Twice a week, my oldest three children run across the street and up the steps to Mrs. Greenlee’s house for knitting lessons. It’s a fairly new addition to our weekly schedule, so the needles seem impossibly cumbersome and their fingers clumsy. But at 3 o’clock on knitting days, when the school work is mostly done and we’re all ready for a break, the kids don’t care how hard the learning because Mrs. Greenlee is the teacher.
Virginia Greenlee has a flash of white hair and a strong Norwegian accent. She was born in the United States but went back to Norway with her mother and older sister when she was still young enough to forget she had ever lived anywhere else. The trip was meant to be a short one, just long enough for Virginia’s mother to go home and see her family. But then the war came and everything changed.
The Germans surrounded Virginia’s town. They confiscated the horses, the cows, even the bicycles. No one could come or go. Signs posted on the telephone poles and tree trunks threatened to shoot troublemakers on site, no questions asked. Up in the mountains, Virginia’s mother was powerless to go back to America where her children would be safe. There was nothing to do but hope the fighting wouldn’t last long.
That was wishful thinking. The months stretched on and on. Virginia’s mother earned extra money as a seamstress, and Virginia, at eight years old, was sent away to work on various farms. She helped a mother with a set of twins whose husband didn’t earn enough to support them all. The mother walked into town each day to work while Virginia stayed home with the babies, barely old enough to know what to do when they wouldn’t stop crying. On Sunday, when she didn’t have to work, Virginia walked out to the edge of the property where she could look out and see her own farm below and let the tears stream down her face.
But the war years were hard, and no one had extra food to feed a growing girl. The Nazis had taken everything. Once, a whale washed up on shore and the people, who were desperate for food, came out and cut big slabs of blubber and strips of dark, black meat to eat. It tasted so strong of fish, Virginia could hardly get it down. But the Nazis didn’t want it, and that was reason enough to be thankful.
In time, Virginia moved back to the States and married the love of her life, a Norwegian man who fell in love with her red hair and freckles. Together, they had two children and became foster parents to many more. One morning, after she had gotten the girls off to school and the little foster boys busy with an activity, Virginia realized she hadn’t seen her husband all morning. She went in and found him dead in their bed from a massive heart attack. He was already cold. He had died, her beautiful, young husband, right there in that room while she was just a few steps away, and she hadn’t known it. She hadn’t heard it, hadn’t felt it.
The foster boys had to be sent away, those two sweet little brothers Virginia had fallen in love with but could no longer support. She was a widow.
Eventually, Virginia married again, but this man was not like the first. He was not gentle and kind and loving. He did not care for the children. He was an evil man who wanted to control her and push her down, like the Germans had. Looking for sympathy and support, Virginia went to her pastor, who ignorantly told her to be a better wife. That would solve the problem, he said. She left the church and her husband, took the children and never went back to either. Being alone was not as scary as it used to be.
Years have come and gone. Mrs. Greenlee married one last time to a man who loves her like she should be loved. They hardly ever fight, unless you can count the time four years ago when Tom insisted they take a tour of Egypt and Virginia could not muster up any interest in crossing the desert on camel just to see the Sphinx. Mr. Greenlee has an entire album of pictures of his dear wife, frowning at him all over Egypt.
Truth be told, Mrs. Greenlee is getting to the age where she is more content to stay at home. She flies the flag of Norway on the 17th of May and closes all the shades on the 4th of July because the sound of the fireworks reminds her of the bombs that fell all around her village when the Germans first came to shore. At Christmas, she heats up an old iron griddle and makes Krumkake with my children and tells Viking stories while they shape the cookies into cones and burn their tongues because they can’t help but taste them before they’re cool.
“Mrs. Greenlee’s Nor-Asian,” Kya explains as Tom takes pictures of the cookies and the kids in front of the flag so Virginia can send them to her friends in Norway. They don’t know these five kids aren’t really Mrs. Greenlee’s own grandchildren. It’s just a small detail, really.
One day, Mrs. Greenlee called with a present for Kya. It was a hand-knit afghan, pink, just the way an afghan for Kya should be. Soon, she sent over another for Faith, with promises to make three more for the boys. “I just want to give them something to remember this old lady by when she’s not here anymore,” she said.
Not having Mrs. Greenlee here anymore is unthinkable. Forgetting her is impossible. We love her too much.
So, when Mrs. Greenlee suggested in her quiet, unobtrusive way, that maybe, just maybe, the kids could come over and she could teach them to knit, if we weren’t too busy and it didn’t interfere with school, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather have them do. Maybe there will be handmade potholders and scarves in our future. Maybe there will be dropped stitches and frustrations. It doesn’t really matter. What my children are learning on knitting day has nothing to do with needles and yarn. It has everything to do with the value of years and the collection of memories she speaks into their lives. It has to do with history and humanity, of understanding the times and the consequences of actions.
It has to do with things she is far more qualified to teach, things I hope my children never forget.
For another story about our neighbors, check out the post “One of the Good Ones.”