who got grandma’s wooden dough bowl?

Many years ago, when I learned my grandmother–my father’s mother–had died unexpectedly the night  before, I drove immediately to her house in the next county to join the rest of the family in an unspoken familial custom of banding together in times of trauma.

I walked quickly the length of the hallway and saw that the old country house had already been stripped rather bare of most possessions. Even the old-fashioned toilet chair and chamber pot, on which she had been sitting when she died in the wee early hours of the morning, was nowhere to be seen.

The house was divided by a hallway along the center the full length of the house with adjoining bedrooms on either side. There were enough rooms for nine boys, two grandsons, and Grandma and Grandpa to sleep, as well as the kitchen, dining room, and two living rooms, one in front and the other next to Grandma’s room.

People were gathered about, my father and the uncle who had discovered Grandma’s body were in the parlor across the hall from the kitchen quietly discussing the previous night’s events, my mother and one of my aunts  standing in the dining room talking quietly about the disgusting display of greed by a few family members who’d never had time for Grandma while she was alive. I’d never heard of Gimbels or any other huge department store sale those days, but now that I look back, that was what the activity inside Grandma’s old house was like.

The kitchen is the setting for most of my Grandma memories. My favorite was her standing at the counter over her old wooden bowl in which flour was stored mixing up batch after batch of clabber biscuits. When it wasn’t in use, the old hand-carved wooden bowl was stored on a lower shelf and kept covered with a wooden board.

Grandpa had died 11 years previously, leaving no last will and testament. It had taken many of those intervening years getting his estate settled and distributed among his nine surviving sons and the two grandsons. Having permanent living accommodation in the old house by the uncle who inherited the land on which it stood, Grandma no longer had real property, but she did leave personal property with more sentimental than actual value.

She would have been surprised to see the frenzy with which the family fought over some of them: her seasoned, over-sized iron frying pans and pots;  her set of butcher knives kept sharpened to perfection by spit and whetstone; the milk pail with the attached rubber nipple  she used to feed orphaned calves; her handmade quilts, the stash of fabric prints she collected. The one thing I know that nearly every woman in the family coveted, however, was that old wooden dough bowl she had used for so many years.

It was rumored that Aunt Lottie got it, but we’ll never know for sure. No one, as far as I know, ever admitted to having it. Aunt Lottie was married to the second oldest son and they never had children. So if she did get the bowl, it has totally disappeared from the family by now. Too bad it will never be passed down from daughter to daughter in the long family line. There’s something about keeping things in the family that is part of our psyche I guess.  One thing I know for sure, that’s no way to distribute family heirlooms or transfer personal property.

Recently I attended a lecture, Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate, by an estate planner who discussed the disposal or transfer the personal things like the yellow pie plate or, in my case, the wooden dough bowl, that causes the most hurt feelings after the death of  a family member. The University of Minnesota Extension Office has published a workbook guide, under the same title, to help people with these difficult decisions.

“Readers learn immediately how to identify and understand the special significance and value of belongings. This process often results in surprises. Who would have known a “silly” jelly glass meant so much to everyone? Or a photo? Or a ring? Or a fishing pole? Using the authors’ suggestions the process can become a celebration of a person’s life rather than a family nightmare.” Who’d want this old stuff – my old things aren’t worth anything to anyone.”

This book helps anyone concerned about how their possessions will be distributed by their family, providing guidance for planning ahead to prevent family feuds after they are gone. Some of the suggestions that came up in the lecture, which I thought were really cool, was to set aside a date for transfer day for the family. Using monopoly money, distribute money equally to all, and set up an auction. Someone who’s had their eye on Daddy’s favorite old razor might then bid and win that item. If everyone, on the other hand, wants Grandma’s wooden dough bowl, then the highest bidder would get it. That could mean that they’d be willing to sink every dollar of their paper money to get it, and then have none left for anything else but every indication would be that they really wanted that dough bowl badly and that’s probably who should get it. I think that’s a great idea.

There are many other creative ideas in the book as well that you can use in your own estate planning, one of which is to photograph important and sentimental items, put them into a word document and write a paragraph for each piece with an associated memory of story, and perhaps memories of the people who owned the item before you.

Put all this on that CD and make copies for everybody. Then, no matter who carries that dough bowl home, it will be remembered by all. That will lessen the sting of seeing your childless Aunt Lottie carry it home with her. Keeping memories alive may be more important in the long run than keeping what ultimately becomes stuff or–several generations down–junk. This idea would also work for old family photographs too, with not only the dates or period the picture was taken but what was going on in the lives of the subjects in the time period.

