by Jeri Lofland
One morning in the middle of my childhood, Mom sat my brother and me down in the living room and presented us with heirlooms from her parents, who had divorced when she was a teenager. For me, an orange topaz ring my grandfather had once given my grandmother. To me, it was the brownish birthstone for the month after my birthday, sized for an adult finger and rejected by its original owner. My brother got a pocketknife.
In exchange, we promised our mother to pray for her birth parents every day, according to their specific needs. I diligently kept my promise. Every night for years and years I beseeched God to “please help Gramma stop smoking”. My brother prayed for Grand-Dad “to become a Christian”.
Though Grand-Dad had given my mom a New Testament when she was in high school, he also drank, which I suppose was evidence against the salvation of his soul. A worn and troubled woman, Gramma had been a smoker most of her life, though she quit for a year when I was born, and for various periods after that when she would gain weight instead. Grand-Dad died of brain cancer the same week I got my diamond engagement ring. Gramma died of heart failure a few years later. When Mom told me the news, my first thought was: “Well, God finally answered. Gramma’s stopped smoking.”
I was never very attached to Gramma’s ring. Mom rarely wore any jewelry beyond her plain wedding band. She had a heart locket pendant that appeared on special occasions, but owned no other rings as far as I knew. Also, I had somehow picked up the idea that earth tones like browns and oranges were ugly: Mom dressed me more in pastel pinks and blues. Besides, the topaz seemed tainted with uncomfortable memories of failed relationships.
The pocketknife, on the other hand, was useful. It even had tiny scissors. And of course, since it belonged to my brother, I could only use it with his permission. Some years later, both my brothers received knives as gifts from our paternal grandfather. Once again, the knife became a symbol of an imbalance of power.
In a burst of youthful resourcefulness as well as asceticism, I sold the topaz ring for a few dollars at a gold & silver store in town. I was disappointed it wasn’t worth more. Mom had stayed home with the babies that day and she said little about the transaction.
I traveled to Indianapolis to stay for a few weeks at a “training center” run by the religious cult our family was part of. I was there to study music but was also making new friends, and listening to my stomach growl between the two meals we were served each day. One of the girls I met was a petite yet spunky Alaskan extrovert with a knack for discovering people’s inner cravings. On my next birthday, I was surprised to receive a package from Alaska, containing an ivory-handled pocketknife on which my friend had engraved my name. And so my knife collection began.
Having a knife tucked away in my pocket, my purse, or my desk gave me a feeling of strength and assertiveness. As forceful as my mom’s personality appeared in some settings, she absolutely hated strangers at her front door. Heck, she didn’t like having any male knock on our door: solicitors, deliverymen, proselytizers, police officers, or homeschooling friends. Even the UPS man made her nervous. So when a young salesman rapped on the screen door (the main door was open) one hot summer afternoon while she was slicing peaches, her response was unusually bold.
Striding down the humid hallway without putting down the fruit, she greeted the youth through the screen, paring knife in one hand, the dripping remains of a peach in the other. As he tripped over his tongue attempting to explain what it was he was selling, Mom relaxed, curiosity about his wares eventually overcoming caution. When she went back to the kitchen to put down the blade and wash her hands so she could examine the books, I remained at the door, sizing up the self-conscious salesman. “I didn’t know what to think when she came to the door with a knife”, he admitted with a nervous laugh. She ended up buying a whole trio of reference books from the guy. The story became legendary in our family and I had a new respect for the lowly paring knife.
After delivering her tenth baby, my mother had a breakdown. She was likely suffering from post-partum depression, but I’d never heard of that. I only knew that I’d never seen her throw a water glass at Dad before. Ever distrustful of medical professionals and convinced that mental health issues had spiritual causes, she and Dad decided to seek counseling help at the Gothard cult’s (Institute in Basic Life Principles) campus in Indianapolis. I recall Mom sitting on her bed, rocking back and forth, while I packed a suitcase with clothes for her and things for the baby. I was a few months shy of twenty-one. My seventeen-year-old brother and I were left responsible for six siblings (aged 2-14) with no definite word when our parents would be back.
While my parents were praying with an elderly pastor in an old hotel building in Indiana, we had as much fun at home as possible. We borrowed old movies from the library—Friendly Persuasion; Mary, Queen of Scots; How Green Was My Valley; and Bambi—and entertained ourselves as best we could. Neighbors we didn’t know left boxes of ripe peaches on our porch and we turned them into pies and cobbler and ate them with ice cream. We had grown up with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories, so this was our chance to live the week in Farmer Boy when Almanzo’s parents leave the kids alone on the farm for a week. In addition to caring for all the children and keeping the household running, I studied for an upcoming exam.
We were quietly relieved when our parents returned after a week, externally calmer. But we were observant, watchful. Weeks later, several of us were in the kitchen when something triggered Mom again. She grabbed the largest kitchen knife, a long serrated blade, and shouted at my brother, “Why don’t you just stick this in my chest and twist it?!”
