The Leaving Sweater
By Ruth Nestvold
25 June 2007
Growing up in remote Rolynka, Alaska, in the middle of the last century, Victoria Askew never really learned the trick of how to leave. Leaving was not an easy thing to do on the Seward Peninsula. There was nothing within hundreds of miles except ocean and tundra and a few Eskimo villages and former gold-rush towns. The only way out was by plane or dogsled, and the latter, of course, only in the winter—not that Vicky had ever left that way. There were three hundred miles' worth of roads leading from Rolynka, but they all led in an incestuous circle from one small subarctic town to the next.
Perhaps that was why leaving worked better with the leaving sweater.
The leaving sweater was made of scraps of leftover red wool—many different shades of red. And many different qualities of yarn, from mohair to raw silk to cotton and linen mixes. And many different stitches, from ribbed to open work to waterfall to butterfly. Although it had been a decade now, Vicky could still remember watching her mother make it as a present for Vicky's high school graduation—before she was to go away to college.
"I don't want to leave Rolynka," Vicky had said, her arms wrapped around her skinny legs as she watched the needles fly in her mother's hands and the strands of wool take shape.
Knit two together, yarn forward, knit one, yarn forward, slip one, knit one, pass slip stitch over. "You have to if you want to get a college degree, Victoria."
"What do I need a college degree for? Mr. Gunnarson's already offered me a full-time job at the Golden Nugget."
Purl, slip one purlwise, purl seven. "Are you sure you want to be a waitress for the rest of your life?"
Of course she didn't—what girl had "waitress" as life goal? But she didn't want to leave home either.
Knit five, knit two together, yarn forward, knit one, yarn forward, slip one, knit one, pass slip stitch over. "Of course, if you're afraid of going to the Outside, you can always stay in Rolynka."
Vicky would never have admitted to being afraid. Before the sweater was finished, she had been accepted to the English program at the University of Washington.
She wore the red sweater when she boarded the plane to take her to Anchorage and from there to Seattle. She wore the red sweater when she boarded the plane in Seattle to bring her back to Rolynka for her mother's funeral. She wore the red sweater when she left the University of Washington—and the first young man who had begged her to marry him.
It was before the cultural revolution of the late sixties, in an era when men always bought rings before popping the question. Vicky stared at the diamond in its little red box on the restaurant table and said, "No."
Ron stared at her, the nervous smile wiped from his face. "No?"
"That's right. No."
"But we've been dating for almost a year!"
Vicky nodded. "I like you a lot, Ron, and we've had a lot of fun. But I've been accepted to graduate school in Austin, and you're going to medical school in Portland."
"You could come with me and continue studying there."
She decided it wasn't worth mentioning all over again that there were no schools in Portland with appropriate programs. She shoved the ring across the table. "I'm very flattered, really. But I don't think it would work out."
He pushed it back. "Won't you reconsider?"
She shook her head, shoving the little red box over to him again. "My decision is made."
Ron took her hand and slipped the ring on her finger. "I bought it for you, Vicky. Consider it a present."
"I'm not going to change my mind."
He smiled and shrugged. "I understand. Maybe you'll think of me sometimes when you wear it."
And so began Victoria Askew's collection of engagement rings.
The red sweater had been Vicky's favorite for over five years when she finally noticed that it seemed impervious to the effects of time. She wore it more often than any other sweater she owned, but it showed no sign of wear, even after newer sweaters had made their way to the trash. It didn't stretch out, the threads never tore, and it was resistant to moths, despite the silk and sheep's-wool and angora yarns her mother had used.
Her mother. She had made the sweater for Vicky so that she would be able to leave for college. There was magic knit into the patterns, magic for leaving.
It was a leaving sweater.
Austin was too hot for a young woman who was acclimatized to the weather in Rolynka, Alaska, and her health began to suffer. The leaving sweater helped her get away again. When she left, she had collected four more engagement rings but no graduate degree.
She turned her back on the University of Texas at Austin anyway; Vicky had become accustomed to leaving—and to things unfinished.
She chose Drain, Oregon, because the name appealed to her sense of humor. It didn't hurt that the town was in desperate need of a high school English teacher.
By this time, the sexual revolution had come and gone, but it had passed Drain by without a second glance, making no stops left or right of I-5. Vicky brought color and miniskirts and the idea of promiscuity and scandal to the little town nestled in the hills of the Coast Range.
When she got off the bus on a day in late August, the mist was on the edge of rain and the air was cool and smelled of pine and rotting lumber.
Vicky fell in love.
It didn't matter that the town was more prudish than Rolynka had been when she was in high school, didn't matter that the people on the three downtown streets looked at her askance when she walked by in her short, tight neon skirts and looked away again. The high school kids she taught were hungry for the hints of life from the outside world Vicky brought in, and she was still young enough to think she could change things. She would bring Drain into the world, make it aware of Vietnam and Kent State and Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.
Vicky loved the kids as much as she loved the mist clinging to the steep hillsides and the scent of the pines and the outlandish Victorian mansion dubbed Drain Castle by the residents.
Before the first school year was over, she realized she didn't want to leave.
The red sweater itched at the back of her closet like a memory that couldn't be forgotten. Vicky pulled it out one Saturday in May, shook it out and laid it across the dining room table. It was still as beautiful as the day her mother had made it for her, the angora incredibly soft to the touch, the strands of silk glimmering in what little sunlight was stubborn enough to make it through old-growth pine and the shadowed front window of her little house.
If she wanted to stay, she would have to get rid of it.
Her heart heavy, Vicky found a grocery bag, folded up the sweater, and took it to the church charity drop-off.
