The Stuff Of Family & Ancestors: Thoughts While Sorting Through Boxes

Does this make me feel more alive?

[The question to ask. Always.]

I’ve been in a deciding frame of mind this month. Must get rid of a past that doesn’t serve me.

A past that in many cases is not mine, but I reluctantly accepted and boxed up when elderly relatives passed on, storing their stuff in my closets, I did.

Now, I want empty closets, the feeling of lightness.

Been going through dusty boxes of old family photos and documents and letters. Pamphlets and newspaper articles.

Memorabilia, too.

Does this make me feel more alive?

I shred the photos and docs and letters that don’t call to me, and save those that might… might… might… someday find their way into…

a blog post?

an article or essay?

a memoir, perhaps, even?

But as for the family memorabilia, it’s a different kind of past. Remembered with objects, things of history.

Personal cookbooks;  and 1940s slides [with a projector];  and  handwritten family stories;  and a diary;  and a daguerreotype;  and [of all things] a Civil War soldier’s personal mirror with carved initials.

What shall I decide about these objects, I wonder.

Does this make me feel more alive?

Difficult for me, an adult orphan, to know what to do with these things that held memories for someone who is long gone. Someone who I may never have met.

I intend to make peace with these objects, sending them on their way…

to history museums or libraries?

to antique malls?

to the dump?

I’ve been a good relative, respectful, but now I’m ready to have more space, both literal and figurative, in my life. Must get rid of a past that doesn’t serve me.

Does this make me feel more alive?

Published by

Ally Bean

Observant. Humorous. Adaptable. Happy enough. Midwestern by chance. Kindhearted by choice. Usually.

69 thoughts on “The Stuff Of Family & Ancestors: Thoughts While Sorting Through Boxes”

      1. I am an epic purger. It really depends on if there’s value (sentiment or monetary) I tale pictures and then I sell or give away unless it’s super important, which is almost nothing. I think holding onto too much stuff keeps you rooted in the past and doesn’t allow you to move forward. One small token to remind you, if you want, and the rest us clutter. How much time and energy do you want to devote to what has happened to someone else, how often do you want /need to have object

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        1. LA, oh I hear ‘ya. I’m excellent at getting rid of things that relate to Z-D and I. But without any living family in my life, this inherited stuff has taken on extra meaning. Plus some of it has historical significance beyond being my family’s stuff– and it needs to go to museums or library collections or somewhere. 🙄

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  1. This past summer I was at a picnic at my niece’s daughter’s house. She took me into her dining room to show me my mother’s old wine glasses. I didn’t remember what I had done with them but somehow they got there. She was so pleased to have them that I made a note if I would do another large purge, I’d contact the relatives. However, at this point most of my stuff is my crap and no one wants that. Off to the dump.

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    1. Kate, that’s a sweet story. I have no relatives to speak of, so this stuff, the memorabilia, is mine to do with what I want. And it’s a burden, to be honest. What to do, what to do…

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      1. Then it’s not a burden really. I worry I’m throwing out something that someone in the family will cherish. I already know what I want to keep and it’s less every year! I wish I had more photos but most of the other stuff is just stuff.

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        1. Some of these items have historical significance beyond family sentimentality. Kind of sort of famous relatives, you see. And getting their stuff to the right library or museum or collector is tricky. [Or maybe unnecessary. I dunno.]

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  2. Oh my! To be the Final Caretaker of so many things is such an enormous responsibility! I don’t envy you. Not one bit.

    It has been my lot to have to work through huge, intimidating piles of stuff, however, of various descriptions at different times. It can be emotionally draining. I was given a valuable bit of advice from a professional who told me to set a timer for 30-45 minutes (my own choice), and then, when the timer went off, to STOP IMMEDIATELY AND WALK AWAY. Even if I were holding something and had not made a decision, I simply set it down and walked out.

    That advice saved me, and in so many ways. Maybe it would help you, too.

    In any case, I like your Mantra for guiding your work. After all, your Stuff should add to your life, not drag it down.

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    1. nance, you’ve described my role perfectly: I’m the Final Caretaker of Stuff. Not a career goal I can assure you.

      I love your timer idea and will be doing that henceforth. I find myself spending hours just looking through this stuff, then feeling overwhelmed [but never sad] by it. I only care about it in the sense that I’m a conscientious person with an appreciation for history.

      But I’m also a woman who’d like to have an organized, clutter-free home. And that’s where my question/mantra comes into play. I say it often.

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  3. That is a scrapbooker/junk journaler’s dream collection you have there, Ms. Ally! I know of many people who would love to have those old catalogs and memorabilia, even the photos, to use in their projects.

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    1. Janet, I’ve thought of the scrapbook angle on lots of this paper stuff. Some of it is charming, some of it is a bit too business-y I suppose. Plus there are photos of people who I have no clue who they are, but the pics are interesting. It’s something to keep in mind as I sort through things. Thanks.

