I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. It was unmistakable. The one and only. Its price far above rubies. And I knew it was irreplaceable. We were standing in Friend’s kitchen making a pot of tea, and my eyes fell on this strange looking knife, with a black bone handle and a short pointed blade that looked as though it had been buried for aeons.
“Is that your special knife? “ I asked. Her soft, be-ringed hand covered it protectively as it lay on the bench. “Yes”, she replied, her voice throbbing with all the weight of the years of devotion. “I’ve had it since it came out of the house when my first mother- in- law died over fifty years ago. I hide it from Jim so he can’t use it or lose it. I don’t know how old it is, I think the blade may have broken in half, which is why it’s so short. But I use it for everything.”
“You don’t have to explain,” I laughed, “I recognised it straight away. My father had a knife like that.”
He and my stepmother married just after the war when there was nothing to buy in the shops, and couples starting on their married life subsisted on the gifts of family and friends. This knife came from my stepmother’s father. He didn’t value it obviously. But nothing would have wrested it from my father’s hands, the talented cook in the family.
It was just your ordinary bone handled, long bladed knife. Not an actual carving knife, but the sort that was used for carving fowl in the days when people had a different utensil for everything. This meant that the blade was quite slim. But it was known as The Carving Knife.
For all the years of their married life, my father and stepmother used it for everything – peeling vegetables, carving the Sunday joint, cutting the Christmas cake, filleting a sole – they had no truck with dinky little vegetable peelers and fancy little kitchen knives. This was their treasure, versatile and indispensable. As the years went by the blade became more and more curved and thin from sharpening and from constant use, but it never buckled under the pressure.
If it went missing the whole house was in uproar and panic. Frantic searches ensued until the precious object had been found, and peace returned to the kitchen and peace of mind to the drawing room. We children were dispatched to all corners and cupboards in the kitchen- always feeling rather hopeless. I can still see my handsome, moustachioed father bent over the dustbin outside on a dark winter’s night, unwrapping the bundles of rubbish wrapped up in newspaper the way we did back then. He found it too, that time. It was not only well used, but well travelled, accompanying us to and from army quarters, from country to country and into retirement.
Now that they are both dead, and I was far away each time, first in Hong Kong, and then here in New Zealand, I’ve often wondered what became of their most precious possession, whether anyone else remembered and treasured it, or was this cherished hard-working, faithful kitchen help-meet just jettisoned?
My husband will only use the same mug for all his drinks. It’s a blue willow pattern mug, which the children bought for me for Christmas 1974, and has lasted until now. It actually has one chip, but it doesn’t put him off. He will also only use two stainless steel spoons from the kitchen drawer for his breakfast muesli, out of all the spoons in the house. He likes their shape. They are amongst the oldest, ugliest and cheapest in the house. They came out of the top of a large packet of Tide in 1965. Tide was a washing powder we used in the sixties. The spoons were part of a set of knives and forks as well, which were buried in the soap powder in each box – which of course, I used in copious quantities for all those nappies.
And my son, when he was four and five, on being asked what he wanted to eat would always reply: “Toast with melted butter and the crusts cut off and my drink in a rose cup”. Like me he is still addicted to using beautiful things – but not, maybe, as addicted as me…
In her funny and charming little book ‘The Holy Man’, Susan Trott has a chapter called “Fussiness”. The Holy Man noticed that one of his disciples, Henri, always sat in the same place for meals, and always used the same blue plate, and he also noticed that the sleeves of Henri’s robe were always folded back in exactly the same way with three folds.
So the next day the Holy Man sat in Henri’s place. When Henri asked him about this he just pulled down the sleeves of Henri’s robe. The next morning as Henri entered the kitchen, the Holy Man dropped the blue plate, and then swept up the shattered pieces. Later, Henri nabbed the Holy Man – who was called Joe, actually, and said: ‘Okay, you think I’m being fussy,’ but Henri still couldn’t see the problem. In their discussion, Joe pointed out that attachment means suffering, and he also suggested that these attachments meant that Henri was trying to control his environment, which leads to rigidity of thinking.