I froze. My memory has buried the details of that day, but I do remember that my brother and I were traumatized. The next time Mom delegated the chore of sharpening the knives, we were triggered, and frightened. Were the children in danger? Were we?
I was haunted by the most chilling story in the entire Little House on the Prairie series: a chapter called “Knife in the Dark”. Wilder describes boarding with a severely depressed woman who waves a knife at her husband during a nocturnal argument, scaring the daylights out of teenage Laura peeking through a gap in the curtain partition. If the story gave me goosebumps before, now it knotted my stomach.
Time passed. I kept stories about my great-grandparents. I discovered that I looked good in browns and earthy greens. I wished I still had Gramma’s ring.
I married and moved a thousand miles away. In the middle of an August night, a tiny baby girl surged her way out of my body in a powerful gush of water. For all my experience with newborns, I’d never held one so small. My husband stayed home with us for the first week as we adjusted to parenthood together. Then my mom spent a week helping out.
After Momma flew back to start a new school year with her own brood of little ones, I was consumed with anxiety. This helpless infant depended on me completely. I was her lifeline, the umbilical cord connecting her to her own future. I would be all alone with her now, every day. What if something happened to me? What if I choked on my lunch? What if I tripped on the stairs?
The kitchen knives worried me most. Every time I diced an onion or chopped a tomato, the knife seemed to threaten me, reminding me how vulnerable I was, how mortal. I was cautious, gripping the handle firmly, curling my fingertips carefully away from the blade. I always carried the knives to the sink slowly, point to the ground. I wondered how long I could go on this way. But as the weeks went by and my daughter grew and my hormones regulated, the anxiety diminished.
Cooking shows on PBS became one of my favorite relaxations. Low-key and engaging, they entertained me while I nursed the baby, cuddled a sick child, or put my feet up at naptime. Let others have their superheroes and action films—I love watching men who know their way around a kitchen!
Ever ready to expand my culinary creativity and technical expertise, I soaked up information about ingredients and tools from French, Asian, Cajun, Latin, and Italian chefs. But always when the cutting boards came out—oh, my! Be still, my beating heart! What speed! What finesse! The chopping scene was my favorite in Pixar’s animation Ratatouille. I dreamed of having a superpower: the ability to slice and dice effortlessly, evenly, and safely.
I practiced my technique every time I made dinner. On date nights I would drag my husband through the kitchen stores so I could handle the knives and compare the balanced feel of their handles in my palm. I read up on the advantages of German steel, Japanese blade angles, hollow-ground indentations, and sharpeners. Not only was I proud of my kitchen skills; I was extremely fond of the cutlery that made it all look easy.
After my other grandmother died, I began having panic attacks with chest pains. I found a therapist and started counseling. I regained my balance and made changes to my thinking, my relationships, my parenting. My personal knife collection was forgotten in the back of a closet shelf, but I remembered my girlhood feelings of impotence. When I presented my daughter with her own multi-tool with knife blade for her birthday, I took vicarious delight in her pride.
Then came another triggering experience, an imbalance of power that brought traumatic old memories to the surface. Though I was in no danger, I felt trapped, weak, mousy and afraid. More distressingly, I was in pain and short of breath and my heart was racing, so I sought professional medical help. The anti-depressant my doctor prescribed to relieve my anxiety only made it worse: a dirty spot in the bathtub looked like drops of blood. Even the Pixar titles seemed too scary to watch. Suddenly I couldn’t walk into my kitchen without shivering at the thought of the knife block on the counter. Never mind superpowers, I thought. I just want to function without fear.
The effects of the drug wore off, but I was still anxious. And so began a new journey of courage.
Of finding my own strength.
Of allowing my mind to think freely without fear of abuse or shame.
Of building new relationships based on individuality and mutual acceptance.
Of challenging the culture of patriarchy and reprogramming my brain about acceptable boundaries.
Of speaking for my silent self, empowering my helpless self, learning to be kind to my too-often critical self.
My strength does not derive from objects sharp or shiny. I gain nothing when I defend my own pain by pointing daggers at others, or at myself. I find my confidence, as well as my compassion, deep inside, in the recognition that my worth is equal to that of any human being on the planet.
When I am afraid:
of disappointing someone,
of my inner self being found out and rejected,
of not being strong enough,
…neither the sweetest of blades nor the most cunning miniature scissors are of any use at all. Instead of slashing or separating, I need bonding. I need friends who infuse me with courage when they draw me into their hearts for myself, our connection based not on our achievements, but on our being, right now. Mutual respect is a beautiful thing, with no strings attached.
It turns out the Little House on the Prairie lifestyle holds little appeal for my children. Why would any family want to live independently and reliant solely on their own resources—far from stores and schools, helpful neighbors, and supportive family? All of us learn from and lean on so many others: teachers, counselors, neighbors, friends, other family members. Together this wider community forms our safety net. And as I practice better self-care, I no longer expect to be my children’s lifeline. Instead, I teach them to reach out and speak up when they need help.
But on some shaky days I still gauge my progress by how I feel when I glance at my kitchen knives.
Are they friend or foe? Am I meat, or maven?