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:
A KITCHEN PRAYER
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.