She’s every Methodist woman you grew up with. She is elderly, but still cooks.
She can turn anything into a casserole or a deep-fried surprise. Hand her an old softball and, with enough peanut oil and flour, she’ll make supper. She makes a killer pound cake. Her chicken and dumplings is off the chain.
And she knits. A lot.
She knits prayer shawls for anyone undergoing medical treatment or suffering disaster. Sometimes the shawls are given anonymously. Other times at special occasions. Wrap one around yourself and you will instantly smell like her living room.
She is one of an army. There are millions like her. From Sasketchwan to Birmingham. From Beijing to Texarkana. These women live under the radar. They rarely talk about their artwork because their creations are not earthly objects. And these are not proud women.
Their prayer shawls are not for sale. They are reserved for oncology units, emergency rooms, intensive care, and funeral parlors.
Visit any pediatric cancer ward. Peek into rooms and you’ll see these prayer shawls. They’re draped over beds, wrapped around young shoulders, laid upon the deceased, or used to mop the tears of the grieving.
They are used for comfort, assurance, bereavement, stress, fear, clinical depression, marriages, birthdays, suicides, chemotherapy, baby showers, adoptions, reunions, death row inmates, dedications, homegoings, homecomings, hospice care, graduations, COVID-19 victims, and broken hearts.
The whole thing started with two ladies from Hartford, Connecticut. Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo started knitting special shawls for friends and family 22 years ago. Almost overnight their idea spread like a brushfire on the plains.
The creation process is straightforward: a shawl maker begins knitting while simultaneously praying. The craftswoman whispers her prayers the whole way through, with each movement of her needles.
The shawls take about 20 hours to make. Which is roughly 1,200 minutes’ worth of Granny’s sincerest prayers.
And not just old women make them. Prayer shawls come from teenage girls learning to crochet, middle-aged women with big hearts, and army veterans learning to knit in rehab classes.
They are made on Baptist porches. They are crafted on Sunday mornings by women in the Catholic nursery who babysit toddlers in ten-pound diapers.
The shawls are made by people like Kay, from Emporia, Kansas.
Kay tells the story:
“I was sitting, knitting a prayer shawl during my mother-in-law’s open-heart surgery when a kind, curious older lady came up to me in the hospital.”
The woman asked about Kay’s shawl. Kay told her what it was. The older woman asked if she could buy the shawl.
“I explained,” said Kay, “that I never charged for them, but made them freely for anyone in need.”
The woman told Kay she needed a special shawl like that because her life was a mess. So Kay said sure, she would finish it and find the woman later to give it to her.
Kay did just that. She found the woman that afternoon in the hospital. The lady’s husband was in ICU, and not expected to live.
“I wrapped the shawl around her,” Kay said, “and gave her a big hug. We said a prayer together.”
Their paths continued to cross for the next few days. And each time Kay saw the woman, the lady was wearing the shawl.
And Teri Heart, in Dixon, Illinois:
“This story starts in the cornfields of Illinois,” said Teri. “With a 12-year-old boy working in the fields.”
The boy was Teri’s grandson. He used the money he earned working the cornrows to buy three skeins of yarn for his grandmother. He knew how much she liked to knit shawls.
But there was a problem. It takes more than three skeins to make a shawl. So Granny had to get inventive.
Instead of knitting prayer shawls, she began making prayer hats for the neonatal intensive care unit. She gave them to sick babies. And for many babies, Teri’s hats would represent the first and last gift they would ever receive.
“As I crocheted these tiny hats,” said Teri, “I wove the love of a 12-year-old boy and his grandma into each stitch and whispered my prayers.”
And don’t forget Dee, in Pennsylvania.
When Dee found out her mother had lung cancer, she rushed to get a shawl. She sent the shawl to her mother in Missouri.
“I told her I couldn’t be there all the time,” said Dee. “But every time she felt cold, lonely, sad, ill, or hurt, I told her to wrap the shawl around her and feel my love, and my arms reaching out to hold her.”
Her mother died. After the funeral, Dee took the tear-stained shawl back to Pennsylvania and kept it with her until years later when her best friend became ill. Whereupon Dee packed the shawl in brown paper and sent it to her friend.
Her friend wore the thing night and day, and eventually recovered. She kept the shawl for upwards of 10 years. Until Dee got sick.
The illness hit Dee like a freightliner. One day she was shuffling to her mailbox, and—well—I think you already know where this is going.
“When I got my diagnosis, I was undergoing treatments, and one of the first things I got in the mail was my mom’s old shawl. I cried. It had come full circle.”
And now I leave you with the tiny elderly woman I told you about earlier.
She is an Alabamian who prefers to remain anonymous. She has knitted over 4,000 shawls. Maybe more. Her husband passed away many years ago. She still knits them even though her hands are deformed with age. Even though her eyes are bad.
I ask what keeps her knitting.
“Oh, I do it because it feels like someone’s hugging you, like two arms. I’m hugging people with this shawl. And angels are hugging them too.”
I believe the old Methodist is right.