susan as a teenager, and finally Sue as an adult, but was never Susan Marie. Nevertheless, I grew up in this tradition and felt its emotional resonance. Of course, Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue was “pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue.”  

Like Peggy Sue, Cora Mae, Nina Belle, Lena Verne, Irene Fern, and Buena* Maude – respectively, my daughter, grandmother, mother, and aunts – “Cora Mae” has three syllables.  In cases like these, when spoken quickly, the stress tends to fall on the last syllable: Peggy Sue, Cora Mae, NinaBelle. Add the long vowels of a Southern drawl into the three-syllable pattern and you add an extra stress. This stress pattern – anapestic meter – was popular in 19th century lyric poetry when many Europeans were making their way to the United States.  Think of the poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas. . .” published anonymously in 1823, then attributed to Clement Clark Moore in 1837.

A HuffPost blogger advises today’s expectant parents, Southern or not, to consider double names for their baby because these names are “cool” – “Classy, yet charming. Sophisticated, yet playful. Traditional, yet uncommon.” True perhaps, but this trivializes the tradition.  My daughter, Cora, doesn’t have a Southern accent, never went by “Cora Mae,” and, as far as I know, pays little attention to anapestic meter. Yet the name marks her identity, and was my way, I now think, of trying to bless her [Southern] heart forever.

* Pronounced BE-U-NIE — a Southern bastardization of the Spanish buena 

Sue Books is a professor in the SUNY New Paltz School of Education where she teaches comparative and international education as well as honors seminars on work and on education and poverty.  She is the editor of the book Invisible Children in the Society and its Schools (Erlbaum, 1998/2003/2007) and the author of Poverty and Schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and Consequences (Erlbaum, 2004).  In recent years Prof. Books has taught and conducted research in South Africa and Russia as a visiting scholar, and in Iceland and Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar.   

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