March 1, 2019
Over the years, I’ve heard other genealogists rhapsodize over the wonderful heirlooms they inherited from their ancestors. They boast of everything from Civil War sabers to 1700’s woven coverlets to family Bibles with complete pedigree charts. Sadly, I don’t have any of those things. It’s not that my ancestors didn’t keep anything at all; it’s just that what they chose to keep isn’t particularly exciting for an heirloom-loving descendant. For example, when we cleaned out my paternal grandmother’s house a number of years ago, she had carefully stored a stack of mouse-nibbled National Geographic magazines, a stack of old, cracked flowerpots and a lot of mostly worn-out furniture and clothes. None of it made it past the dumpster.
However, I did keep one heirloom that none of my cousins or siblings thought was worth having. My grandmother always set her table for every meal, but she didn’t set out teaspoons, except for special holiday or formal dinners. Otherwise, the teaspoons lived in an old jar, bowl side down; Grandma placed the jar on the table for everyone to grab a spoon as needed. Whenever any of us ate with our grandparents, we always vied for our “favorite” spoon based on the decorations on their handles. Since few of the spoons were from the same set, the handles had various flowers or other designs. However, there was one spoon that none of us ever wanted to use to eat our cereal, soup or ice cream. That was the infamous “pig spoon.” At some point long before any of us were born, that spoon had been used to give a pig a dose of medicine. Whatever the medicine was, the pig obviously hadn’t been enthusiastic about taking it, since he’d bitten into the bowl of the spoon leaving it intact but with several dents. It was still perfectly functional, but definitely deformed. Plus, it had been a pig’s mouth, so whenever one of us drew out that spoon, we always complained about the unfairness of having to use it and tried to force it on someone else.
I’ve always wondered why Grandma didn’t just toss the offending spoon. Why hadn’t she trashed it when it was first damaged? She must have realized that no one would want to eat out of a spoon that a pig had used and that, because the spoon was damaged, everyone would always know exactly which spoon it was. The spoon wasn’t even sterling, but was silver plate, so it didn’t even have any intrinsic value. I know that my grandmother grew up in Norway in poverty, so perhaps that’s why she couldn’t throw out, as she called it, “a perfectly good spoon.” Maybe she thought she was teaching a lesson on making do with what was still useful even if it wasn’t perfect.
I’ll never know exactly why my grandmother kept that silly spoon, but when I think about it now, I realize that all of the seemingly useless items that we found when she died did say something about my grandparents. They came from a generation where things were kept until they were completely worn out. If something could be used, even if it was damaged, it was. For example, in my grandmother’s view, those old mouse-nibbled magazines might have come in handy someday if someone needed to make a poster or write a report. If something could be mended or darned or re-glued, it was. That’s why I keep the pig spoon; it gives me a little glimpse into how life was for my ancestors, and that’s really the value of most of the heirlooms we family historians treasure so much. In that context, maybe the pig spoon is just as much an heirloom worth having as that Civil War saber (although I certainly wouldn’t turn down a saber or a family Bible or two). Also, I’m never eating anything out of that pig spoon; after all, a pig’s mouth was on it a few generations ago!
Researcher/Director at Large