Friday, March 9, 2012

Rena's Sweaters

I was in a bit of a panic.  I had read for the lead in a community theater production and the director called the next day to tell me I'd won the part.  I felt honored and flattered that she thought me good enough to take on the role. But to be honest, that wasn't the character I had hoped to play when I went to audition.  I had really wanted another role, a crazy lady with some of the best lines and far fewer than what they were asking me to learn.  But it wasn't just about memorizing the extra pages of script.  This particular character was a knitter, a skill required for the part, and something that I had never attempted to do or was even slightly interested in.  It was later that summer while on vacation in New York that Larry's mom and sister put a pair of  knitting needles in my hands and slowly and patiently instructed me on the basics,  enough so that I could pull off the character and convince the audience that I knew what I was doing.  But if I hadn't been careful to hold what appeared to be a scarf-like object close to my lap as I flashed those needles,  it would have been seen with all its dropped stitches and gaping holes.  I knew just enough to fake it and to have a brand new appreciation for those who are much more adept at this than I am. 

Like Charlene for example.  She knits the nicest gloves and hats and donates them to organizations in the area who help the poor.  Lisa likes to do afghans and gives them away as gifts.  I have been one of her beneficiaries as has every young child in our toddler church of which she is the director.  And then there's Faith. She likes to do scarves, and yes, she gives them away too.  That seems to be why the ones I know do what they do.  They love to bless others with their creations.    
Rena VanAmburg
And then there's Rena.  I haven't known her all that long, she started coming to the church a little over a year ago with her daughter and son-in-law. She twinkles, so naturally I liked her immediately.  It wasn't too long after, that Larry and I decided it was time to pay a visit to her little house on Sherman,  just a few streets over from us.  We found her in her easy chair knitting. "I knit sweaters," she informed us.  I probed a bit, asking who they were for.  She set her project aside and looked directly at me.  I could see her eyes sparkling behind her glasses, as if she had a wonderful secret that she was eager to share with someone."  I send them to World Vision." she answered.   I know World Vision, one of the best-known and most effective Christian relief organizations in the world.

I called Rena one afternoon this week and asked if it'd be a good time to stop by.  I wanted to know more about her sweaters, her story.  I grabbed my camera as I headed out the door.  I found her knitting a small pink one.  I felt the yarn, it was particularly soft, perfect for a baby.  "How long have you been doing this?"  I wanted to know.  And she began her story.  Her husband was ill and pretty much confined to his home.  "He'd sit right here, in this chair where I am now," she said.  "I didn't dare leave him but needed something to do.  So I started making these sweaters."  It had been around five years or so that she'd been at it.  She handed me a small stack of yellow notebook pages, folded and clipped together with a pen.  I opened them to find a list numbering each sweater and its color.  My eyes went to the bottom of the last page.  The number 425 was written there and a description of her last completed sweater.   "You can take the pen and write in number 426 for me," she said.  I did and then wrote in the color.  Pink.

Rena holding number 425
Did I mention that Rena is eighty-eight years old?  I'm pretty sure she's on a limited income, but somehow she always has enough yarn to do another sweater.  Her first supply came from a rummage sale at the Ronald McDonald House in Rochester, New York.  A friend got it for her and it provided enough yarn to get her through the first couple of years.   In fact, all the yarn for her sweaters has come from rummage and yard sales.  And because everything she does is for children,  there's always enough on a spool for one size or another.   

But she does have some concerns.  Her fingers are getting numb and she doesn't know how much longer she'll be able to keep at it.  "But I'll be knitting until I can get my garden in, and that won't be until Decoration Day."  She had earlier pointed out the little pepper plants on the window sill in the kitchen that she had started.  Gardening is as big and as enjoyable a project for this remarkable lady as is her knitting. But that's a subject for another day.   I silently calculated.   Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day.  That would give her almost three more months of knitting.  That adds up to several more sweaters helping to clothe and warm even more children.  Being touched by a woman who finds great joy and purpose in her life even at eighty-eight.  And it simply doesn't get any better than that.

A box of Rena's sweaters ready to be shipped to World Vision 

A Post Script:
If you'd like to know more about this project that sends sweaters to children around the world, check it out at

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