the museum of americana

a literary review

Counting Onion Slices With John Montgomery’s Knife — Nonfiction by Anne Montgomery

 

John Applegate stood on the porch in his Saturday going-in-to-town overalls. He pressed his hat to the front of his well-ironed blue shirt. He smiled, bowed his head slightly but declined to come in. Aunt Cad, as my grandmother was known to all, owned the Hotel but was up to her elbows in dishwater, so Zoe, her daughter-in-law, was delegated to talk to John. A line on his forehead marked where the hat habitually rested, and on his face, the alabaster white above and weathered bronze below illuminated blue eyes over a gentle, sorrowful mouth. He had knocked quietly at the back door to the kitchen of the New Commercial Hotel, used only by family and tradespeople. This was mid-century in the Indiana town of Scottsburg.

“I was plowing near Vienna Creek on Wednesday,” he said, “by the old white oak.” He paused. “The one where Uncle Wilbur’s old mill used to be.”

John Applegate came to the hotel now and then to be paid for cutting the hay on Cad’s farm acres in the bottom land. Cad said she was always surprised by how slowly this man could speak, one round word at a time following another. She liked him immensely.

“I was plowing down there beside Vienna Creek,” he repeated, “and I turned up this knife as I plowed. I would know John Montgomery’s work anywhere. I thought you might want it, being his granddaughter.”

He presented the knife, which was a long knife, simple wooden handle, the thin blade scarred but not broken, one tiny nick. You could only slightly make out the initials, JM, on the wooden handle––the initials John Montgomery, my grandfather, who shoed horses, made knives, and kept the blacksmith shop behind the hotel.

Thanks to Farmer Applegate, John Montgomery’s knife re-entered the Montgomery family Hotel kitchen. In the moves the family made after World War II, the knife had migrated to Texas, to New Mexico, to Washington, D.C, and is now full circle back to Indiana, this time South Bend. The blade dominated the cutting board with a presence no store-bought knife carried. Eventually, a succession of young cooks who came and went relegated the knife to the back of the drawers in favor of the graded steel of gourmet blades that came banked in handy wooden blocks for the well-designed modern kitchen. After Aunt Cad’s death, I remember finding Grandfather John’s knife in the kitchen drawers of the old New Commercial Hotel with the other knives, the potato masher, the big spoons and the rolling pins, the ironed aprons and towels. It was then that I took possession of the knife no one else wanted.

When Farmer Applegate brought the knife to the door, thirty years had passed since it was last taken to the field, and John Montgomery was long gone. The white oak tree stood alone beside the creek, and the old mill was gone. Still, the walk from the hotel to the mill was only an hour’s slow one, a country walk we called it. Beside the stream, in the shade of a towering oak, I could reconstruct the story of a summer picnic outing. As I was growing up, my father, Willard, Cad’s only surviving son, used to stop the car and look every time we drove past the old mill site, an obligatory detour.

He explained that a white oak could reach over a hundred feet tall. This one was half that size, and still healthy. In the early days, his family used to drive out there first with horse and buggy, then in the Model T, with picnic hampers, ham, and pie and cake, and a huge table cloth. To the amusement and indulgence of John Montgomery’s wife Cad and her sisters Blanche and Edna, John always wanted both pie and cake, and thermoses and watermelon.

After John Montgomery died, the knife was put away on a high pantry shelf in a square wicker basket along with cross-stitched linens and such household goods that were no longer used but with which no one wanted to part. Now and then I recite the story of the knife’s reappearance to the friends who linger in my kitchen. At first, my grown son was amused by my recitations. I had taken him as a child to Vienna Creek to see the white oak and the place where the knife was found. He tells me that he has taken a friend to that same plowed field and that he too tells the story of how the knife was lost and found.

The blade still holds a keen edge even with amateur sharpening, but I keep it hidden lest some fool put it into the dishwasher, or take it out to the grill, or attempt to cut God knows what and break the blade or splinter the handle.

When a shaft of sun comes in the kitchen window onto the maple cutting board, a large onion on its side, I let the knife do the cutting as it falls into the onion of its own accord. I count the slices for no reason, marking the rhythm of the falling onion rings and the sound of the blade on the wood.

 

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Anne MontgomeryAnne Montgomery is a writer and artist living in South Bend, Indiana, and Chicago.  She designs history projects for non-profit organizations. She records founders’ memories and provides historical research for the publication of small print editions and online archives.  Her focus is on the use of visual material— maps, photography collections and newspaper archives to present the organization to a larger audience and share its experience with the community of volunteer workers.