The Little Knife

One of the joys of this project is reconnecting with my grandfather. Small details in his letters bring back vivid childhood memories. That’s what happened when I read about the “little knife” he received in the Christmas box from home. I’ve already posted this letter, but want to call out the section that begins with “I got my Xmas . . .”

Little knife, cropped

From a letter he wrote Grandma, dated February 1, 1919.

My grandfather loved a good pocket knife, and I wonder if that’s what he meant by “little knife.” He found utility in a small knife that could be tucked in his pocket–to cut string or open letters or pry open boxes or carve out a plug of watermelon to see if it were ripe or help in any number of important tasks.

And he thought a child needed a knife, too.

I’ll never forget the day he gave me my first pocket knife, which may be this one. I found it at my mother’s last summer. knife-open-cropped.jpg
I remember a small knife, about 3 inches long like this one, brown with a mottled surface, and featuring 2 blades. I was looking for details on it to help me date it. All I found was the mark of the J.A. Henckels company, in Germany, with the distinctive “twins” logo they used between 1900 and 1969, when they added a red background to the logo and coincidentally stopped making pocket knives.logo 2

The day Grandpa gave me the knife, I was staying at their house in Effingham, Kansas, a little rural town of about 500 residents. Every summer, as a special treat, my brother, sister and I individually spent a week with our grandparents, enjoying their full attention. They let us work in their giant vegetable garden, ride in the back of Grandpa’s 1950 GMC pickup truck, squealing in delight as it bounced over the train tracks a block from their house. We walked “to town” with Grandma to get the mail and the latest gossip. Grandpa let us hang out in his lumberyard, and later, after he retired, in the poultry house, where I remember carefully gathering eggs from grumpy hens he kept in the back room.

Effingham lumber yard

Undated photo of the lumberyard in Effingham, Kansas. Grandma and Grandpa stand behind the counter. Mr. Demmon, whom I don’t remember, stands in front.

I never felt like a child during the visits, even though I was very young. Somehow, my grandparents created a magical space where I was an equal player in their charmed life. That meant, when it came to the little pocket knife, that Grandpa saw me as a mature and capable little girl, ready for a knife.

One morning, I was surprised to hear them discussing whether I was old enough to have a knife. I must have been 9 or 10, I’m guessing, placing this memory in the early 1960s.

“She’s too young,” I heard Grandma said. “No, every child needs a knife,” Grandpa responded. “She’ll cut herself,” Grandma offered, but with no success. I listened in, from a distance, excited to be at the center of such an important decision.

Grandpa gave me the knife. Maybe he opened it, and showed me how to use it. I can’t remember. At some point, I found a twig and began to whittle away the bark. And, no surprise, I cut myself.

Grandma calmly took care of the injury. I don’t recall if she scolded Grandpa (maybe he’d gone off to work) or lectured me about knife safety. She quietly opened the metal cabinet in the narrow hallway between the dining room and kitchen, a cabinet that smelled (badly) of ointments and medicines. I stood still while she cleaned and disinfected the cut before putting on a band-aid. And then we turned our attention to something else.

There was no discussion of taking back the knife. It was mine, and I treasured it for years, both as the handy tool Grandpa intended and also as a marker of the confidence he had in me.

Of course I wondered, as I read Grandpa’s wartime letter, with the reference to the “little knife,” and held my own, if the knives were one and the same. I would have liked that. But it seems, after a brief look online, that my pocket knife is typical of ones made closer to the second World War. It doesn’t matter, which knife is whose. The childhood memory is what I value, and also the thought that Grandpa, after fighting in a horrible war and being badly injured by a German machine gun, could find pleasure in the receipt of a little knife for his Christmas in France.


6 thoughts on “The Little Knife

  1. This is a charming intersection of your own memories and your grandfather’s experience. I very much identified with the “overhearing” of a conversation about oneself. Somehow those remarks seem more honest when they are overheard rather than explained directly. I also appreciated the details about the knives. I must look for those twins!


  2. Good story – and esp. about the times spent with your grandparents in summer. How lovely, the way they treated you like an adult. I try to do that with my local grandson – having been treated that way particularly by my father. Also, about the knife itself, I can see why he’d delight in receiving it – I always had the impression that a pocket knife was a vital piece of everyday equipment to my father, and perhaps it made him feel that he’d eventually – surely – return to normal life after all his time away. Incidentally, a major use I noticed of my fther’s pocket knife was the careful preservation of Christmas ribbon and paper – you never ripped something open! Rather you saved these things so they could be used again. Lovely evocative story,Susan, that starts a train of associations and memory!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s