Cupid’s dagger

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My Grandparent’s old cooking knives, now in my collection. These were honed and sharpened for decades into the odd shapes you see here. Photo by Maddie Kropa

My love affair with knives was born in my Italian grandmother’s kitchen, where dinner preparation was always a spectacle. The aromas! The chopping! The laughter! The yelling (always so much yelling in the kitchen of an Italian woman)! Hovering around the fringes of that sacred space as a child, I remember watching with anticipation as my grandfather carefully (if not obsessively) sharpened the knives that were then passed down the assembly line to my grandmother who expertly wielded them to prepare our most beloved family meals. This quiet, pre-cooking, pre-gorging moment was a tender ritual shared between the two of them, who often had so little time to themselves. From that early age, I had a sense that love and knives went hand-in-hand. (Side note: show your kitchen knives some TLC and always wash them by hand.)

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Photo of my Grandparents in the kitchen, early 1960s. The little painted wooden sign above the sink reads “Kissin’ Don’t Last. Good Cookin’ Do.” Courtesy photo

At 8 years old, I made the very reasonable request to my parents for my first knife — a dainty, turquoise Swiss Army multi-tool that would really jump-start my whittling career, and solidify my role as a contributing member of our household. Marshmallow skewer, Mom? I’ve got you covered! Wobbly chair leg, Dad? Let me whittle the longer one to even it out! Need a last-minute birthday gift? Whittled bird to the rescue!

Well, I got the knife. I made pointed sticks exclusively. I cut my leg. The knife disappeared. But, I’ve always had a thing for knives, and I’ve always wanted to start a knife collection. It was mid-August, 20 years later, and I was recounting this story to PEM’s uber fabulous Native American Art Curator, Karen Kramer, as we walked around the plaza in Santa Fe.

Karen and I had flown in earlier that day for a week of Native Fashion Now research leading up to Santa Fe’s Indian Market — the incredible two-day art show hosted by the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA). I could barely contain my excitement over being in the southwest for the first time. On the walk home from dinner that first night — after a glorious introduction to the wonder that is green chile — we stopped so that I could press my face against the window of a cutlery store. From shop windows to the display cases in our hotel lobby, knives seemed to be everywhere in Santa Fe…and I wanted in on the action.

The week passed by in a flash, with Karen and I running from event to event, consumed by vibrant art and fashion. Whenever we found a free moment to relax in the shade or compare notes over chips and guac, I was back to the knife talk (thank you for putting up with me, Karen). In my ruminations on the subject, I had also deduced that adding “knife collector” to my match.com profile would be the best idea ever in the history of dating, and that those two little words would be the only litmus test I’d need to weed through potential suitors.

“For example, if they don’t like knives or are scared of me? We’ve probably got nothing in common anyway. Conversely, if they’re a little TOO enthusiastic about knives? Perhaps that’s all the background check I need. The right response (I’ll know it when I see it) will direct me to the woodsy, thoughtful, handy-man I’m looking for. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s foolproof!”

Karen and I joked about this half-baked idea, but as it turns out, I actually didn’t have to wait very long to test out my theory….The universe simultaneously delivered the possibility of romance and knife collection when insightful, artist extraordinaire Pat Pruitt asked if he could set me up with his friend from Albuquerque…wait for it…knifemaker Lucas Burnley.

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Burnley “Buku” with Nichols “Boomerang” Damascus blade and heat-colored titanium frame. Instagram photo by Lucas Burnley (@burnleyknives)

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Burnley “Kwaiken” with duplex ground Cpm154 blade, superconductor bolsters and Westinghouse Micarta scales. Instagram photo by Lucas Burnley (@burnleyknives)

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Burnley “Pelican” with Damasteel blade, copper bolsters, and carbon fiber scales. Instagram photo by Lucas Burnley (@burnleyknives)

On Sunday, as Indian Market came to a close, Lucas and I awkwardly met at Pat’s booth and set off for a late-afternoon lunch, ushered along by the whispers and giggling of Karen, Pat, and Pat’s fiancée, artist Marla Allison. I was immediately smitten, and nervously started asking questions not typically fit for conversation with relative strangers (“Do you have a knife on you now? Can I see it?!”), and ignored my own litmus test for suitors, talking incessantly about my interest in knives. What else is there to do when you know that the person sitting across from you isn’t yet aware that they’re an unwitting participant in this little master plan that you and the universe have cooked up?

Back home in Boston the next day, I got a call from Lucas asking me on an official first date — a road trip from Albuquerque to Las Vegas for Pat and Marla’s wedding a few weeks later. I booked the ticket, flew out there, and that was that. Through the power of technology and cheap flights, the long-distance hasn’t seemed so difficult. Traveling, road-tripping, and meeting wherever the next family vacation, wedding, or knife show takes us.

Maddie and Lucas

Courtesy photo

Back at the scene of the crime one year later, on the Sunday of Indian Market, Lucas and my parents walked around the Santa Fe plaza while I was at work with the Native Fashion Now crew, and he asked my parents if he could marry me. In October, he proposed. I said, “yes.”