I often think about this chapter, being an extremely fussy person myself, and try to train myself to let go without suffering when I chip a plate or break a favourite mug. I try to see it as an opportunity to find something new, just as pretty – which I’m not sure is what Buddha or the Holy Man had in mind!
And as for the kitchen knives – yes, I have one too. No it is not a fetish, but a right hand man. Over a life-time several of these precious objects have broken or disappeared, but I feel my present general duties, all purpose kitchen knife will last the distance. I found it in the garage when we moved here, seven years ago. It’s the most comfortable of all my knives to hold. The curve of the blade is perfect for everything I want to do, it gets sharper than any of the others, and if it goes missing, there‘s hell to pay. But my better half is oblivious to all this, and uses it as if it were any old knife. So I end up like my father, searching frantically in rubbish bags, over-loaded dishwasher and kitchen drawers for my indispensable partner in the kitchen. Yes, I am shamelessly attached !
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
With a slow-cooked casserole the other day, I decided to skip the mashed potatoes which it cried out for, and do pureed kumara/sweet potato instead. Peeled, and boiled until soft, I tipped them into my new toy, the stick whizzer. First I put a big knob of butter and a good dollop of cream, then the kumara, salt and black pepper and nutmeg to taste. A quick whizz, and there was this melting, delectable orange puree.
Inspired by this, I decided not to mash the carrots and parsnip together, but to puree them too. This meant cooking the carrots for longer than the soft parsnip. But whizzed again with the butter and cream, they were heavenly too. They soaked up the beautiful sauce of the casserole which had been cooked in spices and pea – nut butter for twelve hours at fifty degrees. Recipe next time!
Food for Thought
In the morning the ignorant man considers what he will do, while the intelligent man considers what Allah will do with him.
Ibn Ata’illah-Sakandari Sufi saint, born in Alexandria circa 1240, died in Cairo 1309, where his tomb can still be visited.
37 responses to “Precious objects”
Oh your post brought it all back for me Valerie! We had an old knife at home which we used for absolutely everything… a long slender knife with a wooden handle and brass rivets and just the right ‘heft’ in the hand. The blade was paper thin and worn away from countless sharpenings. Its provenance was a mystery but it was old when I was young and I can still see my father’s beautiful hands carving the roast with it on Sundays. Spots of rust were rubbed away and he used that knife all his life. When he died at age 94 it was one of the few things I claimed, to remind me of him and my childhood.
What a lovely comment Elly, such a beautiful description of that precious object !
And lovely memories of your father… those knives were so much part of our lives and family rituals, weren’t they !
Hi Valerie! I haven’t had the time to blog for weeks, and when I opened my reader, your post was waiting for me as though I’d never been gone. I love your story, it reminds me very much of five siblings and the case of the missing sewing scissors. I’ll close by saying my Mother took her sewing very seriously…and who can blame her, she was a very talented seamstress! I hope you are well,
Hello Elisa, I’d been wondering where you were !
Lovely to hear from you… I like the sound of the case of the missing scissors… these things Matter don’t they !!!
Yes, they do! We still talk about the beloved scissors, and after all these years, no one “fesses up” to their mysterious disappearance….
How hilarious – or perhaps not !!! But I do think there is a black hole where things like scissors, crochet hooks, pens, and other vital equipment get sucked in….
Valerie, what an interesting post. I guess we all have our attachments. For years, ever since my favourite steel-bladed knife with the silver-plated handle broke, I’ve mourned the loss of a good sharp blade. I told my sister, who gave me a fantastic big black-handled knife for my birthday a couple of years ago. I use it every day, and it’s like a friend. You’ve touched on a universal theme here.
Ah, you too Juliet ! We are all sisters under the skin, aren’t we? Isn’t it delicious the way everyone does has their own little attachments !!!
Oh Valerie, how did you know that I spent all of last week trying to be very brave about losing my favourite old knife that has been with me for 30 years? I even resisted the temptation to check the compost and the rubbish bin. I will let it go peacefully I said. But, oh the dance of joy, when I accidentally discovered it pushed under a place behind the dish rack. I am glad we all have these treasures that feel right and familiar, as though they were meant just for our eyes and lips and hands.
