I’m shopping with my mom, browsing mostly, when she picks up a small notebook. Too small to be of any real use, it’s a mini-booklet with little colored pencils. She moves on to a coin purse in the shape of a fish.
“Kristina,” she says, holding it up for my inspection.
“Cute,” I say.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has loved knickknacks. Our house wasn’t adorned with displays of Hummel figurines or silver teaspoons, but major holidays and birthdays always included a few little gifts—miniature decks of cards, pocket-size puzzles—that we marveled at momentarily, then put away.
When I was younger, I didn’t give much thought to my mother’s penchant for novelties; it was just Mom being Mom, spoiling us with curios and tchotchkes. Our cups—or rather our Christmas stockings—really did runneth over. But while my brother and I appreciated all of our mom’s gifts, it was the things she made by hand—true works of art that took quite a bit of time and energy—that I treasure the most.
The white angora sleeveless sweater with gemstones sewn together like a flower, a turquoise cardigan accented by crystal buttons, a peach-colored pullover with sparkles woven into it that I wore on one of my first dates with my husband. He said I looked like a birthday cake. I think it was a compliment.
Growing up in war-torn Germany, my mom didn’t have many toys. She and my aunt reminisce about the dolls made by their mother, who, like many at the time, stood in breadlines and foraged for mushrooms in the forest. Mom and her sister envied the few kids in their neighborhood who had store-bought toys, especially dolls with eyes that moved and pretty dresses. Their own homemade playthings looked crude by comparison, and their hand-knit tights and knee socks itched.
This isn’t to say I didn’t crave my own store-bought doll from time to time. Or a Laura Ashley prom dress, a pair of expensive sunglasses, a trendy handbag—all longed for, received, happily worn, and eventually neglected when tastes and fashions changed.
As for as my mother’s creations, I’ve kept most of the sweaters she’s knit for me as well as the scarves, shawls, and ponchos. One bold number, a navy-blue-and-yellow sweater in a cubist pattern interwoven with glittery threads—reminiscent of Krystle Carrington on Dynasty—still gets compliments. My father’s cable-knit fisherman’s sweater with elbow patches is a marvel of craftsmanship. Women and men alike ask where I bought it. When I tell them my mom made it more than 40 years ago, they’re dumbfounded. The sweater is huge on me, almost a tunic, but it’s warm and reminds me of my dad. When my mother sees me wearing it, she touches the hem, slightly unraveled now, and smiles.
These days, her projects are smaller in scope, due to arthritis, but no less artistic. A capelet I wore on a visit to Hillwood Museum caused a minor stir among the docents. “Your mother must love you very much,” a woman said. “Never give that away.”
Years ago, I did just that: One summer afternoon while I was home from college, my mother dug into her yarn basket, and together she and I created a braided belt with silk yarn and random beads. I wore it with jeans and a T-shirt to a party that night, and a friend’s friend kept complimenting me on it. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and I felt so bad that I gave her the belt.
And that impulsive act might represent the most lasting gift my mom has given me.
This article appears in our December 2015 issue of Washingtonian.