As part of our ongoing Heirloom series that focuses on the precious things we treasure – even though they might not be considered valuable by the rest of the world – we continue to tell stories of items that have been passed down through families, from one generation to the next.
Today, we hear from Sara Martin, one of our Journal contributors. She shares a story of her great-grandmother’s butcher knife and how a potential family scandal became a source of family pride.
My great-grandmother, Roxie Mae Hurst, doted on my sister and I when we were born. She passed away when I was quite young, so I don’t have many memories of her. But, my family tells stories of her frequently – of her bold actions, her stoic nature, and her toughness.
She was (somewhat scandalously during that time) married twice. In 1907, at the age of 20, she married the Circuit Court Clerk of Lauderdale County, Alabama. His family was financially well off and his brothers were both respected county judges.
My great-grandmother was not particularly well liked or respected by her first husband’s family. They were well-educated and held substantial wealth and community respect; she was bright and literate, but not formally educated. This caused a cultural and social disconnect in the family that lasted beyond her husband’s lifetime. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in April of 1912.
There are rumors and disputes as to why this happened – and I won’t divulge too much family lore – but after his death, the family had my great-grandmother’s home declared a health hazard. This kept Roxie Mae from the reading and execution of her late husband’s will. It was determined that she would receive nothing from the family estate. In an attempt to keep up some appearance of propriety, the family eventually gave Roxie Mae two pieces of property: her home and a small grocery store in West Florence.
The store, located on West Limestone Street, was appropriately named the West Limestone Market. Roxie Mae sold groceries and made sandwiches for the day laborers and workmen in the area. This large butcher knife was used to slice meats, cut vegetables, and prepare other meals for the workers’ lunches. My grandfather always said, “You could tell the sandwiches were made with love by the thumbprint she left in the bologna.”
Roxie Mae married my great-grandfather, Levi Hurst, a local painter. She eventually had to sell the market because it was too costly to maintain during the most difficult years of the Great Depression. She kept only two items from the market – an oval cutting board and the butcher knife. (The cutting board met an unfortunate end when it was left outside in the rain, causing it to warp and split.) My great-grandmother was not precious about these mementos from her past. She used them daily and would proudly tell the story of the market – her personal tale of overcoming adversity.
The knife was eventually given to my grandmother, Evelyn, who added the packing tape to the wooden handle to keep it in place. She was also quite practical; she viewed the knife as a perfectly good kitchen tool, but certainly not a revered object. Her pride in her mother’s accomplishment was her legacy – not a battered old knife.
My father, Bill, eventually inherited the knife. I remember it being used often in the summer to cut watermelon on the back deck. It is the perfect size and was always razor sharp. A few years ago, my father gave the knife to me, calling it “my inheritance.” I have never removed the packing tape and it is now slightly rusted, so I don’t use it. I plan to have a friend hand craft a new handle so that I can clean the knife up and use it again.
My great-grandmother’s knife – now my knife – has taken on significant meaning for me as I have grown older. My great-grandmother had to create a new life when everything she knew was unexpectedly gone. In the face of gossip and small town scandal, she built a business and a family. The women in my family have always had toughness and strength that I admire. I am always working to live up to their standard of independence and master the perfect mixture of self-sustenance mixed with nurturing affection that each displayed so well. I am honored to be the current owner of Roxie Mae’s knife and I plan to put it back to work in my kitchen very soon.
Thank you to Sara for sharing her story of what heirloom means to her…
P.S. Read her father Bill’s account of the real women in his life (including Roxie Mae) here.