Oh, what a gorgeous comment ! I love it that it seems so many of us have our knife fetish ! So glad you found yours !!!
Your post and the comments are so spot on! I also have ‘the knife’ but my cannot possibly lose or break is my coffee mug. It is the last one from a beautifully delicate set that were made by a local potter for my Mum’s retirement present from the staff at her school. I hide it upstairs when the family come to visit! I look forward to the next recipe 🙂
Indeed , a universal theme here
Hello Sally, lovely comments – we are all so alike aren’t we, with our little pet treasures !!!
My dear friend, a most excellent, brilliant, generous, and compassionate post. I have placed it under a special bookmark so that I can come back again and again…thank you!
What a lovely post, filled with so deep thoughts and vividly expressed emotions. Through them I can see the wisdom “attachment means suffering” in a brand new light.
I Understand totally!!!
I understand this one entirely. I also have ‘the knife’. Funny though my husband bought it for me 15 years ago, finally after all these years I found the perfect knife. My true object of affection is my big cast iron pan, I found it at Goodwill 35 years ago, rusted and in terrible shape but it was at the time what I could afford and it was huge; perfect for meals for a family. I took it home and scrubbed for hours, then seasoned it in the oven until it gleamed like new. I love my cast iron pan, I don’t let others clean it they don’t respect the cast iron, the beauty of cooking in it or how everytime I see it I remember my grandmother.
My other object of great affection is my purple ‘ugly mug’. This is my coffee cup, it holds two and half cups of coffee and the mother of my heart bought it for me. Yes it it is ugly but beautiful. The holder is a dragon, not a very good one either. The inside is pasty creame and the outside is not a great purple, but it is mine and it was stored at my parents house for when I visited. No one else was allowed to use it. We laughed and laughed at each visit when I would walk around with my ugly cup. On the list of ‘who gets what’, my step-mother actually listed the ugly cup as mine, with a smiley face next to it.
You touched a special place with this post. Memories and Special Items, I don’t believe this makes us fussy at all.
Val, what a gorgeous comment – what a great story about your cast iron pan… you have to really understand the ways of cooking with a cast iron pan, quite different to today’s teflon jobs, isn’t it… and the way the cast iron holds the heat…
Loved the story of your purple mug, and knowing your attachment to coffee, it sounds the perfect size for you !!!
Yes, these are the tings that make us feel at home, aren’t they !!
This is indeed a fine post – along with such wonderful comments. There have been family members who have called me very materialistic as though this was a insult. There is no knife for me. I do so enjoy things, more than most. But things and money just pass thru my hands. Yes, I have a lot of stuff, but anyone who wants it or needs it – I give it to them for it will make them happy (and there is more stuff around the corner). Thank you Valerie!
Thank you so much Liz, – yes, aren’t the comments wonderful !
I know what you mean about enjoying things… part of being in the material world which is so beautiful…and like you, I can let them go easily too – unless someone I love has given it to me – and as you say, there’s always more around the corner !!
My mum has a knife as well that was off limits to the rest of us. 🙂 It’s funny what we become attached to.
I would have given that Holy Man a swift kick in the pants, or whatever substitute he happened to be wearing. Rituals and special possessions are comforting, and our lives are unavoidably spent in trying to control our environment. Suffering is something which attachment brings indeed, but is not to be avoided because it is part of life.
I love this comment…’ ritual and special possessions are comforting’ is so true…as is what you say about attachment and suffering… yes, there’s no way round it if we are going to truly live lives of depth and passion…
The Holy Man was trying to enlighten his devotees since they were there seeking enlightenment, and it was valid for them. But I am not a monk trying to be enlightened thank heavens, I am simply a traveller making sure I enjoy the journey !!! As I think most of the commenters feel too.
Thank you so much … you made me laugh, and also enjoy your way of expressing the truth !