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      1. I belong to some scrapbooking groups on Facebook who make junk journals. I know there are other groups on Facebook where you can sell things like that too. The library might want some historical stuff as well.

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    1. Joanne, you said it! Every item has the potential of sending me down some nostalgic backroad. Fortunately lots of the stuff is from people who I barely knew or didn’t know at all, so I am making some progress.

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      1. Now you’ve got me thinking about cleaning my own closets! I’m not a pack rat but stuff likes to accumulate in spite of my best intentions. In this case, the nostalgia will be around waistlines that have come and gone 😉

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        1. I know what you mean. When I sort through old clothes I never know what to think: should I mourn the passing of a svelte me OR embrace the acceptance of my new friends, calories.

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  4. Moving on always makes for a lighter heart. (and closets!) I still have too much of my late husband’s stuff; some I will keep, but other things I need to get rid of, for my own peace of mind.

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    1. Margaret, I hope that my heart fills lighter after I dig through all of this stuff. I’m at a point where I’m a bit bitter that all this stuff has been foisted on me, but I’m trying to get it to the right place. Good luck with Patt’s things, those are more emotionally-fraught than my great-great-great-grandparents items.

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    1. Elen, that exactly what I do, too. I think I know what I want to do with things, then change my mind. My question has become my guiding light. You’re right, this is a process… and as such I just have to let it unfold.

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  5. I’m right there with you. Some of my reluctance is guilt, some is the desire to get anything of value (and I’m not just referring to monetary value) into the hands of someone who would appreciate it. I always say that my goal is to purge (and I’ve done a lot of that), but I still have quite a few boxes containing emotional landmines that I am reluctant to open. I wish you the best of luck on your journey.

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    1. Janis, you’ve explained your situation and it’s exactly like mine. I don’t want money for these items and photos, I just want them to end up where they belong. It’s easy for me to decide what to do with photos + memorabilia that relate to Z-D and I, but all the rest of this stuff [some of it well over a hundred years old] confounds me.

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  6. I think I told you this before: after a while, it’s just stuff, and probably stuff they didn’t get around to getting rid of when they were still alive. If you like something, keep it, and don’t feel guilty about jettisoning the rest.

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    1. John, I feel no guilt. I want to get this stuff to the right places, and will happily jettison it when I find the places. The difficulty is finding the right place, whether it be a museum, private collector, auction– or Goodwill. I’m conscientious, you know!

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    1. JT Twissel, that’s the kind of loop I’m caught in. I have paper docs and photos, many saved by my mother– then on top of that I have objects from ancestors. It’s overwhelming, and like you said, kids don’t want this stuff so there I am sorting through boxes… not always happy that I’m doing this, but at a loss as to what else I can do.

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  7. I read once that you can take photos of keepsakes, then get rid of the actual objects. That way, you still have them, Maybe that would be a good way to have the best of both worlds?

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    1. Tara, I think that’s an excellent idea, and I’ll do that soon. But the problem still is where do you take the stuff? Some of this memorabilia is old, old, old, and interesting from a historical perspective. I’m learning as I go with this project, I’ll say that.

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      1. I’ve heard/considered the photo options, too.
        Then the stuff goes whee…libraries are a good idea along with museums. Have you thought about history teachers? Many of them love to use actual objects so lessons seem more real to students. Try local history supervisors or coordinators in the district administration offices – ask if they or one of their teachers builds “history/geography trunks” of objects and items form a particular place or era and the trunks are checked out and travel around schools and classrooms. Some of my dad’s stuff are now part of one. Libraries sometimes have the same kind of thing. Or suggest they start the traveling history trunks? You might try contacting towns where relatives lived at that time. One school district was thrilled to get pix of one uncle as he was one of their first superintendents. Churches, too, sometimes collect /display items of earlier members. Just ideas…need to find that stuff homes if historical or typical of the times. (Any old historical houses around that need some items to fill in and make it look more like that era? Mom found a school museum that was thrill to get an old child’s desk – they had a couple but one more made it more like a classroom when kids came to visit )

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        1. philmouse, every one of your suggestions is perfect. Never thought of any of them. “History trunks” are a new idea to me, but if ever there were a place for most of this stuff, it’d be in a history trunk. You know exactly what I need to do and have given me a blueprint to start with. Thank you, thank you, thank you…

          And now I’m back to my daily sorting activities with renewed vigor. Honestly, being conscientious and kind is what got me into this mess– and it better get me out of it.

