The year was 1916, with Christmas drawing near in the Smokies. Things were bleak that December, with Europe at war, the United States being inexorably drawn towards that horrible conflict, and folks who lived on a mountain farm high up on Juneywhank Branch struggling to survive. There a family of nine children and their parents eked out a hardscrabble living farming, cutting acid wood, raising free-range hogs, and gathering chestnuts to sell each fall. Their struggling lifestyle defined poverty.
Almost totally self-sufficient, the family raised, grew, shot, or foraged virtually everything it needed. Theirs was a “make do with what you’ve got” existence where barter of surplus goods or labor loomed large.
There was precious little “cash money.” As Christmas approached, that situation, with the family having adequate food and shelter, but scraping to pay for store-bought items such as shoes, salt, and other necessities, weighed heavy indeed on the parents. The bittersweet story which unfolded almost a century ago, a saga of life as it once was for many, is my favorite holiday story.
Like his siblings, the oldest boy in the family had never received a store-bought Christmas present, although each child did get a stocking. They contained a single orange, some hard candy, nuts, an apple, and a small item of homemade clothing. Otherwise, presents were limited to lovingly crafted toys such as slingshots or popguns for the boys and rag or cornshuck dolls for the girls. On this particular Christmas though, the boy, too young to understand the family’s financial situation, had his heart set on a pocket knife.
Many of his schoolmates owned knives, and his father often described a knife as “the ultimate tool.” Males of that eracarried finely honed pocket knives as a matter of habit, using them for everything from simple whittling to countless practical applications around the farm. The small boy desperately craved a knife, and even his father admitted he was old enough to own one. Several times his father let him use his knife. That had led him to hope those cherished “knife in hand” moments were trial runs which would lead to him receiving the ultimate Yuletide gift.
Accordingly, when Christmas morning arrived, the boy rushed to his stocking with a sense of anticipation unlike any he had ever known. Toward the bottom of the stocking a suggestive bulge seemed to be just the right shape, and he eagerly dug through fruits and nuts to reach it. Sure enough, it was a knife, but as he grasped the coveted item he tears streamed down his face and he disconsolately rushed from the room.
He had ample reason for dismay. The “knife” was a piece of hard candy shaped and colored to look like the real thing. The simple reality was his parents did not have money to lavish on such a luxury. The father, a patient, soft-spoken man, tried to explain the situation to his oldest son, but the heartbroken little boy simply could not understand.
This devastating moment left a lasting impact, and that's where bitter disappointment gives way to delight. The traumatized lad never forgot this Christmas Day of consuming dismay. Over ensuing decades, up to his death at the age of 101, he erased the trauma in the finest, most fitting possible. One Christmas after another first his sons and later his grandsons received some type of knife – maybe a quality two-blade folding knife or, as they grew a bit older, a fixed-blade hunting knife. No matter what else Christmas brought, for them there was always a knife in their stockings.
He was determined that none of his male offspring would ever be without a knife, or face the tragic moment which tainted his childhood memories. Giving of knives became an annual ritual which endured upwards of six decades, and at any time over the course of those many years he was apt to ask one of his sons or grandsons: “Have you got a knife in your pocket?”
The saddened little boy whose memories harkened back to 1916 in such a powerful, poignant fashion was my father.
Small wonder I cherish pocket knives, own dozens of them, always carry one, and seldom touch a whetstone or whittle a piece of wood without reflecting on a day of all-consuming sadness which Dad ultimately transformed into a lifetime of gladness.
As soon as I finish writing this piece I will reach into my pocket, pull out and caress a pocket knife he gave me, and realize as I do so that he left me a treasure beyond measure – an enduring, endearing Christmas memory.