Domesticating Karen

A few days ago I passed a pretty young woman knitting at one of Starbuck’s outside tables.  Of course I just had to slow down and take a peek at her project (it’s a knitter’s thing, right?!).  She was working on a beautiful grey cabled sweater for her friend, both visitors from Switzerland.  I commented that I’m always pleased to see younger people who not only knit, twitter and blog about their knitting, but knit in public!  That, I told her, young women did not do when I was young.  She understood and said that attitude is changing in Switzerland as well.

When I was her age I would never have sat outside and knit — at least not when living in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I might have well plastered “dweeb” or “undate-able’ on my forehead or – worse – be called “domestic.”  THAT, to me, was the ultimate insult for those of us rooting for Billie Jean King to cream Bobby Riggs.

Not withstanding my disinclination, my mother endeavored mightily to “domesticate” me, well, at least the domesticated womanhood of a nice Norwegian farm girl circa 1954.

First on her list was securing me a potential husband.  Apparently in the San Francisco Bay Area there were a number of Norwegian mothers doing the same thing for their sons.  The young men my mother considered were always of unquestionable Norwegian roots but, far too frequently seemed to have either questionable IQs or absent personalities.

My mother was determined to show the other Norwegian mothers what a wonderful husmor (literally, house mother), I would be.  On several occasions I came home to find her hosting a formal Norwegian coffee and entertaining the Norwegian mother of young man she had pegged as a “possibility.”   On the couch would be a stack of various sweaters I had knit, doilies I crocheted or dresses I sewed – I am assuming as evidence of housewifely skills.  (It was aways so embarrassing.)

“Ah, Karen,” my mother would say, waving vaguely toward the piano.  “You remember Mrs. Bjørnland?  Kai’s mom – you remember Kai, don’t you?  You know – Kai – tall, blonde, blue eyed?  Well, I was just telling Mrs. Bjørnland how well you play!  Why don’t you sit down and play something by Grieg?”

With that, my mother and my prospective mother-in-law would turn toward the piano, coffee cups balanced on their knees, and wait expectantly.  (I wasn’t trained classically but I guess my mother thought a tepid performance of “Anitra’s Dance” was better than my enthusiastic rendition of Elton John’s “Bennie & The Jets.”)

Eventually, once my mother narrowed down the number of prospective bridegrooms, she would invite them for dinner usually (but not always) one at a time.  That was painful – for both the poor young men forced to dine with us and for me.  I felt like a performing seal; I have no idea what the young men felt like.  While some looked as bored and/or mortified as I felt, others seemed thrilled to be there.

My mother’s final attempt at domesticating me involved sending me to a husmorskole  in Kvinesdal, Norway…. I refused even consider it. First, I would not go to a school whose purpose was, I argued, to create a good housewife.  Second, I was (to her absolute horror), dating someone she did not approve of (not only an American but – gasp – not of Norwegian descent).

Knowing that upset my mother was, of course, reason enough then for me to stay in the U.S.  🙂


About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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28 Responses to Domesticating Karen

  1. Pingback: Awkward « Knitting, reading, photography, and maybe more

  2. I think you hit the proverbial nail on the head!


  3. anjig says:

    I think parents who move to another country remember their home country the way it was when they left it. They reminisce about how things worked there and what is what like to grow up there. They’ll comment on the changes when they visit, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when you actually live there. They there for only a short break and don’t have the chance to really immerse themselves in the current environment. They forget that things just don’t work the same any more.


  4. Claire says:

    i do knit in public: playdates, waiting rooms, school meetings….my absolute favorite though is going to school a wee bit early to pick up my daughter (we all have to sit in our cars to wait for them to come out) and sit and knit while I wait. sort of semi-private-public knitting but it’s my moment for me in an otherwise child-centric day. (ooh I like how wp tells me you commented on my comment in your blog!)