While most everything was gone by the time I arrived that day at Grandma’s home, one of my favorite aunts asked me in a quiet aside if I would like to have something to remember Grandma by. Of course I said yes. She disappeared for awhile and when she came back she handed me a small plastic frame, about 4 x 6 inches, that probably cost between 50 cents and a dollar.

There’s a yellowed paper inside with a poem above a pen and ink drawing of a fireplace and hearth. Inside the fireplace in the picture hangs an iron pot over a brightly blazing fire. This little cheap plastic frame has held a featured place in every kitchen I’ve ever owned for for 44 years now. It doesn’t take up much room, weighs very little, and only needs a little wipe now and then to keep in clean.

Best of all, the poem epitomizes my grandmother almost as much as that old wooden dough bowl did. I don’t know what will happen to it after I’m gone, but this is what it says:


Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I’ve not time to be
A saint by doing lovely things
or watching late with Thee
Or dreaming in the dawn light
or storming Heaven’s gates
Make me a saint by getting meals
and washing up the plates.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy love
and light it with Thy peace
Forgive me all my worrying
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room or by the sea
Accept this service that I do
I do it unto Thee.

5 thoughts on “who got grandma’s wooden dough bowl?

  1. I am so sorry this happened. Even though I was my grandmother’s only grandchild, mother threw away many of her things before I could stop her. I made a decision about “things” years ago. I gave stuff to the kids now….things I wasn’t using and had no room for. They both said they wanted to divide things among themselves when I die, so i am letting them. No trusts……they have proved a terrible hassle generation after generation with us. All the money is almost gone in this latest crash anyway. Realities.

    • Please don’t feel sorry. I’ve grown up now and know that the dough bowl is only a thing. The real treasures are the memories, and I have plenty of those.

  2. Nearly 20 years ago, I visited my cousin Tam in Raleigh. In her china cupboard was a beautiful “blue onion” platter which looked like an antique. Tam said it belonged to our grandmother. I have nothing from my Grandmother Green, and I feel this is a loss. I understand the need keep possessions so that we can feel connected to those we have loved and lost. My Aunt Edna, who died last year, bequeathed many family treasures to me. I have the bisque piano baby, Grandma Bates’ porcelain girl in a chair and her china dinnerware, Great-Grandma Franz’s amethyst pin and Grandma’s wedding ring, a $2.50 gold piece which was ordered to be turned in during the Roosevelt Administration and was not, and Uncle Harry’s handmade, inlaid jewelry box to name a few. From the dumpster I rescued the Glass Wax Christmas stencils which I plan to use some day even though Glass Wax is no longer made. And I have Edna’s photo albums dating to her infancy in 1920. Much to the surprise of everyone in the family, Edna had photos of herself and a man on a cruise to Bermuda in 1955. Edna was our maiden aunt. Did we actually believe that she was not interested in men? There are “cheesecake” photos of Edna in revealing swim suits, photos of her posing on a bed, photos of her in the pool. How wonderful to see that Edna had a rich life with some mystery. I feel very connected to my ancestors through the few meager possessions they left behind. It saddens and gladdens me to look at the Christmas decorations I took from Edna’s storage locker. They remind me of Christmas with my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother, Christmases that I will never be able to repeat but sometimes long to. Perhaps I place too much value on memorabilia. One of the most heartbreaking places I’ve visited is Portobello Road in London. It has dozens of antique stores that sell family heirlooms. Sure, many families don’t want silverware that must be cleaned or old moustache cups or silly figurines. I know I could not part with the stuff.

  3. I’m so glad you got those precious items, ML. I hope this post inspires you to make plans for what happens to them when you’re no longer here to take care of them. I love the story about Aunt Edna. I have a similar but faded memory of an Aunt in my mother’s family who worked every summer on a cruise boat on Lake Michigan. There were whispers about her man friend, too. In fact, your story inspires me to see what else I can learn about this. There was never any mention of a husband in her life either. What makes it interesting is that Aunt Gertie would be about 120 years old if she were still alive. No matter what period we live, we’re not that different form each other, are we? Like you, I’m gratified that she apparently led a full life in spite of no designated man, i.e., husband, in her life. I guess she was a little ahead of her time. Thanks for your comment.

  4. What a shame that bowl didn’t go to you. But that’s what happens if we don’t designate beforehand what we want given to whom.
    I guess I’ve been fortunate…..as an only child, my daughter and I split what we wanted that belonged to my mother. And with my aunt, since she lived with Ray and me, I got all of her treasures. And they’ll be passed on to my daughter and granddaughter.
    I’m finally trying to catch up in the blog world….it’s been a very tough two weeks around here.

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