This is a story about a knife.
Or maybe it’s a story about death. Or survival. Or about valuing simple things until they become holy things.
My grandmother, Hannah Graba, was a two-time widower raising eight kids on a grind-it-out dairy farm in the middle of Minnesota, even more in the middle of the Great Depression. Her oldest son had already left the one-room farmhouse. Lillian, her oldest daughter, worked for a tombstone carver. Fred, the only other boy, did most of the farm labor. My mom, Arlene, was the youngest.
Lillian’s tombstone-carving money was the family’s only source of extra cash. One year, it went to Christmas presents and Arlene, who was 3, got a pair of brown rubber overshoes. “I’d get up in the middle of the night,” she said, “just to look at those shoes and make sure they were real.”
Three years later, Lillian used her tombstone money to buy two serrated kitchen knives — one for herself and one for Grandma. Grandma loved her knife — a small luxury amid endless work.
Grandma baked bread daily in her wood cook stove, and her new serrated blade cut the bread neatly. Neatness mattered to that Norwegian mother. Grandma used her knife for killing chickens, carving meat and cutting through bones. If a wooden shingle fell off the house, Grandma and her knife would trim a new one to fit.
World War II came and brought jobs. Lillian and her own knife moved west, to Renton, to work for Boeing. The others followed: Helen, Irene, Laura, Betty, and, eventually, my mom. A whole family of Rosies, riveting airplanes for the war.
Fred enlisted to fight in Japan, so Grandma moved out west, too, with her knife, following her daughters. The farm sat empty.
After the war, Fred married and he and his wife, Gladys, moved back to the farm. Grandma went with him. But a house that once held eight kids was too small for two adult women. Grandma moved in with her sister, Ida, and took her knife with her.
Years passed. Grandma eventually went west to live with Lillian. That meant their household had both knives. So Grandma presented her beloved knife to Arlene. My mom.
Years of cutting bones, shingles and bread had worn the serrations down. The nine-inch blade was now an eight-inch blade, but sharper than ever.
Mom used that knife every day, too. She told us where it had traveled and what it had meant; she wove a holy glow about it. We called it Grandma’s Knife, and if you abused it, Mom’s wooden spoon would rap your knuckles.
One summer day, my brother Dave came home with a bucket of razor clams. Without thinking, he grabbed Grandma’s knife to pry open the clam shells. Snap. He broke three inches off the end of the knife and broke Mom’s heart.
But Mom kept using that broken knife every day, making meals for five kids — including dessert — from scratch. Did I mention that she was a widow, too?
Once a year, Grandma would visit. She’d cook with her old knife, praising its sharpness and berating its shortness.
Grandma died when I was 8 years old. Aunty Lillian used her own matching knife until she died. It’s now in the kitchen of her daughter-in-law, Fritzi. My brother Dave died a year ago. Maybe the burden of breaking Grandma’s knife shortened his life.
And Mom? She’s still going strong. So is the knife. Both are thinner and shorter than they used to be.
If Mom ever leaves us — and she may outlive us all — I’ll fight my sister and brothers for the knife. I won’t use it. I’ll hang it on a wall, like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other lesser national treasures.
Tom Llewellyn of Tacoma is a content marketing director and children’s novelist. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org