  5. anjig says:

    There definitely are families that matchmake. There are also Indian people from the US (and I’m sure from Canada, the UK and so on) that go back to India to find a bride. The idea is that you’ll get a woman who’s more traditional, not just in outlook but also in behavior – making your traditional food, traditional values, less emancipated and so on. I’ve heard of a bunch of families where that was their modus operandi. And when the girl moves to the US, she often doesn’t have any family or friends there and is so dependent on the guy. She’s like fish out of water and really has a hard time. Ugh. I so feel for them.

    You know, I think I’m going to put a post about it, and reference back to your post if you don’t mind?


  6. Your mom was smart … One of my criteria when going out was that whoever he was, my mother would NOT approve. 🙂


  7. Curls & Q says:

    Oh my, oh my! I guess you did think wrong!


  8. I think you’re right: she became “ultra-Norwegian” (though stuck in the late 1950s rural Norway Norwegian) because she never fully adapted to living in the U.S. (When we traveled she didn’t want anyone knowing we could speak English – and not just English but, horror American English.) Or maybe it was just her way of holding precious memories close to her heart. Thank you for your comment on my writing. It’s funny, but when I went to college (in the U.S.), I stupidly checked, in the spirit of honesty, “No” on the “Is English your first language” question. It took several hours of arguing with the powers that be before convincing them I didn’t need an English placement test!


  9. I AGREE. People who don’t know me are always shocked that I knit! Apparently a lot of people think a woman with advanced education means she doesn’t know how to do any of the “womanly arts.” In fact, several people have been surprised to find out I am a mother (and grandmother) – something I have found very insulting! And I think your thought of “connecting with generations past” is beautiful; I feel the same way. And, by the way, my significant other is a musician, and I have designed and knit an array of useful “articles” for him … but not a cover for his amplifier. Maybe on his next birthday!


  10. I still cringe when I think about it! I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. And I hope you knit in public! Have you seen the yarn bombings people are doing? Pretty neat, though I think my daughter would be very upset if I rode my bike around her neighborhood and did that! Tempting thought, though …


  11. My mother seems to have been a great admirer of the Indian tradition! When she did this – dragged me into these weird introduction events – I reacted as I still react when uncomfortable and am forced to be somewhere I don’t want to be: I get very quiet OR I get sort of witchy-aggressive. (Used to drive my mother nuts!) Do Indians in the U.S. or Canada still match make?


  12. That settles it. I’ve GOT to visit Toronto! Here I take my grandchildren to the river and sit on the banks and knit. 🙂


  13. Drag a wheel out with you and start spinning – that should REALLY stop passerbys in their tracks!


  14. I think the Norwegian women from farms, at least, are! I’m not so sure it’s as much as toughness as it is about being capable and not expecting others (that includes men), to do it for you. My mom was someone you’d call “tough” through and through, but my grandmother had a really sweet, gentle core.


  15. My grandmother was visiting one winter when I was dating a German. Now that went over like the proverbial Hindenberg. (He spoke fluent English and so I hoped she wouldn’t be able to recognize a German accent on English. I thought wrong!)


  16. Sometimes when I’ve been asked what I’m doing (as I sit knitting) and I say “I’m knitting,” I’ve gotten back: “No you’re not. I’ve seen knitting, and that’s not it.” 😦 When I was in grad school I knit a lot of socks … I found I could knit one sock in a 3 hour grad seminar!


  17. Your mom employed a smart method of teaching you how to cook without you knowing you were learning how to cook! And, like you, I always have at least one knitting project stuck in my bag. 🙂


  18. Ethel says:

    My mother studied Home Economics in College! However she never pushed anything on me – I was the baby (the others wore her out maybe?) – and partly because I was the most stubborn child there ever was, for sure! She taught me to cook by enlisting my help while she was making dinner making it sound like she was overwhelmed and could I please just stir the gravy? So I stood there ready to stir while she mixed flour into cold water – commenting that if she had used hot water, the flour would get lumpy and she was sure I wouldn’t like lumpy gravy. (Potatoes and gravy was my favorite food) It was only years later that I realized that I knew how to cook but didn’t remember learning to. I don’t even recall that one didn’t knit in public back in the old days. ;o} Now-a-days I take mine anytime that I have to wait – like at a doctors office.