Even for those seeking enlightenment, I think his methods were a bit dim. Maybe what the devotees were seeking was endimmenment, though. Religion is often good at providing that.
People who spend a whole journey studying a brochure with points of interest at the destination, and ignoring the ever-changing scenery they are passing through …
This made me chuckle. I think my Mum has a few of those objects – that the rest of us would love to see put to a peaceful rest. But I can understand it!
I’m not sure if I get that attached to objects. I have other obsessive habits, like storing empty packaging (boxes etc) for a rainy day that never comes. And I am very attached to meaningful bits of paper. At least your fetish is less flammable!
Yes, but my temper is very flammable when it disappears or gets lost after my husband has ‘borrowed ‘it…!!!
I’ve got myself in a pickle of too many unread blogs and un- answered comments – apologies for my delay… hope all is well in Melbourne !!!..
okay I have the attached thingy too..
the knife, the spoon and coffee cup……
and I even have an old Army fork and spoon ..the spoon is for Sunday Brunch’s gravy only LOLs…
I considered once my attachments and decided I like the tried and true much better than new and improved….
a delightful post that will have me smiling as I stir my blue coffee cup with an ancient spoon my Grandmother used too….
oh I will definitely try the recipe…!
Thank you for sharing…
I remember my Momma’s set of red glass dishes she got from powdered Tide. Gradually a whole set of 8 red plates, red cups, red saucers, red cereal bowls, red desert dishes and red juice glasses and red drinking glasses. I LOVED THOSE dishes so very much. Today I have the tiny remnant of those wonderful dishes…the juice glasses (they were never really used) some of the drinking glasses and four cups and three saucers.
Thank you for this lovely post!
Hello LInda, just catching up , I’ve been bogged down with recovering from nasty dentist’s session, and a few other things !
How fascinating that you remember Tide ! And what an amazing collection of stuff they offered you… just cutlery for us I think, followed by smoky black glasses – but then I left England, and had to get used to different brands!!!
I don’t think attachment to lovely old well used objects is such a vice Valerie. It’s so much better than coveting new ones!
True, sweet friend !!!
I, too, have a knife that serves me well and my sweet husband, who has a tendency to not put things back where he finds them, is banned from using. 😉 xoxoM
I could say, men are all the same !!!!!
An interesting juxtaposition between the family knives and Buddha’s lessons on non-attachment.
Many of us grow up being taught attachment to things and also fear of them – grandmother’s precious china etc and this can become sentimental attachment. It wasn’t until I began to read Buddhist philosophy that I even became aware of the connection, that all suffering in fact comes from attachment. Therefore it is necessary to “unlearn” the attachment in order to genuinely not suffer when something is lost, broken or destroyed.
I started gently with books, learning how to let go of them and not expect them back even when I just lent them, (but just one or two at a time). I told myself I was giving them away, and then discovered a huge relief in letting go without the expectation or anxiety of its return. It is not so easy if the object has a shared family connection, as we are all at different stages in the process and learning not to suffer can be interpreted as not caring, which it definitely is not. And then just when we think we have it mastered, something comes along to really test us.
It’s a life long task of learning and unlearning. 🙂
I loved your thoughtful perceptive comment Claire, you gave me food for thought too… yes, I’ve had to learn to let go of books – I’m an inveterate lender, and never keep a record, and as time goes by I’m not sure who I’ve lent what…learning to let go dulls the pain !!!
Letting go places and their beauty has always been a challenge to me… I remember at seventeen sailing away from beautiful Penang, and trying to avoid that suffering by promising myself I’d come back…. I never have !
I love that your son was so particular even at such a young age. That’s so cute! I’ve got a few “special” items that I like to use exclusively too—I have a favorite bowl for cereal, ice cream, etc, I have a favorite mug, and I have a favorite pen. Whenever I use them, it feels like it’s more special somehow, and it makes me happier.
Yes, he was a little dandy too – still is at six foot four and a half, two children and lots of adventures under his belt !
I so agree – using the things you enjoy does make you happy… tea out of a chipped mug doesn’t have the same taste as tea out of a bone china cup and saucer!!!