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Clement's Corner: The Old Woolly Jumper

An old woolly jumper can have a deeply significant history, as Owen Clement reveals in this well-told tale.

“Hold your hands higher, please.”

I raised my aching spread-out arms.

Schatze’s hands continued winding, winding while my arms swung from side to side.

The last unpicked section of an old woollen jumper lay on her lap.

We had unravelled all the others into skeins of wool and these in turn were now a pile of crinkly balls in a basket at her feet.

“Why are you bothering with this old jumper Schatze?”

“What’s wrong with things being old?” she gruffly counter-questioned.

“Nothing, but –“

“Some day soon you will know why.” she said in answer to my first question.

While waiting to hold out the next skein I picked up a small discarded fragment of wool and rolled it between my fingers and thumb. The nap was almost gone and the whiteness had turned into the colour of tallow.

My curiosity increased when I watched my great-grandmother’s determined expression. It seemed to me that the task we were both engaged in was more than merely the tedious preparation for remaking an old woollen garment.

Her square body was wedged in a pseudo-colonial style rocking chair. Her close-cropped white hair, her steel-rimmed spectacles and stern expression misled those who did not know her. She was usually gentle, kind and good humoured. However, the family knew that if anyone mentioned the War, her lips would disappear, and off would come her glasses,

“Enough,” She would utter and leave the room.

“Who’s this going to be for Schatze?” I asked as I picked up the last section to be unravelled off her lap.

“Would you like it to be you?” She did not look at me. Was I being tested I wondered. She had never knitted anything for me before. She had knitted jumpers for my two sisters. It hurt her that they hardly ever wore them.

‘Yes - very much.”

The lines in her face rearranged into a cheery grin. She chuckled as she said, “You don’t have to Heinrich.” She could never call me Henry like the rest of the family. I didn’t mind, as no one else ever called her Schatze.

She took back the last fragment from me. I could see her trying to decide whether she would leave it intact. With a few sweeps of her arm she unravelled it. I thought that she might have broken the last strand but I saw that it was still intact.

As soon as this was done, she closed her eyes and sat back on the chair fighting to keep control.

Alarmed I clambered up from the floor where I was squatting and gripped her arms;”Are you all right, Schatze?”

She patted my hand and nodded. “I’m all right Liebchin.”

I could only imagine that the old woolly jumper must have been the cause of her distress.
When she was over her attack, or whatever it was, I told her that I wanted her to knit me a jumper out of this wool more than anything in this world.

“I knew you would, even though you do not know the history of this worn out old jumper.”

“The jumper has a history!” My curiosity was now aroused even more.

“Yes, it once belonged to your great-grandfather, did you know that?”

I shook my head.’

”He captained a German destroyer during the War.”

“A German destroyer: you mean he was Nazi?”

“Like me he hated the Nazis. He was a German naval officer”

“Was he wearing this when he died?” I blurted out the words without thinking and immediately regretted saying them.

“My Heinrich could never wear anything that was not perfect. On one of his voyages he accidentally burnt a hole in this while smoking his pipe while his ship was under attack. I was repairing it in a shelter when Dresden was being bombed. Our house and everything in it were completely destroyed. He was killed about that time too. This is the only thing I have of his.”

I withdrew into a world of prejudice and ignorance. All I could think of was that my great-grandfather was a Nazi , the enemy. All the films, TV shows and everything I had ever read about Nazis came back to me. I was ashamed of being who I was. What if someone at school found out! What would I say to them? I wanted to disappear somewhere where no one would know me.

I slumped back down onto the floor oblivious of anything else but my dark thoughts.

Eventually I looked up and saw that Schatze looked all of her ninety odd years.

“Heinrich, when you became a man I was going to tell you. But you see, you are the age now when your great-grandfather joined the navy. He was only a boy then just like you, but the navy soon made him into a man. When you look at this jumper in the future you will know two things; that this was when you too became a man and that you must never judge others, especially from a different time and place.”

Schatze died soon after. She never finished knitting my jumper. Some day I may have it completed but in the mean time, it will always be one of my most precious mementos.


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