I have never been a knitter myself, but I have always been intrigued by how knitting seems to link women together. Certainly there is a fellowship among crafters sharing their work, but there is a connection that goes deeper than technique, into the realm of shared love. I have two stories today that link women from four generations: a 75-year-old knitter, her mother who taught her the craft, a young mother, and her 1-month-old daughter. Both stories involve childhood illness, mother love and hopeful optimism. The connection between them was knit together by the hands of Phyllis Nodine.
I met Phyllis last week in her room at the Phillips-Strickland House in Bangor. Phyllis has been a teacher, daycare provider, wife, mother, and grandmother, but one occupation has stuck with her longer than any other. Phyllis has been a knitter since the age of 7, when her mother offered her a way to fill the empty hours of convalescence.
By nature, Phyllis was an adventurous child. Her happiest childhood memories involve reading on a tree limb, exploring her grampy’s farm in Mapleton, and riding her bicycle down the potato roads to a railroad trestle bridge. But early one summer in the mid-1940s, Phyllis got sick with very high fevers. She wasn’t consistently well again for about five months.
“I guess I had about every childhood disease you can imagine,” she said. She had several hospital stays and had to remain quiet and indoors when she was home.
Phyllis’s mother spent long hours by her daughter’s bedside.
“Momma made me a pink sweater while I was in the hospital.” She also taught Phyllis how to knit for herself. “It was something to fill the time.”
She started with doll mittens and little scarves. By age 10, she was making full-sized mittens, and in her teens she started making sweaters. Phyllis’ health remained frail, so her activity was often restricted, but knitting satisfied her creative streak and made her feel useful. She studied patterns and experimented with personal touches “just for fun.” At age 19, she took her first paid order – a fisherman’s sweater.
Ever since that summer of illness, through years of motherhood, teaching, and running a local daycare, Phyllis has been knitting for pleasure, for pay, and for the good of others. She has given away countless cozy items as gifts and as donations.
Sitting with her in her room, where stacks of plastic drawers hold skeins of wool for future projects, I got to wondering if Phyllis knows what her work has meant to people. She and another resident at the Phillips-Strickland House had just sent a new batch of baby hats to Eastern Maine Medical Center, so I decided to go for a visit.
Tina Gist, a registered nurse in the critical care nursery, pulled out boxes full of donated hats, some of which seemed impossibly tiny.
“We go through them like crazy. We really depend on them,” she said.
Then I had the pleasure of meeting one tiny hat recipient. Bailey Pagels, due at the end of December, entered the world unexpectedly on Oct. 28, weighing in at 3 pounds, 3 ounces. She is not yet well enough to leave the hospital, but her parents travel to Bangor from Cutler and spend as much time as they can holding Bailey in their arms.
Sitting quietly with her daughter nestled on her chest, Marcie Pagels expressed gratitude for so many things — the Irving Cares program that helps them with gas money, the Ronald McDonald House where they are able to stay nearby and connect with other families of hospital patients, and the knitters of cozy hats that help keep Bailey warm.
“It’s nice to know people care about the babies,” Marcie said with a gentle smile. She is hopeful that Bailey will be able to come home for Christmas, but, in the meantime, she appears serenely prepared to wait as long as it takes.
In my mind, the peaceful scene was strikingly reminiscent of Phyllis’s childhood story. A devoted mother sits patiently in the hospital with her daughter, willing her to be strong and get well. That is Marcie Pagels today, and that was Phyllis Nodine’s mother almost 70 years ago. I wonder what Phyllis’s mom would say if she could know that her daughter’s knitting would warm the heads of tiny babies and the hearts of young moms so far in the future. Perhaps she’d say what Phyllis says, looking back on her life.
“Things just have a way of working out.” I guess they do.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.