From the book Spider’s Big Catch
Sometimes, when I’m stressed or feel the need to refocus, I find myself thinking about my grandpa’s knife. There are people in the world who drink or take pills in an attempt to manage stress, and some folks handle their rosary beads.
My grandpa whittled.
My brothers and I could always tell when there was something weighing on Grandpa’s mind. He’d pick up several short sticks, sit on the porch swing, and begin to whittle. We could judge the size of the problem he was grappling with by the size of the pile of shavings at the old man’s feet.
As far as I knew, he never whittled anything useful. That was never his purpose. He just took any old stick and began whittling it into a point. Then he’d keep whittling until the stick was too short for him to hold, set it down, and start on another one. I marveled at his ability to focus so intensely, just sitting there, gently rocking the porch swing, quietly whittling a problem down to size. Then, as if being guided by some inner signal known only to him, we’d see Grandpa suddenly stand up, and we knew he’d reached a decision. He’d pick up a small whisk broom that always stood beside the swing, clean up the shavings, and walk away in silence.
There were also times when Grandpa’s knife helped teach us other lessons—lessons that were more difficult to face. No matter what our indiscretion may have been, we boys knew that there would come a time after we’d received our punishment when Grandpa would call us to come and sit with him on the porch steps. Holding several sticks in his left hand, he’d reach into his overalls with his right hand and pull out his old knife. Then he’d sit on the swing and begin to whittle, slowly and deliberately, never looking at us, never saying a word.
Finally, after what seemed a very long time, he’d begin to talk, softly but firmly, about whatever it was we’d done, why it was wrong, and how disappointed he was that we were having to have this talk. All the while, thin slivers of wood gently floated to the floor as his knife deftly cut into the stick he was whittling.
By keeping his eyes fixed on his whittling, Grandpa made certain he never saw the tears rolling down our faces as the consequences of our actions washed over us. He never tried to drive home any big point. He always spoke in gentle tones and when he was finished, he stood, snapped his old knife shut, put it back in his pocket, and turned to walk away, never quite looking at us directly.
“Clean up the shavings, will you, boys?" he’d say as he slowly walked off the porch. The lesson had been learned, and there was nothing left to say.
You know, people don’t seem to whittle like they used to, at least, not the way Grandpa used to, or for the same reasons. I don’t even carry a knife, and neither do most folks I know. But there are times when I’m working at the lathe in my shop—when a long piece of wood curls up from the knife and floats down to the floor—when I’m suddenly eight years old again, watching my grandpa sitting on the porch swing, whittling.
I reach down, pick up the shaving and watch it curl around my finger. Then I just stand for a long moment, remembering, until a thought crosses my mind. Maybe I will get myself a small pocket knife, after all. You never know when the urge to whittle might overtake me.
© 2004. Gary E. Anderson. All rights reserved.
About The Author
Gary Anderson is a freelance writer, editor, ghostwriter, and manuscript analyst, living on a small Iowa farm. He’s published more than 500 articles and four books. He’s also ghosted a dozen books, edited more than 30 full-length manuscripts, produced seven newsletters, and has done more than 800 manuscript reviews for various publishers around the nation. If you need writing or editing help, visit Gary’s website at www.abciowa.com .