This is the story of a Christmas stocking scandal in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the two Southern ladies who took it to the grave.
Note, however, that they did not take the stockings themselves to the grave, perhaps because they wouldn't have all fit. There are now 17 competing for space and attention under my parents' mantel. It's a lot of ornamental footwear. When one plans to procreate, one considers future college tuition and, if concerned about shrinking global resources, population control. One does not consult the length of her fireplace. With three generations of family represented, some of the hanging oversize socks inevitably become obscured by their neighbors. This must be why my mother's and father's are never filled.
But the mock socks remain on hooks only until Christmas morning. Long and knitted with yarn, they groan pendulous when full, so we find them, instead, placed around the room, with the business ends of sparkly nail files poking through their stitches. Other gifts can be guessed by protruding tumorous shapes—an orange, a chocolate bar, a trial-size bottle of fancy scented lotion. But sometimes, come Christmas morning, they still hang empty. Then, several hours later, Mom shouts, "The stockings!" and runs to the room behind the kitchen, returning with plastic bags filled with gifts and revealing that St. Nick shops at Rite Aid.
Each piece of footwear looks the same: green, red, and white and bearing the recipient's name along with a Santa, a snowman, and a bell at the toe end. They're all handmade but not by the same person. Sixteen of them are forgeries, copies of the first.
When my eldest sister was born in 1970, one of my grandmother's friends knit a Christmas stocking for her. "That was her thing," Mom recalls. "For people she loved, she made one for the first child or grandchild." And then no more. She made that clear. "She arrived at my front door and said, "I only do this for one,"" Mom says.
This special gift was either a lovely gesture or a plot point in a fairy tale, when a witch disguises herself as one of your mother's friends and sets a curse upon your future children, who will never have stockings as beautiful and will always feel inadequate as a result. Enter fairy godmothers in the shape of my grandmother Lou Tucker and her sister, Janie Armfield. They told Mom, as she recalls, "Don't worry; we'll take care of the rest." So they knit stockings, copying the original for my other sister, me, my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my brother-in-law.
By the time my eldest sister had a baby, my grandmother and great-aunt had died. And no one, in the shape of a witch or friend, arrived bearing firstborn gifts. So my mother inquired around town, seeking a master knitter to continue the tradition.
"Someone suggested Amy Forbis," recalls Mom. "They said, "She lives in the Fisher Park neighborhood, and you have to call her." So I did." With one of the older stockings in hand, Mom met Amy, explained that her mother and aunt had been making them but were gone now, and asked if she could copy the pattern.
As my Mom reports, "Amy said, "Was your mother Lou? And your aunt was Janie? Darlin", we've been making stockings for your family for years.' "
"The fairy godmothers were not only counterfeiters but plagiarists too."
The fairy godmothers were not only counterfeiters but plagiarists too. I asked Mom if she started laughing. "Yes, I got hysterical!" she says. "And Amy did too. She and her friend Beverly Leary had made every single one of them."
My mom actually knew Beverly, because she had taken needlepoint classes from her—along with Janie, who brazenly took Mom to meet the woman creating the work she'd passed off as her own. That is some Mafia-level confidence.
Then again, Janie and Nana never technically claimed authorship. They delivered the goods without discussing the provenance and simply let Mom fill in the blanks. "I didn't ask, and they didn't say anything," Mom says. "Then Amy spilled the beans."
Apparently this kind of prevarication runs in my family. I learned of this scam for the first time while writing this very story. I called Mom to mine her memory about the stockings. The stockings I thought had been knit so lovingly by Janie and Nana. Needless to say, this piece took an unexpected turn. Mom, however, learned this secret 12 years ago! Since then, Amy and Beverly have made eight more stockings. I remained in the dark; my sisters didn't know either.
So I called them.
"You're kidding," said Lou. (She was named for my grandmother.) "That's hilarious." Then she added, "I'm not surprised. You know that Uncle Ed asked Mom to needlepoint for him once, but instead she paid someone to do it and didn't tell him." (No, I did not know that.)
"Yeah," says Mom, when I call her back. "I guess I did." Several years ago, my father's brother, Ed, remembered that Mom had been through a needlepoint phase years prior. (A handful of the pillows in my parents' house came from patterns she bought at a shop in New York and then completed in bed.) "He found a pattern he liked somewhere," Mom explains, "and said, "I know you used to needlepoint—would you do this?" And I said, "Sure!" I think I had Beverly Leary do it."
Of course she had Beverly Leary do it! And what was the item? "I think it was a Christmas stocking," she says. And no, I am not calling Uncle Ed.
The future is unclear as the past. Amy is now too aged to knit. Beverly just retired too. The last one that she made was for my daughter, Louisa (another Lou—even though my grandmother didn't knit the stockings, her name is on two of them), just before her first Christmas last year. Beverly mailed it to Mom from Florida, shortly after she had moved there.
Still, my mother promises, "If you have another baby, I'll get a stocking made for you; don't worry." Who knows where it will come from. I shouldn't ask. But I definitely will.