In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “For I have known them all…have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
Emma Simmons, for at least the past eight years, could say the same thing, if you replaced “coffee spoons” with colorful sweaters and collected books.
Simmons said she has knitted at least two child-sized sweaters per month, and donated every sweater to World Vision, a humanitarian organization that, according to their website, helps “communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”
She never expected to find what she described as her “life’s mission,” when she learned how to knit. Her mother sewed and knitted, so she was familiar with the process, but it was later in life when Simmons learned to sew and crochet from a family friend.
“I wasn’t a knitter back then, but I read an article in ‘Guideposts’ about donating sweaters to children and it seized me so strongly I had to do it. I already crocheted, so that is how I started, but crocheting is less flexible — it doesn’t have the drape knitting does.”
It was Simmons’ mother, whom she described as a “master craftswoman,” who suggested she learn to knit in order to create softer sweaters.
“I had a couple of friends who knew how to knit, but I give credit to Bonnie Martin — she probably doesn’t realize how big of an influence she was on me when I was learning the process. I would find Bonnie wherever she was in town to help me if I was stuck on a stitch, and that’s how it all started.”
She pointed to a postcard from World Vision, which she receives each time she donates a sweater. On the postcard was a young girl holding a newly-donated sweater and a young boy with a huge smile on his face, wearing his new sweater.
“How can you not want to help a beautiful child like that? You know, sometimes I have this vision of ascending into heaven and seeing children wearing my sweaters,” Simmons said, with eyes shining and a small laugh. “There are just so many children in this world who have nothing, and this is my way of helping them.”
Simmons can knit anywhere — she knits in public, in her living room as she is reading or watching television, even going down the highway, with someone else driving, of course.
One thing she finds quite curious is that everywhere she goes people are always commenting on her knitting and saying, “I wish I could knit,” or “I want to knit,” but no one has ever really wanted to learn the art of knitting from her. “I found that very odd,” said Simmons.
“You know, sometimes I think I will knit other things, and I do, on occasion, but knitting is just a totally separate thing for me — it’s not to wear personally, it’s for the children who need those sweaters.”
Simmons said she quilts and sews for friends and family, gesturing to quilt tops hanging from the wall of her sewing room. She once delighted her co-workers by giving them a gift of fingerless gloves for Christmas, “so they could go outside and smoke” she said, laughing.
“I’ve come to realize that knitting the sweaters is my mission. Don’t you just love it when something comes along and seizes you? That is how life is for me.”
A love for the mountains
Simmons lives in the White Plains community with her husband, Myron. She is originally from Flint, Mich., and spent 28 years in Selma, Ala., before moving to Boone after she fell in love with The Blue Ridge Mountains during a road trip to North Carolina with her father.
Originally Simmons had an idea that she wanted to move to Chapel Hill but when she visited the triangle area on her road trip, she realized the mountains had her hooked. She fondly remembers traveling The Blue Ridge Parkway and having never spent much time in the mountains, they made a lasting impression on her.
“I spent over a decade [after the road trip] in Selma, yearning for those North Carolina mountains.”
After moving, by herself, to Boone, she spent time “cocooning” in a home by the river, until she met her husband, Myron, through a co-worker and moved to Surry County, where he was born and raised.
Simmons still commutes to Boone each week for her job as a nurse in a rest home.
“It is more difficult in the winter, with the ice and snow, but I do it because I love my job.”
“Books are my passion”
Emma Simmons enjoys knitting, but reading is her true passion, and sometimes she even combines the two: “I can even knit and read at the same time — isn’t that sweet?”
“My life has unfolded, chapter by chapter…it’s funny how life is like that, but everything that happened in my life led to the next chapter, just like a book,” Simmons said, as she knitted a green-striped sweater.
Books surrounded her, they filled multiple bookshelves and tables in each room of her warm home. It is the home of a reader, filled with books collected as she journeyed through her lifetime of reading, with many books from library book sales and used book stores in almost every town she has visited and lived in.
Simmons is not focused on one particular genre or type of books, she simply loves most all books, and has a habit of picking up multiple copies of the ones she loves.
“I was bit by the J.D. Salinger bug and I have multiple editions of his books, among others — I find another and I have to have it; it may be a vintage edition or a cover I’ve never seen.”
When Simmons was young, she loved reading and enjoyed what she describes as “the typical childhood books,” naming the “Little House on the Prarie” series, Stuart Little, “Anne of Green Gables,” and she remembered one book in particular, a hard-to-fine book called “Baby Island.”
She attended a Lutheran school when she was growing up and the school had one shelf full of library books. Simmons remembers that she had read the entire collection of books, and she wanted more. Her older brother came home one day and told her about the public library. Simmons asked him to check out a book for her, “a book about a girl,” and her brother brought home a biography of Queen Esther. Simmons still fondly remembers that book as her very first library book, the book that began her lifetime love of libraries.
“I was never without books after that. I remember meeting my best friend in eighth grade and she was just like me — books, books, books!”
Life unfolding, like the pages of a book
Simmons is quite content with her life today. She is surrounded by what she loves, she has children and grandchildren, and what she describes as a “great husband and a great job.”
“You know, I think my present life is near to perfect. After everything I’ve been through, it has all come together…I get to see the mountains, I love my husband, and I have a great job. I’m at the age where I get to sit back and enjoy life, and wait for a phone call about my grandson.”
Earlier, Simmons’ phone rang, with news from her daughter that her grandson, Jack, was born.
For Simmons, the anticipation of retirement is “close enough so you can get excited” but she sometimes thinks that anticipation is what is so exciting — the act of planning and dreaming.
“I’m really pragmatic…I like to plan, but I’ve been thinking recently, don’t wait, enjoy what you have now, seize the day…because destiny moves you; it has been that way throughout my entire life.”
From reading and knitting, to collecting local art, to just enjoying her “near to perfect” life, Simmons is an example of a multi-talented woman. Her mission of knitting sweaters is more than just a hobby — it is a need that comes from deep inside her soul, one she must express as part of her journey through life: “the only thing that would be better is if I could knit books.”