01: Pocket Knife

Man, where even to begin?

Let’s start here: I am Joseph Burke the Ninth. It could go back further still, but that would require blowing dust off tomes in Northern Ireland.

Although the lineage has pared down considerably in my lifetime – now it’s just my dad and I – there was a time, prior to my 5th birthday, when any gathering of the [paltry] Burke Clan Entire yielded mass confusion at the mere utterance of the name “Joe.” Four heads would turn, some or all responding, “What?”

And so it’s from within this construct, a construct of tradition within a family that is anything but, that my grandfather, Joe, made a declaration at some point or another that I, Joe, would be in line to receive his knife collection upon his passing: A collection consisting of a switchblade, some collector’s knives ordered from the Franklin Mint and whatever else, knife-like, that existed within that box. Moments thereafter, it also became known that my sister, Christina, first of her name, would receive his ever-growing collection of unopened McDonald’s toys, presumably to be auctioned at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, et al., and likely paying her way through college.

This, of course, all became an immediate joke in my family — my dad and uncle jumping on it like dogs on a bone — and it endured as such up to and following my grandfather’s passing in 2009. As Katie and I were flying into town for the funeral, my parents, along with my aunt and uncle, were working fastidiously to make use of the time to clean the house, box up donations, and otherwise do the things that families brought together from some distance must do during such times. And during which, of course, the box of knives — and boxes (plural) of McDonald’s toys — were unearthed.

I shipped the knives and a handful of other keepsakes — my grandfather’s military-issue jackets, hats, random home-recorded cassettes for later review — back home to New York. In boxes, hermetically sealed, they shifted geographically four times, settling finally, six years later, in our current home outside of Chicago. Quite random, then, for a conversation in my kitchen, to spur memory of these knives. A visual of my grandfather — again, a recurring joke in our family — offering up his pocket knife for any and all events even remotely warranting use of a knife, reaching into his pocket without heed: “Want my knife?”

Encapsulated in the ongoing joke regarding the knife collection was essentially the greatest compliment my family, a family whose gatherings always featured heavily a steady barrage of sarcasm and humor-as-medicine anecdotal recall, could have paid it. The absurdity — albeit a beautiful gesture — of a collection comprised of bald eagle and/or American flag hunting knives, Corvette-branded folding knives, probably something Elvis-related if I dug deep enough, etc. — made the story endure and, by extension, my grandfather.

Sitting at the bottom, beneath the worthless collectible fodder, as I’d forgotten since that last evening in his house, sat the pocket knife, the blade still sharp. And every time I use it, I think about who I am, where I come from and the characters that came before me.