Although my aunt passed away two years ago, my cousin waited until her father was also gone before beginning the monumental task of sorting through everything in their house. Because I’m the appointed family historian, I’ve been given the task of going through boxes and boxes of old photos and papers. The bad news is that my aunt kept everything (yes, even upholstery receipts from 1959). The good news is, she kept everything—including my great-grandfather’s Bible (in terrible repair) and books he used in his early days as a school teacher.
The most poignant treasures, though, were the letters that went back and forth between my aunt and my grandmother (her mother). It was in those that I learned how much they meant to one another, and how life really unfolded for the family from the 1930s and beyond.
Among the wonderful tidbits were gossipy correspondences about everyday life: My dad was experiencing problems after having two teeth pulled, Aunt Helen was making $40 a day doing piece work during World War II, and Great-Aunt Dollie was working on the quilts that we recently discovered tucked away in a closet.
Our favorite find was a letter my aunt (who was in medical school in the 1930s) sent to her 13-year-old sister, explaining the birds and the bees. It’s precious beyond words.
As readers of this column know, I’ve always been more interested in the stories than the lineage (does that make me a bad genealogist??). So finding these letters has been like unlocking a treasure chest to another generation—and of course, also opening up a whole bevy of questions. Thank goodness I can pick up the phone and call Aunt Helen with queries like “how come Grandpa and Aunt Lu were in St. Joe, and you and Grandma were in Lone Jack?” Answer: Grandma was there tending to her sick mother—a factoid I never would have known if it weren’t for the correspondence and Aunt Helen.
Many of the missives are over 70 years old, and the Bible is well over 100, so preserving them is high on my priority list. I’ve already established a game plan to scan all of the letters and old photos, then burn a CD for everyone in the family. Then, everything will go into archival sleeves and boxes. But then what? It’s long been on my mind what will happen to these precious treasures in 50 years. If you’ve solved that problem for your heirlooms, I’d love to know about it. Write me.
If you’ve been the recipient of family treasures, I suggest these wonderful resources:
• Care of Books, Documents and Photographs
• Northern States Preservation Center
• Preserving War Letters
• Preserving Memories: Caring for your Heritage
• Preserving Your Family Photographs, by Maureen Taylor
• LightImpressions archival supplies
Note that many scrapbooking stores carry archival supplies.