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As the COVID pandemic began, journalist and author Peggy Orenstein (the 2016 New York Times bestseller “Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape”) was mourning the loss of her mother. Seeking relief from anxiety and grief, she decided to make a sweater from scratch.
That journey, both moving and hilarious, is recounted in her memoir, “Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater” (HarperCollins).
Read an excerpt below.
“Unraveling” by Peggy Orenstein (Hardcover)
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While I’m doing the slow, methodical work of carding, though, I have little else to do but sit with my dad on facetime while he watches baseball on TV, narrating parts of the game to no one in particular. There are Twins reruns every day during the pandemic, a fantasy season in which the home team always wins. He doesn’t get that the games aren’t live; he attributes their streak to something he does with his walker.
I ask what, precisely, that is.
He smiles slyly. “It’s a trade secret,” he says, nodding, and I laugh.
Periodically, he asks me to hand him his glass of water; I realize that he doesn’t distinguish between my virtual presence and my real one. That is oddly comforting, like when he thinks every blond, bearded young man on TV is my oldest nephew, who lives in Los Angeles. It feels like we are with him, after a fashion.
“Sorry, Dad,” I respond. “I can’t reach it. You’ll have to get it yourself.”
I try to avoid the word “remember” when we talk, because he can’t, but it keeps escaping my lips anyway. “Remember when we were kids and …,” “Remember when you and Mom …,” “Remember that you said as a child you …” No, he does not, and it only frustrates him. Instead, we sing the tunes he sang to me as a toddler when he’d rock me to sleep—most of which were emphatically not lullabies: “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” or “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” But also the one that goes,
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
The lyrics choke me up every time. People with dementia or Alzheimer’s often recall music after all else fades. My dad no longer knows that he won a Supreme Court case—his greatest professional accomplishment—or that he earned a master’s degree in the history of science at the age of eighty-two, the oldest person at the University of Minnesota, at that time, ever to do so. He can spend hours staring at nothing, shredding a paper napkin into ever-tinier fragments. Yet, he knows every single word to “Anchors Aweigh” and “Lida Rose.” And he can sing them on key. Our daily visits start to feel to me like a spiritual practice, another form of meditation, another attempt at breathing and finding my center. I try to conceptualize them as an opportunity to express unconditional love (something, honestly, I never previously felt toward him) even through pain, to let my heart grow even as it breaks, or grow because it breaks.
Excerpted from “Unraveling” by Peggy Orenstein. Copyright © 2023 by Peggy Orenstein. Excerpted with permission by HarperCollins.
Get the book here:
“Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool, and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater” by Peggy Orenstein (Hardcover)
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