“…but I have the knife”

My family is a tight knit bunch; three siblings born in less than three years. Friends overlapped, homework was shared and our ambitions intertwined. Even today I see us spend more time together than most other brothers and sisters I have met.

When I was in high school we had the curious practice of running for the kitchen and ending a particularly heated debate with the one who reached the cutlery first. “But I have the knife!” would be shouted triumphantly as the blade (usually a chef knife, but even a paring knife would do in a tight spot) was wielded in the general direction of the other person. The loser would immediately concede the point and the argument was over. Just like that. No hard feelings, and generally laughter ensued. Even my father participated in this practice and on rarer occasion, my mother.

I’m sure to a spectator it would be like going to the circus. Here you had this strange, garish, almost alien ritualized performance in front of you, with customs unknown and frightening. You’d be entertained while still feeling a disconnect. Even if you wanted to participate, there was a sense that you would not be welcomed chiming in. While you may not have realized it at the time, there was a reason for feeling the outsider that went beyond the sharp knives.

Like a circus, our family’s ritual showed trust. For whatever reason it started, we knew how it would end. No one would ever get hurt. The knife was symbolic that whomever was going for it felt passionate, prone to overstate their side, and frustrated with the other person’s lack of perception. All parties involved had developed an unspoken agreement; whoever felt that strongly should have their say. We knew that the holder would win, and the person at the pointy side would lose. It wasn’t a real win or loss; real violence never is. It was a way for both sides to save face, and walk away from the debate before someone really got hurt – emotionally. And we trusted that both sides would walk away. We had faith in each other that the knife would never get used, just like performers in a circus know that whatever death-defying feat they perform, the other members of the troop are there to help create the spectacle, while aiding in their safety.

I’m not saying that families should wield knives when arguing. Nor am I advocating joining the circus. What I want from any close relationship is the same though; have trust, know when to quit an argument, and give me a bit of a show.

Julie Ahern

August, 2009

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