Not long ago, the phone rang. It was a boy named Greg who lives across the street, a college student whose sister sometimes babysits for my children. He told me he has just been hired to sell Cutco knives, and would I please let him come by and do a practice sales call? "Honestly," he said, "you don't need to buy a thing."
Of course I said yes. My husband thought it sounded like a great idea, especially since it involved no expenditure of cash.
Greg arrived at the appointed time, 7 pm on a warm summer Sunday, and set himself up in our dining room. He had brought some sample knives, a piece of rope, a morsel of leather, and laid them all out on our table. He told me to bring in two of my best knives.
I sat across from him and tried to exude encouragement. He had me cut through the leather with my knife, a Wustof, which is pretty good and cut fairly well. But the Cutco knife, ergonomically designed, pleasing to hold---it cut through that leather like it was butter. And with the Cutco in my hand, it was like the rope was applesauce.
I began to covet the knives. They are expensive (nearly $1000 for a full set!), sure, but just last Thanksgiving my Uncle George pointed out that I didn't have a proper carving knife. Maybe I would just put in a little order for the carving knife and fork, which would set me back something like $140.
When Greg said "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you to buy something," I declined to buy the full set, or even the half set, but conceded to take the carving knife and fork. While he wrote up the order, I went upstairs for my checkbook.
I was intercepted by my nearly apoplectic husband. He did not want me to spend the money. I acquiesced, mainly so he would not bust a blood vessel. Something didn't feel right, though. I am not a spendthrift. I should be allowed to make my own less-than-frugal decisions, especially if they help neighbor children and provide me with gorgeous carving knives.
So a few days later, as I sat poolside with my mother, I asked her if she had ever heard of Cutco. I think Greg said the company was started in 1949.
"Yes," she said. "Aunt Jean had a Cutco party right when I was first married  and I bought a whole set for Grandma." I was shocked. "They were $1000!" I said. And also, I remember my Grandmother cooking the huge meals she routinely served with nothing more than a rusty butter knife and a bent teaspoon.
"They cost a lot," she agreed. "But Grandma never used them. She called them 'Mary's knives,' and they hung on a wall."
My grandmother, the daughter of immigrants who worked as domestic help on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, never opened expensive gifts. Her refusal of finery was like a repudiation of the excess of her parents' employers. We once went to the Frick Museum, a former home of a fabulously wealthy family, and Grandma couldn't enjoy it at all. She hated to be reminded of people who had so much, while others had nothing. When she died in September 2009 at 94, her children found numerous unused silk slips and nighties dating back to the Second World War.
"Why wouldn't she use the Cutco knives?" I asked, though I thought I knew the answer. I was also thinking, how can I get my hands on those knives?
"She was superstitious," said Mom. " She thought that if you gave knives as a gift, you cut the relationship."
One of the many things that I didn't know about my grandmother, Mary Vorel Burr. RIP.