She met Erlend Swihart at the high school graduation ceremony ten days later.
He was old-school charm combined with Oregon lumberjack good looks, and he had a laugh that echoed among the pine trees. When his nephew Steve Thompson, one of Vicky's best students, introduced them, Erlend bent over and kissed her hand with a flourish. "Steve thinks the world of you, ma'am."
"Why, thank you. He's a very bright boy. I'm sure he'll go far." She reached to open the door, but Erlend jumped in front of her.
"Wait, I insist."
Vicky's flash of irritation dissolved in the dazzling smile Erlend gave her as he pulled open the door with one hand and took her elbow with the other.
She found herself falling in love all over again.
He courted her as she had never been courted before, with flowers and words and laughter and gentle, insistent pressure, sharing with her a sardonic view of the world that appealed to her own wry outlook. All seemed to be conspiring to keep her in Drain—until she learned that the high school would not be renewing her contract.
She was too radical; a number of the parents had objected to her influence.
"You can find another job here in town," Erlend said over dinner and wine in the best restaurant in Drain. "And in the meantime, you can move in with me to save money."
Vicky was silent for a moment, examining the wine in her glass, the way it reflected the candlelight. "I don't know if I want to move in with you, Erlend."
He raised her free hand to his lips, and her objections disappeared with the demanding smile in his eyes. "Ah, Vicky, you must. I insist."
But Vicky didn't find another job. And by the time the abuse began a few months later, she had forgotten how to leave.
Sometimes Erlend allowed her to have visitors, but never the boys from her former class—he said she was a slut and he couldn't trust her, and Vicky bowed her head and accepted it. It was true. She was on the far side of twenty-five, still unmarried, and she had slept with seven different men. She would have married Erlend, but he didn't ask.
Every morning when he left for the lumber mill his family owned, he locked the house and took the key with him. Vicky would sit by the window and gaze at Drain Castle, only occasionally glancing at whatever book she held in her lap.
On a misty day in December, a few days before Christmas, the monotonous view was enlivened by the appearance of Erlend's nephew Steve Thompson and his girlfriend Emma Vanderbilt coming up the walk. Vicky regretted that she wouldn't be able to visit with them, but then, to her surprise, Steve unlocked the front door.
"Miz Askew?" they called out as they entered the house.
Vicky hurried over to greet them. "Steve! Emma! How did you get in?"
"My mom has a key," Steve said.
"Wonderful. May I make you some tea?"
The youngsters followed her into the kitchen, making small talk about college life in Eugene. Such a different world, so far away now.
"Where are all your rings?" Emma asked, staring at Vicky's naked hands. She wore a number of lavish silver rings herself now, as well as a pair of long, dangling earrings of silver and turquoise. "The diamonds? The gold nugget you called the pregnant parrot?"
Vicky shrugged and smiled. "Erlend keeps them somewhere safe for me."
"Don't you want to wear them anymore?"
"Not if Erlend doesn't want me to."
Steve carried a tray with the tea things out to the dining room table and set it down. "What about that wild red sweater, the one you said was your leaving sweater?"
"Oh, I gave that away to charity months ago."
The next day, Steve and Emma came to visit again, and this time they brought knitting needles and an assortment of red yarns, silk and mohair and angora and sheep's wool.
"That was such a cool sweater," Emma said. "We thought you might want to make yourself a new one."
Vicky took the yarn and knitting needles in hand, and it was as if the spirit of her mother guided her fingers. Knit two together, yarn forward, knit one, yarn forward, slip one, knit one, pass slip stitch over.
Her former students told her stories about sit-ins in Friendly Hall, about protests against the draft, and their worry that Steve might be called.
Every day that Christmas break they came to visit, bringing more of the world back with them, and every day the sweater grew. Purl, slip one purlwise, purl seven.
"Have you considered going to Canada?" Vicky asked Steve, when front and back were finished. It was astonishing how much the sweater looked like the one her mother had made for her when she was seventeen.
Emma and Steve exchanged a look and then turned back to their former teacher. "I've thought about it," Steve said. "But I'm hoping it won't be necessary."
"Don't wait too long," Vicky said. "It might be too late."
When the first sleeve was almost done, Vicky was able to ask the question that had been itching in the back of her mind. "Do the two of you think there's any way I can get my jewelry back? It's not the monetary value—the pregnant parrot means a lot to me."
Knit five, knit two together, yarn forward, knit one, yarn forward, slip one, knit one, pass slip stitch over.
Steve nodded. "Uncle Erlend has a safety deposit box at the bank where my best friend Jack works. You remember Jack?"
Vicky smiled. "Of course I remember Jack. How is he doing?"
"Fine, but he's been worried about you. We all have."
She was so much more herself that she didn't even protest.
When her former students returned north on I-5 at the end of Christmas break, Vicky was crouched on the floorboards in the back seat, wearing the leaving sweater she had just finished.
Vicky wore both the red sweater and the pregnant parrot when her flight was called at the airport in Eugene. Steve and Emma were there to see her off.
"There will never be enough words in the world to thank you two," Vicky said as she hugged them. "I wouldn't have gotten out of there without you."
"And we probably wouldn't have left Drain without you," Emma said, returning the hug extra hard. "We don't even have leaving sweaters."
Vicky heard herself laughing, high and light, the free notes returning.
"Stay in touch," Steve said.
"I will. I promise."
They were all in tears when Vicky went through the double doors to walk across the tarmac for the stairs pushed up against the plane. As they lifted off and the world became smaller and smaller beneath her, she wiped her tears off on the sleeve of her sweater.
"The Leaving Sweater," by Ruth Nestvold, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
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