Small items pack big meaning and memory



I was very close to my former mother-in-law, Mary Louise, and so grateful we were able to re-establish our loving relationship after the end of my 30-year-marriage to her only son and his tragic death in an accident a little over a year later. There’s nothing like a contentious divorce to tear a family apart; I had been deeply fearful that I would lose this wise, quirky, gracious woman from my life forever.

I should have known better. I should have trusted she would rise above the bickering of our divorce and the heartbreak of the accident and reclaim me as a valued member of her family. And that’s just what she did.

“You’ll always be my daughter-in-law,” she whispered, hugging me close at the end of one visit. From then on, I felt welcomed and embraced in her home, even as her health declined and her daughters, my dear former sisters-in-law, took on the day-to-day challenge of caring for her. When she died peacefully in her own bed last summer, a few days shy of her 95th birthday, I had the joy of our reconciliation to ease the sadness of her death.

The divorce means that the settling of her estate has had very little to do with me, which is just as well. But I was pleased recently when a family member invited me to stop by the house in Yarmouth and look through some of Mary Lou’s things. Maybe there were some small keepsakes there that would be meaningful to bring home with me?

Like many of my peers, I’m not really looking to add to my store of worldly possessions. I’ve gone through several downsizings and am truly trying to travel lightly through the rest of my life. There were only a few items that came to mind when I thought about what I might like to find still unclaimed in her house.

One was a framed bit of needlework I remembered seeing in Mary Lou’s former home in Simsbury, Connecticut, on my first, anxious, meet-the-family visit there when I was 24. Two bright red flags floated on a black background with the words “Hilsen fra Danmark” hand-stitched in a looping cursive. It hung in the upstairs bathroom, and when I came down after settling my things into the guest bedroom, I asked about it, largely to demonstrate that I was both observant and curious — worthy daughter-in-law material.

Mary Lou explained that the piece had been a gift to her husband’s parents, I think, from the family of a Danish au pair girl, a kind of international nanny, who had come to the United States looking for an education and an entrée into American culture. She had become a beloved family friend and stayed in this country for several years before returning to Denmark as a young adult. “Hilsen fra Danmark” translates as “Greetings from Denmark.”

Mary Lou didn’t know whether the young Danish woman had stitched the needlework herself or purchased it as a souvenir to send back to her American family. But the piece and its story had found a place in her home for many years. This week, though I had not thought of it for years, it somehow floated up to the top of the short list of things I hoped to find still in the house.

The only other item on that list was a few of Mary Lou’s heavy, pressed-glass wine goblets made by the Portland Glass Company, which was in operation from 1863 to 1873. She was proud of her family’s deep roots in Maine and took pleasure in using her Portland Glass collection whenever possible.

But surely, I thought, other, closer family members would have claimed the Portland Glass goblets, and probably the sweet needlework, too. So, I was surprised to find a boxful of assorted glassware in a back room, which included many pieces of Portland glass. After some deliberation, I selected a set of three very small, stemmed glasses with a delicate grapevine pattern pressed into them.

And on a nearby table, surrounded by many other framed pieces, was the needlework I remembered from so long ago. It was as though it had been waiting for me to come and take it home.

I am delighted with these modest but meaningful additions to my home, and I look forward to giving them a few more years of use, life and family history before passing them on. I will think of Mary Lou and my abiding love for her family each time I raise a beautiful, tiny glass of wine to my lips, each time the bright flags of Denmark catch my eye.





Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at