McFeely: When 'just stuff' is much more than that

An old aluminum pot, probably not worth $5, is a treasured keepsake after mother's death

Mom birthday.jpg
Olga McFeely and Mike McFeely.
Mike McFeely / The Forum

(I wrote this as a newsletter that goes out via email to those who sign up to receive it. My newsletters are free and go out once a week on Thursday morning. It's meant as a little something special to those who are interested, and I usually write more personal or light-hearted things than my column for The Forum and InForum. We don't usually run our newsletters on the website or in print, but my boss suggested I break the rules for this one because he liked it. So here it is. If you want to receive my weekly newsletter in your inbox, go to and sign up for The McFeely Mess. Takes two seconds. Thanks for reading.)

MOORHEAD — My mother, Olga McFeely, died Oct. 1, 2022. She was 94. While you know the day is inevitable, particularly at her age, it is still devastating. I mean, she was my mom and moms are the best. She was always there for me, for 56 years. It was a gift.

My three sisters did most of the cleaning and sorting of her apartment, deciding what stuff was worth saving and what went to the thrift store or dumpster. Mom had made the decision on some things that had sentimental or monetary value, leaving handwritten notes expressing her wishes. My sisters doled out the rest, things they figured had some meaning for some reason.

Among the items in my cardboard box: an old tabletop pewter cigarette lighter that doesn't work, a photo of a sunset on Lake Carlos near Alexandria, Minn., taken from our old cabin and a bird identification book I'd bought for mom decades ago. It's just stuff, valueless to anyone but me.

The value is in memories and comfort. That "just stuff" was a part of our homes, our family, our history, our lives. Of mom and dad, who died 35 years ago.


That "just stuff" were constant threads through my life, a connection to childhood through teens through young adulthood through middle age to however 56 is defined.

So when my sister Patty suggested I take an old, beat-up Dutch oven of mom's — "It's made a lot of tasty soups and stews," she texted — I figured one more piece of sentimentality couldn't hurt.

I like to cook and, like all sons, thought my mom was the best cook. So to have that pot in our kitchen was a no-brainer. It was one of those threads, always there, that should continue awhile longer.

When I was a child, that old silver pot was on the stove cooking chili. Or when I came from high school basketball practice, it was filled with chicken a la king. If I was back for the weekend from college, it was in the oven cooking a roast.

Even after mom moved to an apartment in the Twin Cities and I'd stop by for a visit, it was there.

"I made some chicken soup if you want some."

Always. There.

I took the pot home after mom's funeral and for the first time, looked at it closely. My sister had said it was likely passed down from mom's mother to her and so was quite old.


My mom's old pot that still cooks some tasty soups and stews.
Mike McFeely / The Forum

On the bottom is stamped "Wagner Ware," "Sidney -O-" and "Magnalite" along with what's presumed to be an identification number.

Google, do your thing.

Turns out the pot was made by the Wagner Manufacturing Company at its foundry in Sidney, Ohio. The company made cast-iron and aluminum cookware from 1891-1952. It was, at its peak, the dominant cookware maker in the U.S.

Magnalite was a model of patented aluminum alloy pots introduced in the early 1930s. While Wagner was much better known as a maker of cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens — many original items are still in use and coveted by collectors — the company tried to branch out with its Magnalite line during the Great Depression to bolster sales.

According to one website specializing in antique Wagner Ware, the stamping on the bottom of mom's pot indicates it was likely manufactured in the 1930s or '40s.

Whatever the specific year, it's old. Think of the meals it's made and the people it's fed through generations of my family.

It continues. Soups, stews, chili, roasts, homemade spaghetti sauce, bolognese, beef short ribs. I've made them all in the pot. It'll feed another generation — our daughter who still visits for supper (not often enough).

I'm sentimental that way. Old stuff makes me feel good.


In my pickup, I keep a magnetic dashboard statue of the Holy Family (from decades ago when magnets stuck to dashboards) that was in every one of my dad's vehicles as far back I can remember. It's been in every vehicle of mine since 1988, when he died.

I still use dad's green Coleman camp stove made in the 1940s. My garage and basement have vintage Grain Belt beer memorabilia that belonged to a cousin and her husband before they passed.

The bottom of my mom's old pot, showing the manufacturer and other details.
Mike McFeely / The Forum

Threads to family members. Connections to the past. Triggers of good memories. You see them, touch them, use them ... and there are feelings.

But the pot, that's turned out to be something special. It's a link to my mom, whose passing is still new. It reminds me of walking into the house and smelling whatever delicious meal she was cooking. It reminds me of her, her homes, her cooking. Her love.

And it's still doing its jobs. It's still cooking and it's making me feel good.

Just a pot. An old, beat-up aluminum Dutch oven that probably isn't worth $5.

Except to me.

It's still making a lot of tasty soups and stews, to paraphrase my sister, and the goodness is about more than just the flavor of the food.


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Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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