The Story of Ed and His Sacred Butcher Knives

Steve Ray
Guest Contributor
(As Told to the Editor)

This is all about fathering, big time fathering.

I found out you don’t have to have a father in order to be fathered, or to learn what you must in order to become a better person.

You see, I was a boy who not only grew up without a dad; I did not even know his name.

I would have to be fathered in other areas of my life – for example as a man participating in the point program of MDI, and as a young man at one special job at a San Diego grocery store working with a special man. 

At 17, I graduated working in the grocery deli and was recruited to the meat department. There, an elder gentleman named Ed was the old-time Chicago-style butcher, one gruff old man.

I would be there behind the counter helping customers, weighing meat and delivering ordered items. One day a customer ordered a whole chicken, and then asked, “Can you cut that up?” I obliged, weighed the chicken, priced it and then reached over for a knife. I would learn later this wasn’t just any knife.  

Ed saw that and barked at me, “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to cut this chicken up.”

“You’re not a butcher.”

“But the customer – “

“You don’t cut it up unless you are a butcher. And you don’t use my knife. First you clean. You learn to clean first before you learn to be a meat cutter.”

My initial thought here was, “Man, this guy is a dick.”

I knew I could have done the job, but honoring his wishes, I did the job prescribed to me. I continued to help customers, do the weighing and – of course – the cleaning. This cleaning included all parts of the butcher bay, even what is known as the “bone barrel” where all the guts, blood and left-over parts are tossed.

After six months of being a solid employee, doing a good job that included all that cleaning, the exact situation came up. A customer ordered chicken and asked for me to cut it up. I turned to Ed letting him know she wanted the chicken cut, and went on to do something else.

Ed said, “Wait.” 

After being called back over, I was shown by Ed how to cut up the chicken with the exact same knife I had reached for six months previous. Over time, I saw how important his knives were to him. He had been using these for literally 50 years, perhaps more sacred than a doctor’s scalpel or a hunter’s gun. You don’t just go up and start using an expert’s tool. You have to be vetted over time. And you have to be worthy of such an honor.

It felt great to have earned the right to be trained as an apprentice. This was fathering.

I came to understand that his gruffness wasn’t about a power trip, or being mean or controlling. I came to learn he wasn’t being a dick, but rather a father-figure – someone who cares enough to make sure I do the best job I can before I’m rewarded with the next level on my journey.

This would mean more than a simple task. It would be all about honor, high standards, impeccability, integrity and accountability. It would reveal the power of holding these qualities highly in mind and then bringing a man up from a place of respect, rather than from a place of sheer “power,” pushing a man down using control or dominance.

After years working alongside Ed, it was as if I was more than an apprentice … I was more like a family member. Taking an interest in me, he would ask through his gruffness, “How are you doing? What’s going on?”

We would even share a dirty joke once in awhile. I felt accepted at an entirely different level.

At one point, I had a roommate situation that went bad, and needed to find a new place. Ed told me he had a rental adjacent to his home in Spring Valley. I moved in. Over time, I would watch him struggle once in awhile doing yard work and the like. I would ask if could help him with some of the heavy lifting. And I was glad when he would allow me.

Fifteen years into my stay, with his health failing, I heard commotion coming from inside the main house. I knew something was wrong. I burst into the house and saw that Ed was down. I performed CPR on him and told his wife Dorothy to call 911 and grab all his medications so the medics in the ambulance could be aware of his needs.

Ed would hang on for one week before passing away.

The family was grateful that I did what I did to give him that extra week in the hospital, where they could share their goodbyes.

For his Celebration of Life service, the family decided to have a small get together at the house. There would be family and friends and a meal at this gathering.

After taking the turkey out of the oven, we prepared for dinner. Ed’s son looked to me and approached with something in a pouch. With great reverence for what he was holding, he said, “We know how much dad loved you.” With hands shaking, he then proceeded to open the pouch and hand me a set of knives … Ed’s sacred knives. “It would be an honor if you would carve our turkey.”

With everyone standing there in silence, not saying one word, I felt like everything was in slow motion. I sobbed as I did the honors.  

Growing up I was the only kid on my block who did not have a father. Some people thought that must have been horrible. I didn’t think that at all. I held my experience as a gift. I saw it as a chance to be able to choose the best of the best, so that I could experience the best of what fathers could be.

And this included the incredibly uplifting fathering from a gruff old man named Ed.

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