Opinion | The Penknife: A Thanksgiving Memory

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Opinion | The Penknife: A Thanksgiving Memory

An engineer should always carry a penknife in his pocket, my father said. Not the marvel of a Swiss Army knife; just a small, two-blade tool for whatever might come along.

My father, Manuel Rafael Alvarez, a lifetime seafarer, held a chief engineer’s license for inland waterways and deep sea. As a teenager, he sailed to South America on Bethlehem Steel ore ships and spent most of his career on tugboats along the Baltimore waterfront.

It was from my old man’s drinking buddies that I fashioned some of the characters — particularly Horseface Pakusa — who worked the docks in Season 2 of “The Wire.” Had it occurred to me, I would have had the Horse tell a greenhorn, “A man should always carry a penknife.”

But I never gave much thought to Dad’s penknife (about two inches long, sided with plastic made to look like wood) until last Thanksgiving.

He often used it to remove the foil around the top of a wine bottle and at this time of year to score chestnuts — “castañas, he’d say with a smile — before boiling them. After they’d cooled, Dad peeled them with the tiny knife and passed the meat of the fruit to one of us.

Last year, I cooked the Thursday feast, enough to feed a half-dozen or so even though the guest list was just Mom and Dad and me. Eating had become a chore for them, but I was determined to put on the dog.

The pandemic had shut down other meals I would have been invited to (tables from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn to Philadelphia), and though my parents’ house was Covid-free, Dad was sick, much worse than we knew.

In the morning, my son (named for my father as my father named me for his old man) helped get Dad to my brother Danny’s home about a half-mile away for a quick visit. Although it took both of us to guide him from the car to the patio, we were cheered by coffee in bright sunshine and the crisp autumn air of Maryland. And we were together. Other than trips to the hospital, this would be the last time Dad left the house.

Back home, he settled into the screened-in porch, ostensibly to watch football though he didn’t seem to care if the TV was on or not. Mom, herself disabled by pulmonary disease, took a nap and I began putting the meal together.

I opened a pint of Chincoteague oysters for the stuffing. My father, a fine cook whether at home or in the galley of the harbor tug America, often fried double-breaded oysters on Sunday afternoons in winter. He also made a good oyster stew, having learned as a newlywed from his father-in-law.

I’d gotten the oysters the day before from an old-timer who sells seafood out of a truck on the highway, right near the pharmacy I’d been going to at least once a week to get prescriptions for my parents. In time, that would include liquid morphine for Dad.

Spearing a fat one from the jar, I walked it out to Dad on a fork. Houston was pummeling the Lions in Detroit but Pop wasn’t paying much attention. He was mostly staring into the backyard of the brick rancher he’d purchased with a union-negotiated salary in 1966. Back then, he was half the age that I am now.

Their suburb of Linthicum is less than 10 miles from downtown Baltimore, though well across the fabled “city line” that promised a good life to my parents’ generation in the old factory neighborhoods. On a quarter-acre along Orchard Road is the dream of a couple of working-class kids raised during the Great Depression in narrow waterfront rowhouses and married right out of high school.

Dad slurped the oyster like a champ, as though we were back at one of Baltimore’s fish markets and it was sliding off the shell, a cold beer in his other hand. I think he did it more to please me than savor an old favorite.

I left him to doze in the chair, putting the turkey in the oven and heading downstairs to take a siesta. In the basement — my four-day-a-week bedroom on caretaking shifts shared with Danny — I sleep in the twin bed that was mine when I listened to Frank Zappa (“Hot Rats”) on an eight-track and got high on cheap pot once the folks were asleep.

These days I lie in it and — instead of nodding off to the bite of Zappa’s guitar — make sure no one upstairs has fallen out of bed.


I’d borrowed a last-minute bay leaf from new neighbors across the backyard, their house owned long ago by a friendly dentist and his wife, good friends and dinner guests of my parents back when I was pretending to be Brooks Robinson in that same backyard. And the meal turned out pretty good.

Most of the trimmings — mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, stuffing and sauerkraut (an old German Thanksgiving staple in Baltimore) — were ready to serve at the same time. I’m no chef, but I’d pulled it off.

Mom and Dad were seated at the kitchen table, and I put all of the side dishes in front of them before turning to the stove to carve the turkey. As I sliced, anticipating one of my favorite meals of the year, something caught my eye and I turned to watch.

Dad was using his penknife to slice the foil around the lip of a bottle of Martinelli’s Sparkling Red Grape Juice. At first, I thought of putting my hand on his shoulder and taking the knife, saying that I would do it. But that was something I’d never done, so I spared his dignity and allowed myself the pleasure of watching.

Dad always enjoyed a glass of wine with his meals, sometimes two, out of a small blue creamer that decades ago found its way into our home from a forgotten restaurant. He’d lost his taste for vino when he became ill, and so the “refreshment,” as he called wine and beer, was Martinelli’s.

Before Mom was fitted for dentures, she’d sit before one of her favorite dishes — sometimes crab cakes or pork chops, often coconut custard pie — and exclaim, “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!” before digging in.

And boy, oh boy, the surprise when Dad unscrewed the cap! In his working days, my father witnessed the christening of many ships from the deck of a tugboat. But the bow upon which this bottle streamed was the kitchen.

Sparkling grape juice everywhere!

Did Dad unintentionally shake the bottle before opening? Had he mistaken it for ketchup? Did I jostle the bottle before handing it to him? Sweet and sticky, the juice rained on the food, was pooled under the table, splattered Mom and drenched Dad.

You haven’t tasted oyster stuffing until you’ve had it with a hint of Martinelli’s sparkling grape.

In the past, Dad might have cursed mildly and laughed after a moment before saying, “Ralphie, go grab the mop.” But he just sat there, shoulders drooping, quietly asking himself what had happened.

Mom and I shared a what-the-hell-you-gonna-do look (rare for a woman who can spot a speck of dirt on the kitchen floor from another room), and I soaked up the mess with bath towels before helping Dad into a clean shirt.

Then I took my parents’ hands and we said grace, something our family does whether it’s Thanksgiving or not, just enough juice left in the bottle for us to clink glasses, say “salud” and have a sip.


Dad died at home from lymphoma of the spleen in the early morning hours of Aug. 8 this year, my daughter’s 40th birthday. Along with his wristwatch and fishing hat, the little brown penknife was among things left behind that he touched every day.

Mom asked me if I wanted the knife and I said yes, knowing I’d carry it for just a day or so. I gave it to Danny, who followed our father into the engine room. What am I going to do with a penknife? Sharpen a pencil?

I will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner again this year, a much smaller affair, just me and Mom. I’ll borrow the penknife from Danny and take my time cutting away the foil from the Martinelli’s bottle.

Rafael Alvarez was a staff writer for HBO’s “The Wire” and a City Desk reporter at The Baltimore Sun for 20 years. He is the author of the forthcoming “Don’t Count Me Out: The Bruce White Story.”

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