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Happy Birthday, Nana

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My grandmother and my mother, pregnant with me.

Today would be, were she still alive, my maternal grandmother’s 130th birthday. I think of her every time I knit, and I have long wondered whether my lifelong passion for every needle craft I ever encounter was passed down to me via my genes or by the passion modeled for me all my life by others who came before me. Either way, it can be traced back to my mother and to my grandmother before her.

Born on August 10, 1884 in the town of Giarre in the province of Catania, Sicily, Teresa Sorbello was the 4th of 8 children. 7 daughters arrived before the final long awaited son, after which my great-grandparents breathed a sigh of relief and stopped reproducing. Her father Antonio was a carrettiere (think pony express, but with donkeys and gorgeous painted and carved Sicilian donkey carts).

When she was a girl my grandmother was sent to live with a noblewoman to be apprenticed to learn all the needle arts. Whether she was sent for this training because of a natural inclination or talent that her parents saw, or because of a desire she herself had, is lost to the ages, but sent she was, and returned to her family a few years later with skills that lasted a lifetime.

Times in the southern parts of Italy were hard in those days, and millions immigrated in the latter part of the 1800’s into the early parts of the 1900’s, to countries that offered a chance for a better life. An older sister Maria went to Argentina, and was largely lost to the family. Then, in 1907 at age 22, and in charge of younger siblings Angeline and Giuseppe, Teresa set sail for America on the S.S. Virginia, knowing full well that she was unlikely to see her parents or some of her sisters again. The courage that these immigrants showed in their quest for a better life moves me deeply, but that is for another post at another time. What I am thinking about today is that the talents my Nana learned at that noblewoman’s knee came across the sea with her. She married and raised 4 daughters (3 to adulthood), and passed on these skills to them all, and through the generations down to me.

She sewed clothes without patterns, including exquisite wedding dresses for herself and her sisters (another later came to the US). She made clothes for her family, she knit, embroidered, did beautiful cut work, and quilting. But most of all she crocheted. To this day I have hundreds of pieces of beauty that she made – from chemises for my mother when she went off to college, to baby hats for me, to pillow cases, dresser scarves, table cloths, pillows, window shade pulls – the list goes on and on. She never learned to read, so she never followed patterns, but could create anything that she or anyone else envisioned or wanted.

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My grandparents at their wedding. She designed and made her wedding dress and headpiece. My grandfather designed and made his fabulous mustache.

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My Nana Teresa, upper left, at her sister’s wedding. She made her dress, her sister’s wedding dress and veil, and her daughter’s (lower left) dress.

She worked as a farmer, beside her husband, growing onions on their farm. She raised her family, kept the house, and cooked food that resonates in my memory to this day. But every minute when she wasn’t working or cooking she had a crochet hook or knitting needles in her hand, or was sitting at a sewing machine.

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She sewed their clothes, knit their sweaters and socks and scarves. She crocheted the bedspreads, tablecloths, potholders, beautiful curtains for all the windows, antimacassars and decorative pillows for all the furniture. She made all the family sheets and pillow cases and edged them all with crocheted lace. And along with these beautiful things, she passed the skills needed to make them on to her daughters, and I have always been surrounded by beautiful hand made things, made by the women in my family, for themselves and for each other.

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And so we come down to me (and to my daughter, who also loves all needle crafts, and takes to them with an ease born of some gene somewhere deep inside her), and to the hundreds and thousands of hours I have spent immersed in the needle arts in my lifetime. Like my grandmother I have a favorite – in my case knitting – but I have enjoyed every needle art I have ever done, and have a long list of new ones I am looking forward to trying when life and time permits. And every time I sit down to work I think of my Nana, and wish I could show her my designs.

I have her sewing machine, her teeny tiny crochet hooks, and a large wooden box filled with crochet cotton that was hers – the white and ivory she used primarily, but also the bright colors we all convinced her to use in the later 1960’s. And, of course, I have all the beautiful things she made around me all the time. I sleep on her lace edged pillowcases, lean on her crocheted pillows, eat holiday dinners on tablecloths she made, and wear some of her clothing (but not the camisoles she made for my mother who had an 18” waist at that time. Despite being miniature I have never had an 18” waist except maybe when I was 5).

I wear two of her rings often, and look at my hands as yarn flows through them as I work, and I think about the parts of her that are within me, in my genes and in my heart.

Teresa Sorbello Ponticello died at age 94 in the fall of 1978. She had had a stroke which left her mostly still there, but floating in time somewhere before my grandfather had died. But she still crocheted, right to the end. I can see her now with her huge beaming smile and her crochet hook in her hand, with beautiful lace pooling in her lap. And I am grateful, whether it got there by genetics or by example, for the love of needle arts that she passed on to my mother and to me, and for the connection with her, and with my history, that I connect with every time I pick up my knitting needles, and create something beautiful.

Happy birthday Nana. I love you.

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2 responses to “Happy Birthday, Nana

  1. Thank you so much for writing about your grandmother, thank you for all the words and photos… it was a pleasure to read this!

  2. What a beautiful story, Nina.

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