Church Lady is an authority on all matters of pricing
“I’ll pay more for these petites pattes.” I’m at a church bazaar dangling a pair of blue and pink booties over the cash. For an expectant mother who doesn’t know the sex of her baby, the colour combination is a stroke of genius. My belly collides with a rack of clip-on earrings and the volunteer behind the counter looks at me askance. She is stern and upright, a proud steward of this church, flitting around the till with a feather duster. She takes the booties (petites pattes) and thrusts them into a wrinkled plastic bag.
They cost three dollars. I hand her a twenty and tell her to keep it. I’m a knitter; I can attest to their craftsmanship.
“Madame, this is a bazaar,” Church Lady says. She doesn’t take well to spendthrifts. She is an authority on all matters of pricing. Amen.
I look around the sale room, stuffed with the flotsam and jetsam of a thousand Montreal apartments. An old man talks to himself in the corner as he leafs through René Simard LPs. A woman in a moth-eaten winter coat is rooting through vinyl handbags, mining the pockets for loose change.
“We can hardly charge retail prices,” Church Lady adds.
I see her point. But amidst the velvet paintings and chipped crockery there is a pile of socks, booties and mitts with stitches so even that I thought they were made with an industrial knitting machine.
“Non—all handmade by Bernadette,” Church Lady informs me.
Bernadette, she explains, has belonged to the parish her whole life. It’s a tale straight out of a Gabrielle Roy novel: the pious, dutiful daughter of a large working-class family. The eldest of twelve, she spent her days knitting clothes for younger siblings after their mother died. Sweaters, hats, dresses. Bernadette would unravel everything and reuse the wool as her siblings grew bigger and the family budget smaller. Now she’s retired and knits for the church where her sisters donned the white gloves she made for their first communion.
Montreal was once the “City of a Thousand Steeples.” Today it’s the city of a thousand church bazaars open on Saturdays to keep the cash flow up. Women like Bernadette, it seems to me, are what keep these places alive. The neighbourhood surrounding the parish is in flux—gentrification, an expanding population of hipsters and Paris Match Québécois celebrities—but it still feels like it belongs to people like her.
“I want to meet Bernadette,” I say to Church Lady, surprising myself.
“You can’t. She’s had a heart attack. We’re not sure she’ll recover.”
I’m due in two days. My belly is already pressing low. I hatch a plan to take a photo of my newborn wearing Bernadette’s booties and put the picture in a card. Merci pour vos petites pattes si belles. I’ll ask to meet Bernadette when she’s better. We’re neighbours, after all. Why wouldn’t she befriend me, a knitter from another universe in time and culture? I knit for pleasure; no doubt Church Lady shared Bernadette’s story as a homily on sacrifice. But there are traces of passion in her handiwork. I know this, because I can see them in the columns of jersey stitches that line the heels of the booties she makes, the drawstrings around the ankles braided carefully by aging fingers. Maybe we’ll knit together. As we click away at the needles, I’ll glean more of her story—if she feels she has a story.
My daughter arrives after her due date. The birth is uncomplicated, but two weeks pass before I’m back at the bazaar.
“Too late,” Church Lady says, unwilling to draw attention to any emotions she may be feeling. “But I’ll make sure to give your card to her husband.”
Before Church Lady returns to her feather duster, she presses a funeral bookmark, with Bernadette’s photo and a poem on it, into my hand. The poem’s final verse sounds maudlin in English translation, even if it’s true. For years I’ve knitted and purled, never dropping a stitch… but in the end I lost the final stitch of life…
I’m seized by a postpartum moment. Emotional, everyone says. So normal. I buy all the booties that are left on the counter and go home.
I plan to give them away; they should serve their true calling. But I end up storing them with other artifacts in my personal archive of bad timing and missed opportunities: old, unusable packets of garden seeds, a plane ticket from a cancelled flight, and letters that I’ve never sent.