Originally Published November 14, 2012
I met a man at a local thrift store to deliver some eggs to him the other day.I can’t pass up a good thrift store, so I followed him in, and was there as he presented various items for consignment to the owner. He pulled out a series of chapbooks dated 1903 to 1906, and told us the story of how these had belonged to his wife’s grandfather when he was in school in Kansas. We asked him why he was selling these books, and he told us that it was because he and his wife were the last ones who remembered her grandfather, and he was afraid that someday, when he and his wife had passed on, the children would not know what these books were- that they would throw them in the trash. He had decided that it was better to pass them along to someone who would recognize the value of them rather than see them in a landfill.
This made me sad. Some our best history has come from the stories passed on from one family member to another, spanning the generations. Letters, diaries, photos, items – these are the histories of our families, histories that are forever lost if no one remembers the value or knows the stories. I am, sadly, guilty of this in my own family. In the basement is a box full of framed pictures from my husband’s family, from Victorian times through the 1920s – and no one knows who they are. I know hardly anything about my great Uncle, my grandfather’s brother on my mother’s side. When my children were little, I helped them do a family tree, and a bit of research on the family – how they came here, where they came from. I called my grandfather – my father’s dad – and we had a talk about how there were not so many stories to be remembered about his family history; it was just something they had not talked about when he was younger. He regretted that he could not tell me more than he did that night.
So what can we do to keep the history of our families? How do we keep things of value to us out of the landfill and in the family? All I can suggest are these few steps:
1. Tell the stories. My children despair of my telling the stories of their childhood; eye rolling ensues, and cries of “Mom, you always tell that story!” have been heard. But they know the story and remember the story. Someday, they can choose to pass that’s story along to their own children. My father has told me stories of his childhood, and I remember them. So tell the stories, ignore the eyerolls, and pass the family history on in an oral tradition.
2. Write the stories down. You don’t have to be an excellent writer to convey the story. If you feel you just can’t write, then ask another family member to help you out – they write while you speak. This not only preserves the history in written form for your family, but it can also help future historians to get a look at our lives. Some of the most interesting research, in my opinion, is reading the everyday diary entries, the letters of people that told of their lives and just how it is they lived – the little things, like attitudes of the time, how someone ran their household, even recipes come from the diaries of ordinary people.
3. Photos. And not just take a whole bunch of pictures of everything, tell about the photos. With modern technology, there are all kinds of ways to preserve those photos and share them with family and loved ones. Include names, dates, and a brief description of what was going on. If you feel inspired, tell more about the day and what was going on at the time of the photograph. This was the original intent behind scrapbooking – a saving of memories.
For older photos, there are ways to preserve them. The first, of course, is to scan them and save them in digital form, either on disc or online. If you wish to keep your photos in albums, you can still notate them. If you still have any photos in those old sticky albums, mainly the waxed ones, get them out ASAP. Those albums have been known to kill the picture, causing it to prematurely fade or discolor. Place your photos in acid free, archival albums. Lots of people like to make the notations in the album, but photos are often removed for various reasons, so you would be better off notating the photo itself on the back. There are several methods for doing this:
- Pencil – not the best solution, since it can be rubbed off, but it will stay on certain photos. Make sure it is a graphite pencil.
- Acid free paper with important info attached to the back of the photo with a stamp hinge. Stamp hinge, you ask? Go to a hobby shop, and ask for them. They are small, used to affix a stamp into a collector’s album so that the stamp is not ruined through use.
- DO NOT use pen of any kind – this ink soaks through the picture in time, ruining the image.
You can do this with new pictures, old pictures of the family, even pictures back to the beginning of photography. If you know the names of the people in the picture, write them down. If you know the year, even better. If you’re not sure of the year, use your picture and the power of the internet to find a comparable photo so that you can narrow it down to a decade. Clothing, hairstyles, buildings, even technology seen in the pictures can help you figure out if the photo is from 1970 or 1870.
4. Take pictures of your valued items. Note, it doesn’t have to be a monetary value, but instead a personal value. After all, my old stuffed dog my mom made has no monetary value, but has value to me. Take a picture, and write about that item – why it has value to you. Let your future descendants know why that item is still sitting on the mantle, and what value it has to you – and by extension – to the family, and why it should stay in the family rather than the landfill.
Make this all into a book. There doesn’t need to be any fantastic artistic value to it, a plain book with some pictures of the people and things that were important to you is enough. It doesn’t have to be a diary where all your secrets are spilled, just a book of the family stories and things. It doesn’t need to be publication worthy, no one is spell checking you, it just needs to be, to help preserve your history.
Don’t let the history of your family be lost for want of its story.