Her hands are slightly worn, but agile, revealing cascades of blue rivers. Now in their 88th year, they have earned the right to be somewhat wearied, for they have diapered babies; turned flour and sugar into cookies, pies and cakes; cooled the burning foreheads of her sick children in the middle of the night; washed, cleaned, tied square knots as the leader of her daughter's Girl Scout troop and worked in sugar plantations.
But these hands, the creative tools of Emiko Abe (pronounced AH-beh), refuse to rest.
Now, in gratitude for the gifts in her life, she crochets crosses for others, gifts not only from her hands but also from her heart.
The Rev. Ana Gobledale, executive for local church relations with Wider Church Ministries in the UCC's national setting, remembers her initial acquaintance with Abe's generosity.
"I was a local pastor and missionary in Zimbabwe when I received my crocheted cross from Mrs. Abe," she says. "I later learned she had mailed a cross to every single missionary listed in the UCC's calendar of prayer. I wrote her a thank you note and, shortly thereafter, I received a parcel containing 25 crosses."
"It touched me to think that a woman who did not know me or the other missionaries would perform such a kindhearted gesture," she says. "I shared them with the women's group of my church and they immediately put the crosses in their bibles as bookmarks. We were overwhelmed!"
This holiday season Gobledale herself is extending the gratitude expressed in those crocheted crosses. She has arranged for Abe to crochet crosses as "thank you" gifts to all new contributors to the UCC's Child Sponsorship Program, which aids more than 1,000 children in 11 countries.
The eldest of six children, Abe, of Japanese ancestry, grew up poor in Hilo, Hawaii, where she went to Church of the Holy Cross UCC. At an early age, she developed an interest in arts and crafts.
She also learned generosity, a trait she ingrained in her two children. A few years ago, a friend gave her a crocheted cross as a gift. Smitten with the gift, Abe began crocheting crosses, patterning them after the one her friend gave her. She took pride in every stitch and gave crocheted mementos to many of her friends.
"Mother likes to give things to people, even strangers," says her daughter, Carol Abe-Sullivan, a member of Hawaii Kai UCC in Honolulu. "That's probably the main reason she started making the crosses. Most people use them as bookmarks. People admire them and she has to keep making more. It keeps her busy."
Venturing out only to go to her hairdresser once a week or to pick fruit from her garden, Abe operates in her yarn-cluttered home from her LazyBoy chair, a gift from her son, Patrick. She stitches a single cross in a mere 15 minutes. Sometimes she watches television while she crochets.
She makes her crosses in a rainbow of colors, using whatever thread she is given. Recently her eyes gleamed when her daughter purchased her some expensive thread in shimmering hues of silver and gold. Abe uses the thread to make crosses for "special occasion" gifts.
Abe crochets these keepsakes while coping with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Last March, she fell while picking lemons in her garden, one of her favorite activities. Her recuperation period was difficult. Still, she remained intent upon crocheting her crosses.
Given truly as a random act of kindness, more than 7,000 of her crosses have reached around the world to such places as Australia, Brazil, China, England, Japan, Lesotho, Palestine, Turkey and Russia. They have stuffed mailboxes of families celebrating birthdays and surprised people opening envelopes containing checks to pay her bills.
Abe learned the significance of each cross' stitch when she accepted the one from her friend. Two stitches crocheted up represent the church sending out two callers. The three sections on each side remind us that Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered, there will I be also." The 12 designs represent the 12 disciples at the Last Supper and the tassel represents Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion. The bright colors remind us of our hope for eternal life.
Emiko Abe's crocheted crosses arrive in the mail as a blessing to recipients around the world. From the Aleutians to Zanzibar, each one carries this little message: "A crocheted cross bookmark handmade with Aloha ... especially for you."