My Mother’s Kitchen Knife

I’ve just returned from our family farm in Tennessee, where my brother and I sorted through our mother’s possessions and worked to find homes for them all. She’s in assisted living now and has neither the need for nor the mental capacity to use the things she once valued but no longer recognizes as her own.

THE knife

One item I simply had to keep was her kitchen knife. It has seen better days, for sure, but it’s one of those objects that most firmly connects me to the kitchen–and the mother–of my youth.

In some 60 years that knife cut up countless chickens and carved innumerable hunks of beef and pork raised on our farm into useable pieces. It wrought vegetables into sizes appropriate for canning and fruits into bits to fill the jam-making pot. When she asked for it, she wasn’t asking you to hand her A knife, she was asking you to hand her THE knife.

I don’t know who made this workhorse of a tool or where she bought it or when, but it is a simple boning knife. It has no identifiers but contains a carbon steel tang that runs its full length. Ridgy and slightly rusted in spots, the blade sits somewhat loosely in the unfinished wooden handle–I think she put it in the dishwasher in later years, which degraded the wood and loosened its grip on the tang. Still, it has a keener edge than some of the professional-quality blades in my knife block.

Most likely I’ll never use it, but I want to keep this knife all the same. I treasure it, for more than anything else in her house, it reminds me of my mother and of all her years of hard work on our farm. Sure, she taught high school, sewed my clothes until I was big enough to sew them for myself, grew, harvested and put up a garden, was a troop leader when I was a Brownie scout, taught Sunday School, painted uncountable landscapes and still lifes, and helped out on the farm as needed–the list of her activities is endless. But something about this knife defines her for me as nothing else, not even her paintings, can do.

Kitchen knives speak of authority. In my mother’s hand this knife could accomplish darn near anything, and it enabled her to accomplish darn near everything. She used it so much that sometimes it seemed an extension of her right arm and was so proficient with it that it was the only knife she ever needed.

Essentially an old kitchen tool that has outlived its usefulness, this knife is worth nothing, yet it is priceless. It is something I had to drive cross country with, since I couldn’t fly with it in my carry-on luggage, and checking it or mailing it would only tempt the fates to let it go missing forever. No amount of insurance on such a parcel could compensate for its value to me if it were lost.

The knife now rests with a dozen others in my wooden block here in Los Angeles. I think it rather puts all the others to shame–certainly it has seen more work than the lot of them combined ever will. When I crab about the trivial annoyances in my relatively easy life, I hope that its presence will remind me of the dignity and the rightness of hard work and of the grace my mother always displayed in doing it.

Perhaps this is the value of holding on to things that have outlasted their practical use–that they’ll become tokens of what we hope to emulate once their original users are gone. At least that’s what keeping my mother’s well-worn knife is doing for me.

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