A Portrait of Grandma’s Hands
Used to hand me piece of candy
Picked me up each time I fell
Boy, they really came in handy
-Bill Withers, Grandma’s Hands (1971)
My grandma’s hands were tough and small with deep, dark brown life lines. She had short thick fingers, and long pretty nails, which she painted in bright colours. Many of my memories of grandma are from the ways she used her hands: to garden, to cook for the family, to shoo off the dogs, to tell a story, to fill out crossword puzzles, and to knit. As she got older, her hands developed arthritis and the pain meant that she could not do as many of the things her hands had done easily for decades before.
Several years ago while visiting Grandma in St. Croix and assisting her with cooking while she sat on a stool near the stove, I said to her jokingly: “You could probably cook with your eyes closed, huh Grandma?” She thought for a moment, laughed and responded, “I probably could; my hands know what to do.” I believed her. When I asked my mother about her memory of grandma knitting, she reflected:
“She knitted and crocheted. Mummy was always using her hands, that’s all I can say. She played the piano and the organ, she gardened, she did needle point; she did macramé, she sewed. There was really nothing your grandmother couldn’t do with her hands. I remember something had happened to the iron and an electrician was supposed to come and fix it but he kept promising and not showing up. Well, your grandma figured out how to fix it.
She taught us all of those things: to knit, to crochet, how to do needle point, how to embroidery our initials on our handkerchiefs… When you kids were babies she knitted all of your hats and booties and little sweaters, she made you blankets. She knitted these for everyone in the family. Four times yearly she would change the curtains and all of the tables, dressers, everything had a doily, which matched the curtain that she crocheted. She sewed, she baked, she cooked fabulously. Yeah, your grandmother was actually phenomenal with her hands. ”
Before I was born, for most of the hours during the day Grandma’s hands were typing. She worked as the secretary and assistant to the British owner of the Caymanas Sugar Estate in Saint Catherine, Jamaica. In addition to her official job responsibilities, she helped the cane cutters start a Credit Union and successfully advocated for them to have access to the grounds for leisure when they were not working. She saw these activities not as supplementary, but as crucial and the right thing to do. She believed that all people, regardless of their status, and especially the ones doing the hardest work, should be able to access and enjoy the beauty of their homeland—as well as have power over their own financial futures.
Grandma retired before I was born, but decades as a secretary and active community member were so much part of her identity. She sometimes admonished me for my poor penmanship and often noted how fast she could type and take shorthand. This drove my own desire in fourth grade to memorize the keyboard and increase my words-per-minute average. Her imperative towards excellence stemmed in part from growing up in a colonized Jamaica that tried to make creolized Black people into British subjects through coercion, violence, and indoctrination. She believed that by being excellent and organizing the communities she was part of, she could transform the society into a collective independent Jamaica. My grandmother’s desire for excellence was also born from her ability to create in real life the things she could see in her mind. Knitting, crocheting, and needlepoint were some of the ways her hands made real the aesthetics of her mind.
Crocheted and knitted products are embedded into everyday Jamaican life and culture. From hats and caps Rastafarians wear, to tablecloths and dresses crocheted with black, green, and gold yarn. Using our hands to create symbols of our culture and heritage has been a practice for generations throughout the Black diaspora. Grandmothers and mothers are the ones primarily passing these traditions down: by teaching little girls how to do them and by making clothing, blankets, doilies, art and much more for everyone in the family. These traditions predate the creation of Jamaica as a nation-state, but are born from the physical landscape and peoples who have inhabited the island.
The first fiber used for crafting on the island of Jamaica was made from lagetta trees. The lagetta tree, also known as the lacebark tree, is native to Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola (the island that contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic). While it is not known if the indigenous Arawaks used the inner bark of this tree to make clothing, they did use it to make rope, hammocks and baskets. The inner layer of the bark can be made into a lace-like cloth by soaking, stretching and sun-bleaching. The “natural lace” material that resulted from this process created a basis for crafting culture. This material culture was produced by combining pre-colonial African knowledges with enslaved women’s resourcefulness and reaping the benefits of centuries of indigenous land stewardship before European settlers arrived. Many of the enslaved Africans taken to the Caribbean came from tropical African populations that had long histories of making cloth from the bark of trees. Bark cloth was a non-woven fabric produced throughout Western, Central and parts of Eastern Africa.
For nearly five centuries, natural fiber cultivation and multipurpose cloth were incorporated into traditional rituals and daily life in tropical African communities. Pre-colonial African textile practices and plant cultivation were carried to the landscapes of Jamaica by the African hands that bore its experience before being trafficked through the Middle Passage. Since similar types of trees that could be used to make cloth from bark existed in parts of Africa and it was known that indigenous Amerindians used lagetta bark to make vital tools, enslaved women taught themselves to harvest the lacebark, process it into a lace material that was then used to make necessary clothing, beautiful textiles, and other utilitarian objects. In the midst of plantation slavery and colonialism that deliberately excluded enslaved Africans from aesthetic life and tried to deny them pleasure or leisure, the women of Jamaica made and wore lace in which the process from plant to garment was not controlled or overseen by European colonialists. This subversive act of creating out of necessity, and from cultural indigenous plant knowledge made its way into the genetic memories of Jamaican people today. Grandmothers like mine, and hers before, taught their children knitting, sewing, crocheting, mat making and basketry to carry on this legacy of self-directed expression and creativity.
My grandmother crocheted and knitted out of love for the generations that came after her, like me, and in honor of the ancestors who came before her. When she would knit me beanies, scarves, and gloves not wanting me to freeze in the “northern California cold,” I recognized that she felt at her best when using her hands. I believe she understood the privilege she had to spend time knitting and crocheting for us. I remember her contentment: sitting in a rocking chair, humming a song while knitting or crocheting something for her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who are scattered across the world in countries much bigger, and colder, than Jamaica. My grandmother could be a homemaker for us even when we lived halfway across the world. She would send us things that instantly felt like home. Even after traveling through the mail, there was still a faint smell of Grandma’s house in the yarn that came to be the skirt, blanket or hat she made for us. I’d like to think that even though I don’t know how to knit, my grandmother would be pleased to know that knitted clothing and crocheted blankets hold such a special place in my heart because of all of the things she made for us with her hands in her lifetime.