Around the time I turned nine, Mother invented the Knife Game. She would plop something––a cucumber, an eggplant, or whole fish––and challenge me to slice, dice, or filet; choose the proper tool and make a masterpiece. I’d learned the art from watching her shave a pumpkin or flay shitakes until they resembled entire city landscapes or celebrities. It was my time to learn, hers to teach, what a cootie wasn’t, why boys weren’t gross.
When I was eleven, she gifted me my first wooden block, stuffed it with bayonets that we named. Michelin, the King, a regal forged chef’s blade; tapered to a point, she taught me to rock him back and forth for a quick mince or chop of herbs and used his versatile steel arm to slice thin sheets of tough meats. Slow and focused, that’s how you excel. The utility and knave, Lilith, her narrow tip handled less worthy tasks such as trimming and filleting. Don’t judge value by usefulness. We never confused her with Andre, the boning knife. His smaller stature lent preciseness ideal for separating meat from bone. Small gestures make a man. But due to my young, fumbly fingers, we relegated him to peeling and paring vegetables until I reached my teens. Don’t rush through life, enjoy each moment as it unfolds.
My favorite was Generosa, the bread knife––toothy, long, elegant––she sawed through crusty loaves and dense cakes with nary crumb nor squish, in direct contrast to bulky Timothy, the cleaver. His thick spine and wide blade crushed small skeletons, sliced hard-shelled gourds, pulverized fish carcasses, and flattened garlic. Their daughter, Mignon, the paring knife, a perfect foil with her speared tip like a tiny beak; she nicked splendid garnishes and offered precise peels. Strong families weather fierce storms.
At sixteen, we added Raoul, my first filletier. Not to be confused with Andre or Lilith, Raoul’s thin flexibility meant he was used entirely to cut sashimi-style fish slices. Thin blades make the deepest cuts. Finally, the soldiers, sibling steak knives who guarded the block, sitting sentry at the foot next to the overbearing shears whose usefulness I didn’t appreciate until adulthood and stopped the silly names; but if I had named her, it would have been something sturdy, versatile, and patient, such as Jane, or Mother.
Like memory, blades dull with age; mold settles in the hilts, arthritis in the joints. I relegated the block to a corner of the attic; Mother to the Everglades Home for the Infirm; both packed away with old quilts, dogeared books, and dusty letters. Last week, she’d been found roaming in a nearby park, naked. The week before, she’d claimed to be on the hunt for bigfoot. A month before, she swore iguanas fell from the sky, and that she’d returned a book to the library she’d checked out over eighty years ago. She speaks of these events as if they are true, and I can’t bear to teach her anything new.