History of a yarn: Navy blue sock wool

Sometimes you buy yarn. And sometimes it turns up on your doorstep like the wayward stray pit bulls with smiling eyes and lolling tongues that turn up all over my town, Oakland, and you just can’t say no to it. And since I love anything with a story, I’m telling the stories of just how parts of my stash turned up with their tails wagging.

A couple years ago my aunt Arlette, the one I’m named after, packed up to move to Switzerland for a few months. Then after that, who knows? “Chile, maybe?” she would say in the months before she left. “Your mother said Argentina but I don’t just want to go shopping like she does. I want to travel.”

My aunt had been tied down by a demanding job and an even more demanding cat for several years, and you could tell she was getting tired of being boring. “I feel like an old lady,” she would say, with a look that was half disgust and half confusion. Somehow in just a few years she had gone from a nationally ranked salsa dancer and troublemaker to, as she saw it, a frustrated, bored nobody. She wore sweaters with big appliqués of kittens on them and nursed a bad knee and a Babeli, the neediest cat you ever saw, and she brooded about getting old and fat and boring.

A couple years ago, after moping for months about feeling burned out and frustrated, she quit her job. “You know that song ‘Take This Job and Shove It’?” she said, cackling loudly. “Boy, I wish I could have told them that. That would’ve been great, eh?”

Her long search for a suitable home for her cat ended when Babeli got sick and had to be put down. Tante Arlette was distraught, but as she wiped smeared tears from her face, you could tell she was a little relieved to have one less thing tying her down.

Before she left, I asked her more about her colorful history one night when she and my dad and some of my friends were over for fondue. Wine was flowing freely, along with kirsch and my late uncle’s homemade plum brandy — handmade, someone would remind me every time the bottle was unstoppered, since he had squeezed the plums in his fists to get out the juice.

This is a woman who joined the circus as a young woman to tour Europe as a dancer, and in the off seasons learned to be a trapeze artist and a gymnast. She was also the knife-thrower’s assistant — you know, the one he throws knives at.

“He was a drunk,” she said. “I had holes in my clothes because he would throw the knives too close to me and they would pin my clothes to the board. Sometimes they would catch and it was hard to get away, which was bad, because for the final part of the act he was supposed to throw the last knife right at my heart, and I would step out of the way at the last second. Finally I told them he was a drunk, no way in hell would I do it anymore. So he started using his kids instead.”

She’s a riot with a history, a bullet scar up one arm, a Corvette — and double-pointed needles. She and my mom, long before they left Switzerland for the States, were both sent to a finishing school.

“We learned needlepoint, embroidery, sewing,” my mom says. “You had to know how to fry an egg, change a diaper and knit a sock.”

After a lifetime of it, my aunt decided she was sick of knitting socks and handed me the last of her stash: an untouched skein of rough blue sock wool, a kinked-from-frogging second skein and an index card with her notes for a sock pattern. Her patterns look a lot like her recipes: minimal, verging on incomprehensible. She’s very particular, so once she finds the secret of the sock or fondue or salad she likes, she makes it the same way every time. She doesn’t need recipes, just prompts to remind her how much cheese or how many decreases to add in the right places. They’re beautiful, economical little things with precise, boarding-school penmanship.

It’s been two years, and she’s moved back to the states. She’s quieter, less pissed off, less restless. I’m not sure what to think of it, any more than I know quite what to do with the yarn. I just know I like having them around.

Sock yarn and pattern