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          1. You are inspiring HAHA. I’ve been making circular raids on stored stuff – letting go a little more each time around. You’re right. It’s time. Just for that lighter feeling.
            (Oh also thought of this – some historical groups collect era stuff to preserve it (or put in their museums that exist or being built) – Grandmother handed over some pioneer stuff to DRT, DAR, and San Jacinto monument (State park). Sometimes the state historical commissions also preserved donated items.The city of Houston – and their main library are constantly asking the public for vintage pictures of the city and early residents. If historical, how about the Smithsonian? They have a huge back room collection they rotate out periodically ..Like weeds, there’s a place for everything to flourish? Who knows, you one thing might unlock and explain things to a future generation.
            YEA you for your persistence and dedication

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            1. Historical groups are a good idea, too. I’m eligible for DAR [Dad was SAR], but never joined. However, if they’d like some old family history stuff, then it’s theirs. I know that our local regional history museum solicits for photos, too– but it’s currently under reconstruction and not taking donations right now. [My luck, eh?]

              Thanks again for taking an interest in my family history stuff problem here. I appreciate it. And will update when all these items are safely nestled where they’re meant to be– which is not in my closet.

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  8. I have a difficult time letting go of old cards and letters written by people who have passed on. I still have scrapbook my mother made for me when I graduated from high school…I just can’t seem to part with it. Old clothes, shoes, purses and other stuff, I freely donate.

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    1. Jill, I’m the same way. Clothes and household items are easy to part with, but these written items cling to me like white on rice. No surprise, I suppose. I’m a wordsmith through and through.

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  9. Hi, Ally – When you’re done (or even part way through), if you could write a quick Field Guide, that would be wonderful! It would be a big seller (or go viral) instantly! We all need to know the answers to the questions that you pose here.

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    1. Donna, you’re onto something here with that idea. I’d love to have a guide that talks about the emotional and practical aspects of reluctantly inheriting, then methodically dispersing, family items that have some historical significance or fascination. I’ll keep your idea in mind as I go along. Thanks.

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    1. Akilah, I need to find the “right” library or museum for these items. Not that I’m fussy, but I know that they are. Unfortunately, the local history museum that might want some of these items is currently closed for a two year remodel– not accepting any donations. Hadn’t thought of Antiques Roadshow, however. Thanks for the idea.

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  10. Tough making decisions of these kinds Ally Bean. Put out feelers to libraries, historical museums etc – they can further advise. If you can trace definite threads of people and place and summarise in brief, this can go to libraries etc. plus put something in newspaper – good luck!

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    1. Susan, I hadn’t thought of creating short bios for these people whose stuff I have. I know quite a bit about some of the more prominent ones, and enough about the others to do justice to their lives. Great idea that’ll help when putting out feelers. Thanks, Susan.

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  11. Well, now that I know you have (or will have) experience handling other people’s important stuff, I think I will put you in charge of dealing with the Evil Squirrel’s Nest collection of fine critters and junk in the unlikely and unfortunate event of my untimely demise. It would save my sisters the possible city ordinance violations of just starting a huge bonfire….

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    1. evil, I’m honored to think that you’d entrust me with your collection. That being said, are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to give your sisters the pleasure of seeing your stuff go up in smoke? I wouldn’t want to intrude on their fun.

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  12. Being the youngest (and probably the least aggressive than my sibs), I was neither asked nor assigned to keep the mementos of our elders. Ironic, since I actually am a librarian. So unlike yourself, I am fortunate to not be burdened with very many keepsakes. However, as someone who made a career out of thinning the ranks, I always vote for “weeding” the collection. Whether it’s done by donation, or that all-purpose term RECYCLING, I say move it on! – Marty

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    1. Marty, trust me, I’m actively weeding and feel no guilt about doing so. I was the reluctant recipient of this stuff, and have concluded that some items are junk. And some photos are rubbish. I’m not a sentimental person, so 90% of this stuff is of no interest to me. The trick, so far, seems to be finding where to donate the 10% that has some [maybe] historical significance.

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  13. I enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments on this post. There are some many complicated emotions associated with decisions about what to save . . . and what not to save.

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    1. Sheryl, yes there are emotions *sigh* and then practical considerations, too. I’m a pragmatist so in the end this ancestor stuff will need to find a home elsewhere… whether it be library/museum or Goodwill. Enough already, ‘ya know?

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    1. Betsy, I don’t want it to end up in the dump, so I’ll be conscientious about finding the right places for it. Thanks to the commenters here I have some great ideas about where to start.

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  14. Gosh Ally, that’s tough. As my family has moved continents more than once, much has already been culled. In a way, that’s sad as the last person who remember most of the stuff (my Dad) died last year before we took the time to get more of it down into other memory banks (mine & my daughter’s mostly). My ex father-in-law was an archivist and through him I met a number of others. Could you work with one? All the ones I met were actually lovely, lively people who adored history on both a personal and world scale rather than dusty and dull. They could help in practical ways and be fun company.

    Sending best of luck to you.

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    1. deb, I appreciate your suggestion. I don’t know anything about archivists, but will do some research. This stuff [and I only mentioned the tip of the iceberg btw] is interesting on many levels. Probably of no value, per se, but of value, maybe. And therein is the problem. *le sigh*

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