This afternoon I accidentally grabbed my great-grandfather’s pocketknife from a bowl of tchotchkes that we keep in the kitchen. I was reaching for my engagement ring and this is the spot I use every time I do the dishes or workout to youtube videos.
The knife is small, nothing special. It certainly wouldn’t have been anything to brag about when he bought it. The handle is yellowing bone and the blades inside are rusty and dull. They no longer fold neatly into the frame. I held it for a little while and I contemplated its journey, from somewhere Indiana on a little farm, into the palm of my hand. I thought about where he might have imagined it ending up and I smiled because he never would have seen me coming. I’m the last in my line, the last Mundwiler, the last Unicorn in my family. I have tried, in my way, to keep the name alive. I gave it to my son, but it is only one of three family names that he bears the brunt of, and it will likely fall away if he ever chooses to have a family of his own.
Of the three original Mundwiler children, two were women: one a lesbian and the other a religious fanatic who would never have imposed her own legacy over the legacy of her husband. Besides, women are awful at the legacy business.
Then there was my father, who had the misfortune of having a daughter. A daughter he was hoping to name Adam. It’s hard not to reflect on how disappointed he must have been, but not for the reasons you might imagine.
My father loved Sylvia Plath. He collected her poetry and she was a kind of muse for him. He was well-aware of the plight of women in this world and I’m sure the last thing he wanted was to watch all of his good DNA get squandered by a culture that would fail to see it’s true potential. He wasn’t wrong.
I don’t know anything about my great-grandfather. He was not the one my father spoke of with deep respect and admiration. That was his grandmother and I don’t have anything that she owned.
My father died over a year ago. Digging through his bachelor apartment for clues as to who I was missing I found pieces of a puzzle but nothing concrete. Vintage editions of Tennesee Williams plays featuring covers illustrated with Hollywood movie stars, a tube full of posters of topless women circa 1960. There are so many books by Sylvia, Dorothy, George and Gertrude. But still the dirty magazines that I don’t have to find, that have been squirreled away by my partner before I can see them. They are not kitsch or ironic, just depressing.
My father’s mother always wanted to be a writer. She was fanatical, obsessive and mean. She used to take her three kids to churches all around the town where they grew up. She’d make them get saved every time. My father always refused but the sisters went along with it. They knew it would get them out of there faster. I now think she must have been grifting, working for alms. She made secret money for years, writing under pseudonyms and pretending to be a man, until finally she had enough money to be free of everything. She never looked back. She left her husband, her children, and by proxy, me.
I wonder if my great-grandfather could have imagined me, dancing in my kitchen in my blue jeans. Listening to a woman from Africa sing in a language I don’t understand, about woman things.
I have held that knife in my hands so many times in the last year. It is my birthright, this tiny little thing. I am the whole of the hundreds who came before me and I am closing out the story now.
My father gave me the knife. He told me where to find it in his kitchen of rotten bachelor things. It was in a vintage dresser loaded with knick-knacks and plastic bags and old matchbooks. ‘My Great-grandfather’s knife’ he told me from the bed where he died.
Now I am only me.
Carla Mundwiler was a bon vivant before she had a child, now she’s just vivant. A jack-of-all-trades with no master’s degree, she has spent the last twenty years waiting tables, making love and fighting war. She lives in Toronto. She can be found on twitter @Mundwiler.