The Prayer Shawl

Nancy McAtavey

© Copyright 2022 by Nancy McAtavey

Photo courtesy of Todd McAtavey.
Photo courtesy of Todd McAtavey.
What makes an ordinary skein of yarn special? A prayer.  

My neighbor made my prayer shawl. It was dark blue with specks of white running through the yarn. The random pieces of fringe were threaded with silver beads and hearts that read “love” and “peace” and “hope." When I asked her for the inspiration for the shawl, she told me to Google it. The search brought me to The Prayer Shawl Ministry Home Page and a story of two women who combined their compassion and love of knitting/crocheting with prayer to provide comfort for others. The article gave directions for the shawl as well as an assortment of prayers inspired by its members: prayers for someone with a terminal disease or for someone grieving over the death of a loved one, prayers for celebrating a marriage or the birth of a child. Or a prayer for someone who just needed to be wrapped in a warm shawl when the night air set in.

My neighbor’s shawl arrived toward the end of my mother’s battle with cancer and my struggle to nurture and care for her in those final months. I wrapped it around my shoulders and remembered how much my mother hated the cold. She dreaded the first frost that came in late fall, refused to put ice cubes in her Coca Cola, drank her small, evening glass of Knickerbocker ale at room temperature. Coldness defined her life from the time she was widowed at the age of 25 in 1948 until the day she retired in 1987. She worked at a rose farm, spending eight hour days carrying rose-filled water buckets from refrigerated coolers to the grading tables where they were measured, cut and checked for any mildewed leaves or deformed “bullheads.” And then she packed those graded stems in oblong boxes and carried them back to the walk-in coolers where they waited be picked up and shipped around the country. She warded off the cold and dampness with layers of clothing: long underwear, corduroy pants and flannel shirts.

I decided to pass on my neighbor’s kindness and the ministry’s mission statement. My first shawl was for my friend’s mother, a woman I loved from the moment we met and she fed me warm sticky buns. She was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, having fled her country at the age of twelve with her father and four sisters. In this country, she nurtured three children, supported her husband in his business career and devoted her life to her church and civic activities. But what fascinated me about this woman was her love of food. How every day, every occasion, whether happy or sad, revolved around the food of her native country. Her foods were spicy compared to the blandness of the meals served in my Irish-Catholic home. Even the names were exotic: lamejun and babaganoush and bird’s nest pastries. Her rice pilav was unlike any other I had ever tasted. “What is your secret ingredient?” I asked. “Chicken fat,” she said. “Oh, my,” I replied, wondering where in the grocery store that might be found. In her later years, chronic pain slowed her body. Her brain remained sharp but the pain became debilitating, keeping her at home and isolated from her many activities. Especially her cooking. My prayer for her was simple: may all these strands of yarn embrace your soul and surround you with love.

My second shawl was for a family member. At first, we noticed small behavioral changes: how she would stand too close to us when she talked, how she would forget the name of a simple object, how she complained that the Christmas window candles didn’t smell like the lit ones on the dining room table. She became upset when she was not allowed to drive and frustrated when she was told that it was not okay to be sweeping the front sidewalks of her neighbors. The diagnosis of semantic dementia was devastating to her family and to everyone who knew her as a school volunteer or a co-worker or a school board member who advocated for children. I gave her the shawl on Christmas Eve. When she opened the box and read my prayer, she looked puzzled. When I started to explain, I realized that the explanation might be lost on her. So I simply told her how much she was loved by everyone and that the shawl would keep her warm as she watched tv or napped in her favorite chair.

So now, it’s time for another prayer shawl. I found my knitting bag right where I left it, on the top shelf of my son’s closet, next to his baseball cards and Star Wars comic books. The bag is full of needles of every size: some straight, some circular, some double-pointed. A smaller pouch holds crochet hooks, needles and round plastic markers. My yarn is soft and multicolored in hues of blue and green and rose and gray. “Ocean” the dye lot says. A perfect color description as this shawl is headed to the seaside town of Santa Cruz, California. I wind the three skeins into balls and cast on the fifty-seven stitches. My beginning prayer is simple: please let this be my best piece of needlework ever. Let there be no errors, no dropped stitches, no curled edges.

And so I begin the pattern of knit three, purl three to the end of the row. I turn the piece and repeat the stitches. I work slowly at first. It’s been some time since I’ve had these wooden needles in my hands. But then I develop a rhythm that calms me. The shawl grows day by day and soon becomes a small lap blanket, perfect for these chilly December nights. The colors blend from blue to green to rose and gray. The colors of the ocean waters, a soft sunrise, a fog softly settling across the beach and eating every tide pool and outcropping in sight.

This is a shawl that I never expected to make... a shawl for the mother of my first grandchild...a baby girl. And the prayer? I find the words and work them into the simple stitches.

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