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Lucas and me with our friend and knifemaking legend, Bob Terzuola. Image taken at the Tactical Knife Invitational, Las Vegas, 2015. Courtesy photo

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Working the crowd with my friend Matt and wearing our BRNLY tee-shirts behind a sold out table at Blade Show, Atlanta, 2014. Courtesy photo

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The motley crew at the New York Custom Knife Show, 2014. Courtesy photo

The journey has been amazing and fun and I am in awe of it all. Every day, my eyes are opened a little more to the knife world and its tight-knit community of collectors and enthusiasts who support the talented makers working within to push the boundaries of a tradition that spans time and place.

And, slowly but surely, my knife collection has been growing — with pieces old and new, and even a few whittling knives (I think 8-year-old Maddie would be proud of my progress). Each one has a story. And the stories are really the reason why I like knives in the first place. What did this knife mean to someone? What did someone make with their knife? Who did they feed, and protect, and provide for? There’s an intimacy and a direct human connection in the patina, nicks and accumulated wear of the well-loved knife that reveal stories about that object’s owner, both past and present.

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My grandfather’s Remington RH 32 hunting knife, now in my collection.
Photo by Maddie Kropa

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The knife (above) and its implied stories add a layer of depth to those told in deteriorating photos of my grandfather that we recently found in my grandparents’ garage, ca. 1930s. Courtesy photo

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Collaboration knife by Lucas Burnley and Pat Pruitt from a few years ago. A gift from a friend and a fitting addition to my collection. Photo by Maddie Kropa

In my modest, somewhat unfocused collection, most special of all is a gift that Lucas sent me for my birthday after our first date. I eagerly ripped open the box, and pulled out the most beautiful, long-stemmed and fragrant…tomahawk. Oh, so much better than roses! Though it was not one of his widely-recognized designs, it was a big, bladed cutting implement all the same (I’m not splitting hairs here).

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The gift to outdo all gifts. Photo by Maddie Kropa

This was the very tomahawk — made by Cold Steel — that he taught me to throw on our epic first date/roadtrip from Albuquerque to Las Vegas. I admired its recently wood-burned handle, noticing 17 tiny vignettes, each representing a different part of our then brief story — from our introduction in Santa Fe, to each memorable stop we made on our way to Pat and Marla’s wedding. Here’s hoping our grandchildren one day appreciate the story behind this piece as much as I do.

13 Comments

  1. gail spilsbury says:

    Marvelous story, had me chuckling in places–so well told! And opened my head to a new realm–the world of knives.

  2. Jim says:

    Great story featuring some of my favorite people! This post could lead to some really cool wedding gifts. Congrats!

  3. Matt says:

    Wow what a great story it brought a smile to my face , and I even made in the pictures :) the two of you are meant for one another. I agree with Jim on the wedding gifts, should be FUN!!!

  4. Susan Flynn says:

    Love this story. Thanks for sharing it with us. It reminded me of a scene in the movie “Chef” when the main character buys his 10-year-old son his first kitchen knife. This emotional attachment to cutlery is real and deep. Very touching.

  5. Victoria says:

    Oh Maddie (and Lucas) having seen the two of you together, I know you are perfect for each other. Your romance brings to mind a quote from the infinite wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “We’re all a little weird, and life’s a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall into mutual weirdness and call it love.”

    I do not collect knives, but I do understand and respect the urge. And I love that you are a skilled tomahawk thrower. I am certain that your grandchildren will cherish the tomahawk and the story it tells.

    Kudos and congrats!

  6. Beth & Frank says:

    Beautifully written, with all of the love, fun, humor & shared delights between the two of you…….DO tuck this story away for your children & grands to enjoy some day! You two are “carving out” quite a wonderful, deliciously delightful love story!! XOXO

  7. Jim Wirth says:

    What a beautiful love story! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how you two met to become the great couple I met at NYCKS. I am honored to be included in the photo from that show which helps tell your story, and I so look forward to having you both over for a visit on the Cape this summer.

  8. Mary says:

    Maddie, wonderful story! Entertaining, unique, and beautiful. Thank you for sharing. You skillfully wove together so many aspects of your life in this true love story. Well done!

  9. Lucas says:

    Well, this is about the 15th time I’ve come back to read this.
    The way you’ve told the story is great and I love how you were able to tie all of the elements together.
    As seems to often be the case, I’m reminded once again how lucky I am to have found you.

    Yours.

    Lucas

  10. Ribet says:

    My favorite dentist suggested I read your blog and I am glad I did. Very well written. A perfect mix of family history, romance and weapons. How can you go wrong?

  11. Maddie says:

    Thanks for all your comments and kind words! So glad to be living this story, and that I could share it with others <3 Excited to see what the next chapter holds (but if there's a blog post about it, you can expect it to include looping footage of me with my new throwing knives).

  12. Rachel says:

    Great story! And I can vouch that it’s all true, including 1) the part where Grampy would spend hours sharpening those knives (that little one is the weirdest!), 2) the fact that the little Swiss Army Knife existed, 3) the chance meeting of Lucas and Maddie that created a miraculous long-distance relationship that has worked famously well, and 4) the part where Maddie does really have THAT good of a throwing arm.

  13. David B. says:

    Love this beautiful & wonderfully told story. May your adventures together remain so sharp, may your love continue to be forged in the fires of passion you share for one another, & may your years continue to be tempered with the richest of blessings & health!

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