A Norwegian Grandma’s Approach to Dealing With Family Heirlooms

© Grandma Marguerite in an undated photo. Grandma Marguerite in an undated photo.

My Norwegian grandmother's approach to distributing the family's treasures may have been a bit morbid, but it makes a lot of sense.

As minimalism and simple living become more and more the norm, many young adults are shying away from the family heirlooms. Sure, a piece of jewelry might be lovely, but where to put the crates of fine china and bulky armoire in the tiny home? Or really, even in the medium-sized home?

Katherine recently wrote about Swedish Death Cleaning; part Scandinavian noir and part totally pragmatic taking care of business. The idea is that decluttering as you age will save the next generation from having to figure out what to do with your spoon collection and grandfather’s taxidermied moose head. Prior to that Lloyd tackled the issue of family stuff in two articles on sister site Mother Nature Network.

And the whole thing has made me think a lot about my Norwegian grandmother, Marguerite.

Marge (a stumpy nickname at odds with her eccentric elegance) had a beautiful, magical spirit that completely enchanted me. She was an artist with a houseful of cuckoo clocks and heavy European antiques. She would walk down the dark halls singing to wake us up in the morning; she’d dress us in scarves and jewels so that we looked like exotic princesses, then delight us with unusual (ok, strange) delicacies from her kitchen; with her long braids wrapped around her head and dressed in peacock blue and Bohemian gems, she would sneak out to the patio to feed the raccoons.

She was the perfect grandmother in my eyes, but she was nothing if not cliché in her dark Nordic side.

“Honey, just remember you were born to die,” she would tell 5-year-old me in her melodic singsong voice. Just one of her many morbid bon mots, this one borrowed from Shakespeare I would later discover; little macabre nuggets wrapped in rainbows.

But it was her real-time will that remains one of the things I marvel at most. One could peek underneath treasures in her house and chances were there would be a small scrap of paper with a name on it, taped to the bottom. Any compliment on something in her home would lead to a “put you name on it!” The idea was, as you might be able to guess, that when she gave up the ghost, we’d all know what was going to whom.

In a way, it was just more of morbid Marguerite. We were all regularly reminded by these claim tags of the fact that she would die (since of course, we were all born to die!). It may have been a bit manipulative (as in, appreciate me now ‘cause one day I’ll be gone), but you can’t deny the pragmatism of the idea. Everyone gets exactly what they want; family isn’t burdened by stuff they don’t want; there’s plenty of time to negotiate over the more desirable things; and unclaimed things could be offered to friends to put their names on.

But the best part was that it gave her time to tell us about the things that were destined to become ours. We heard tales of the wedding trunk that came from Norway holding a few generations’ worth of bridal gowns, about the cuckoo clock that came from the Black Forest, about the watch purchased in Switzerland while traveling with my pregnant mother and me in the womb. It was an opportunity for us to make even more meaningful connections between the things we would receive and the person who was bestowing them.

In our “let’s not talk about death and dying” western culture, I’m not sure that Marguerite’s method would go over so well – even I think it’s a bit brazen. But it really makes so much sense. As new generations start rethinking the desirability of family heirlooms, it’s time to rethink how we pass things from one generation to the next. And while I haven’t asked my kids to start marking their requests, I’m guessing by the time I have grandchildren my Nordic side will prevail and the paper and scotch tape will emerge. I have stories to tell about a Swiss watch and a Norwegian grandmother with a wonderfully pragmatic morbid side; you want the cuckoo clock? Put your name on it!