By Gina Sanders Larsen, guest

The knitting ladies, plus one rogue needle worker, meet every day on the second floor of the Valley VNA residence in front of the fireplace. I popped in recently because I heard they were story crafters on top of working their craft, and I happened to have a two-year-old cowl project that had gone so far south that I needed advice on how to turn it into a respectable infinity scarf. One must take these opportunities when they present themselves.

Beverly immediately had me fixated because she was chatting amiably while counting stitches on the decrease to a beautifully shaped toe of a sock. When knitting socks, they are made with a series of up to four simultaneously operating slim needles about the size and diameter of an ink cartridge inside a ballpoint pen. On top of the eyesight needed for such an operation, each stitch must be counted down to the tip of the toe, so as to finish with a smooth round dome, not an odd space for a sixth appendage. All the ladies were incredibly sharp—from their vision to their rather pointed critiques of each other’s projects.

The women had been notified of my pending arrival, but their advance research was a bit misdirected, as they had looked for my name in the Presbyterian church directory, not the Catholic. Nonetheless, my Great-Grandma Lydia Frieda May would have been tickled, because she liked to tell us little girls whenever she poured tea for the Presbyterian Ladies Aid and it was mentioned in the society pages of the Oconto Times. I was happy to be presumed Presbyterian for the day.

A short burst of panic ran through me as I saw each of the knitters with an “I Voted” sticker on her lapel. Had I missed my chance to vote? Valley VNA helps facilitate early voting by mail for local, state and national elections for residents who wish to participate. This explained the wide range of local school board candidate and district newsletters on the coffee table. Paper newsletters still have a place if you can practically guarantee 100 percent voter turnout from the knitting lady demographic.

Dorothy shared that she grew up on Sherry Street down where it ended at the Neenah slough. All that time along the slow-moving water meant she and her brothers and sisters often got wet and muddy. “Sometimes I tried to ice skate before the water froze over completely, and I’d come home with mud and grass stuck in my skate blades. That’s when I was busted. But we all survived, didn’t we?”

Assuming I was a first-rate journalist, Erma explained that her given name was Irma, but she couldn’t master a beautifully scripted capital “I” in grade school, so her teacher changed the spelling of her name to begin with an “E.” Good to know if I needed to run a fact check on her. Erma happens to be the longest continuous resident at Valley VNA at 17 years. She lives in the same apartment that she chose all those years ago and does most of her own cooking, although she did share with me that she often craves a McDonald’s double cheeseburger and a small Mountain Dew, no fries. She was kind when I asked her age, which led to a series of rocket-fire mental math equations so each of the seven ladies could name her age in relation to Erma, who is 98 years cool.

Helen joined us with her rollator walker and I immediately recognized her from pictures I had seen of the 2015 fall harvest in the VNA garden plot. She was the potato lady! “One day I saw a sprout on a potato in my cupboard, and I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I plant that?’ So I took it down to the garden and planted it,” she said. She was razzed by the staff and her friends for planting potatoes on a whim, but ended up with a bumper crop of tubers just in time for her 102nd birthday. (Too bad Erma doesn’t like fries, right?) We discussed the recent reintroduction of blue potatoes on the heirloom potato scene and she expressed her wish to eat purple mashed potatoes next fall.

As so often happens in a group of women, talk turned to shopping. None of the ladies drive, so it’s difficult to get to Yarns by Design in Downtown Neenah, but many hoped to someday visit. Catalogs suffice for now. They wished for a bus to take them shopping at Fox Point (I didn’t have the heart to tell them the local mall moved west of the highway several years ago), and the freedom to linger in the lingerie department if the spirit moved them. Erma said, “No one wants a driver standing there looking at you when you shop for underwear.” Good point, I said. Dignity first.

In all fairness, the ladies have access to Dial-A-Ride for errands and special bus trips planned through one of the most fascinating enrichment programs this side of Lake Winnebago. (I want to enroll as a guest resident just to join the fun.) But I understood their desire to spend time in a department store like they used to, perusing the racks, but without a place to be or a meal to cook. They’ve earned it.

Millie, Erma, and Ruth were knitting dishcloths and Dorothy was making a scarf alongside Bev’s beautiful sock. Helen just stopped by to chat and Charlotte was sticking around until her visitor arrived. Aside from the younger Bev, every person was well into her nineties, or beyond, as in Helen’s case. The common thread amongst all of them was they’d each made the decision to move to Valley VNA when they still had choices, when all the opportunities to enjoy one another still exist and still matter. These times in front of the fireplace add spark to their lives and those of their visitors. I just soaked up their wisdom and humor, marveling at their navigation of life’s challenging maze of decisions. Good job, ladies. I really want to be a Valley VNA Knitting Lady when I grow up.