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For Nanny, a stitch in time

Living in a nursing home has shrunk Dorothea Jordan Camfield’s world, but she still loves watching baseball and creating doilies.

TUCKER DEGREGORY | Special to the Times

Living in a nursing home has shrunk Dorothea Jordan Camfield’s world, but she still loves watching baseball and creating doilies.


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My mom tucked the oxygen tubes back into my grandmother's nose, slid the Kleenex box closer. Then she wrote down the time the Rays game would start that night.

My grandmother, who is 90, can never remember.

"Anything else you need?" my mom asked last Saturday, getting ready to leave the nursing home.

My grandmother looked up from bed. "When you come back," she said, "could you bring me some thread and my crochet hooks?"

"Your crochet hooks?" my mom asked. She stared at my grandmother's hands, crippled with arthritis, at her limp left arm. My grandmother hasn't been able to crochet for years.

"Yes, I found this magazine," my grandmother said. From her nightstand, she unearthed a faded issue of Magic Crochet.

"See, it's the new one: April 2004," my grandmother said. "Gee, it's 2004 already?"

• • •

Every family has handmade heirlooms: the cutting board your grandfather carved, that lopsided vase someone sculpted.

We have doilies — dozens of lacy, intricate table covers in all shapes and sizes. All crocheted by my grandmother.

Her name is Dorothea Jordan Camfield. I call her Nanny.

As a girl in Brooklyn she learned to count chain stitches, form a circle and double crochet into the ring. Every day at recess, she would sit in the schoolyard wrapping thin cotton thread around slim hooks.

"You used to buy that thread in the grocery," Nanny says. "Cost you 29 cents."

She crocheted through 40 years of marriage, four children and six grandchildren.

For 20 years after my grandfather died, Nanny was fairly healthy. Then she started sliding fast. She has been in a nursing home for almost five years, losing strength and hope. And reality.

Her world is half a room with a hospital bed, recliner, cramped closet and TV. An oxygen tank is parked by her pillow. Pictures of who she once was, and of great-grandchildren whose names she forgets, smile down from the close walls.

Sometimes she's there completely, screaming at the umpire about Carl Crawford's stolen base. Other times, it's 1936 again and she's cheering on her Brooklyn Dodgers.

Lately, when she has been lucid, Nanny has seemed depressed. "Just leave me alone," she has been telling my mom. "Just let me die."

So when Nanny wanted her thread and crochet hooks, my mom took it as a good sign. Maybe fingering the thread would trigger good memories, she thought.

On her way to the nursing home the next day, Mom stopped at a Craft Depot. She bought two balls of shiny beige thread and the thinnest crochet hook she could find: a 2.25. Twice as big as the ones Nanny used for her lacy creations.

"She won't even be able to hold it," my mom told me. "She probably won't even remember she asked for it."

• • •

Nanny was waiting. She had pulled on a flowered muumuu, painted on smudgy eyebrows and lips and hauled herself out of bed, into the recliner.

"Did you bring them?" she asked when my mom came through the door.

Mom smiled and gave her the Craft Depot bag. She remembered!

Nanny furrowed her brow. "This isn't mine," she said, pulling out the shiny hook. "And it's much too big."

She reached for the thread. "$1.99? It's supposed to cost 29 cents."

Nanny pushed the bag onto her bedside table and picked up Magic Crochet. She showed my mom the pattern for a delicate doily, five different stitches spinning out from the middle, loops and points and graceful arcs. The difficulty rating said, "Advanced."

"Very pretty," said my mom, taking the magazine. She flipped pages until she found a "Beginner" pattern. "But I like this one better. Why don't you start with this?"

Nanny tossed the magazine on top of the bag. My mom stayed an hour, wrote down the time and channel for the Rays game.

But Nanny never took out that silver hook.

• • •

No one knows, really, what goes on in your mind when your mind is going. You might not remember your daughter's name, or what you ate for breakfast — but suddenly you can sing that Girl Scout song you learned a lifetime ago.

When my mom got to the nursing home the next day, an aide had taken Nanny to the shower. Mom sat on the bed to wait.

That's when she saw it:

There, on the nightstand, dangling from the too-thick hook, was a circle of beige lace, 3 inches across. The heart of a doily.

• • •

Later that week, my mom brought my son to see Nanny. Tucker is 10, the age Nanny was when she learned to crochet. As soon as she saw him, she wanted to show him her creation.

"Crocheting is very interesting," she told him. She pulled the thread onto her lap, loosened the silver hook with her right hand. Using her limp left hand just to guide the thread, she showed him the technique she had learned 80 years before.

She smiled at Tucker, then cut her eyes at my mom. "Of course, this pattern is much too easy. So this one is sort of monotonous."

When Nanny's doctor came in, my mom showed her the beginnings of the doily. The doctor, a young woman, beamed. "You never know what will get through," she said.

Most people with dementia, the doctor said, tend to return to the things that made them happiest.

• • •

Nanny showed her great-grandson how to tie a slip knot, follow a pattern.

Her gnarled left hand guided the thread, looping and pulling. In her right hand, she clutched a crumpled Kleenex and her new silver hook.

The doily grew.

"This is just going to be a little one," she said. "Something pretty to put on your telephone table."

Head to head, she and Tucker peered over her old hands. Loop, loop, pull it through. With each stitch, it seemed, she got faster.

"So you doing okay?" my mom asked, tucking the oxygen tube back into Nanny's nose. "How are you feeling?"

Nanny looked up from her doily. "Oooh," she said. "Now I feel like I'm living again."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at or (727) 893-8825.

For Nanny, a stitch in time 08/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 5:42pm]
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