  19. i love seeing other people knitting in public, simply because it makes me feel like I’ve found my kin!! I always want to rush over to them and gush all over their knitting.
    Although, I do have a double standard- I hate when non-knitting folks wander over and ask me if I’m knitting (duh!) and comment on how complicated it looks and how they’d love to learn but they just “don’t have time to knit” (seriously people? I’m a medical student! If I have “time to knit”, you have “time to knit”!!).


  20. Curls & Q says:

    I just posted a topic which referred to Grieg’s Peer Gynt music and then came to see yours – too funny! When I was in Japan a few years ago, it wasn’t considered proper to knit in public! That was changing with the “new” generation. 😎 The first question my Norwegian great-aunts asked my husband when they met him (while we were dating) was, “Are you Norwegian?” I started laughing, not only is he NOT Norwegian, he is (gasp) 1/2 Swedish! He calmly replied, “No, but I’m Swedish.” He had no idea, that was worse that not being Norwegian! My aunts with their impeccable manners hesitated slightly and then Mabel said, “At least you’re Scandinavian!” When I informed Mabel that the two of them shared the same birth date, he became her “new best friend.” 😎 Memories! And, my mom was a Home Economic Teacher, you can take it from there! 😎


  21. fiberdazed says:

    I love knitting in public, and do it whenever possible. What cracked me up, was the dinners where you are supposed to perform for potential suitors. I too grew up in that era, so I was taught all the domestic duties. Luckily, my mother didn’t try and hook me up with a proper man.


  22. grimdreamer says:

    It would be great to see other people my age knitting in public… And your ‘domesticated’ background is really interesting. I don’t think I’ve met a Norwegian and know next to nothing about Norwegian culture. Thank you for giving me an insight into your upbringing. Norwegian women sound so tough!


  23. I love bringing my knitting out in public and people-watching! I actually live right near Colonial Williamsburg (basically, lots of people dressed up in colonial outfits) and I think most of the looks I get are because people think that I should be dressed in a colonial outfit if I’m knitting 😉


  24. I love to see young women (and men!) knitting in public. Here in Toronto (which appears to be the Knitting Capitol of the World!) they are everywhere! I knit in weird places as often as I can, perhaps to make up for all those times when it ‘simply wasn’t done’. 😀


  25. anjig says:

    LOLOL! My parents never did that, but I have plenty of Indian relatives where things worked like that. I’ve been to enough of those potential bride & groom meetings to feel so bad for them. I remember when my aunt (at that time aunt-to-be), and while she didn’t have to perform, her cooking skills were on display since she had made all the food there. And the worst part, apart from the uncomfortable presentation was the fact that all the families were there – both on the bride’s side as well as on our side. We were a whole carful of people – something like 10 to 12 people. Poor girl. And that wasn’t an insular event – that happened when we met a bunch of girls (yeah, that was bad), and it happened and still happens in plenty of families.


  26. Claire says:

    Hi Karen, just found you, and so glad I did. Love this story, made me both laugh and cringe. As for knitting in public, I had started a post about that but it’s lost in the draft stage somewhere…but it’s an interesting thing.


  27. That was a great post, thanks! How times change, but … just this morning I got an email from my brother after I sent him a photo of my latest knit and he said he was perplexed that knitting seemed so at odds with the fact that I play bass in a rock’n’roll band. Hey, I’m knitting socks on tour, and I’ve got a crocheted granny square cover for my bass amplifier! Knitting (et al) is a way of connecting with generations past for me; my mother and my grandmother knit, and all the way back before them. I think we should embrace these as highly skilled arts and give them the credit that they deserve.


  28. Fabulous for me, a Norwegian growing up in Norway, to read about your upbringing in California and how ultra-Norwegian your mum was – maybe became after living abroad? You write so well! I recognise myself in becoming ultra-Norwegian after living more than 15 years in the UK. Thank you, Karen Berthine!


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