My first winter in New York City was gray and cold. I had moved there after my brother Skip died, in the hopes of re-inventing myself. Back in Rhode Island, my parents were going through the motions of their lives in a stunned robotic way that frightened me. And I’d fallen in love — unbelievable when my heart was so shattered — with a guy who quoted Lenny Bruce and brewed strong coffee and whispered Shakespeare sonnets in my ear. Although I didn’t realize it then, I was imagining some future without grief in it, a safe place where words and love could somehow protect me. That seems foolish all these years later, but for a time I believed it and stayed in my cocoon, feeling safe as my parents grieved 200 miles away.
I walked a lot that cold winter, armed in a pair of gloves under my mittens and two pairs of tights. Broke, I had to forgo taxis all together and used the subway sparingly. The city was new to me, and by walking I was learning it, memorizing it.
One day in mid-December, the temperature hovered around five degrees and the wind blew off the East River. The first Christmas without my brother was approaching. The smell of Christmas trees assaulted me on every corner. Lights twinkled around apartment windows and on giant snowflakes hung on wires. I thought of home, how every year my mother put snowmen around the house and blue lights in all the windows. How my father and brother and I chose the largest tree and put too many icicles on it.
Salvation Army Santas rang their bells at me. I hadn’t bought any Christmas presents and had little money to do so. But there were tables of scarves for sale on the sidewalks — 100 percent wool scarves, soft and lovely, in plaids and herringbone and deep jewel colors. I bought five for $20, enough for my family. I realized that I had no way to present the scarves, so I walked farther uptown, all the way to Bloomingdale’s, through the chaos at the cosmetics counters and the crowds of holiday shoppers to the gift wrap department. There, I got five perfect boxes, just big enough for the scarves, with the Bloomingdale’s logo on them, which gave my presents some measure of sophistication.
I don’t remember that Christmas. I suppose it was a sad one, quiet without the big joyful person who was my brother. I suppose we put up a tree, and ate the seven fishes on Christmas Eve, the lasagna for Christmas. I suppose those scarves in their Bloomingdale’s boxes were appreciated, maybe even loved. I hope they brought some warmth during that cold, cold winter to the people I loved.
Over time, the sting of loss faded, though of course it never really went away. And then the losses began piling up, because we aren’t really safe, are we? Even Shakespeare and love cannot protect us from grief, cannot keep it at bay. I did re-invent myself during that long winter, and in the months and years that followed. So much so that I probably wouldn’t recognize that girl who walked so aimlessly three decades ago, searching for herself, and hoping that she could walk her way through grief.
Twenty years after Skip died, my five-year-old daughter Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. I had lost my brother, and my father. I had lost the relationship with that boy I’d loved so fiercely. But when I lost Grace, I understood how naive I had been to think we could build fortresses around us to keep us safe. I began to knit, and like that winter I walked through the streets of Manhattan in the frigid cold, I knit my way through grief.
These days, when the temperature drops, I pick up my knitting needles. Like those long ago scarves, I hope they keep the people I love warm. That’s the best we can hope for, isn’t it? That even in the midst of a dark winter, we are — miraculously — wrapped in love.Ann Hood’s most recent novel is “An Italian Wife.’’