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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    Lessons from the Archive #1: Examine Everything

    I nearly missed them. I was tired, frustrated, and saddened by the sheer volume of material to go through. My dear sweet aunt saved everything, and I do mean everything.

    It wasn't just the dried corsages, the snips of wrapping paper from gifts to my uncle, or even the old letters and cards that hit me hardest. It was sheets of old flyers and printouts carefully trimmed to be used for scratch paper. It was address labels cut off envelopes to be reused on outgoing mail. It was pencil stubs, old calendars, and rainy-day plastic bags from the newspaper.

    Since her death in late August, I have been bringing home boxes from Auntie's home to go through carefully as my sister and I work to settle her affairs. The old bumper pool table in our basement office, topped with a sturdy board, makes a good work surface for unpacking boxes. It's slow work looking at things one-by-one, but it's the only way to do it, I keep reminding myself.

    Somewhere between a stack of recycled scratch paper and some old restaurant receipts two cabinet card photographs came into view.

    Aak toddler001

    The little girl in one photo looked familiar, I think I've seen images of my Grandmother that look similar, and when I turned over the photo, on the reverse side I recognized her handwriting:  "That is the family cookbook I'm looking at. I think I was 2 or yrs. old" she had written.

    Aak baby001

    The second photo shows a smiling baby, but the reverse is blank. Then, looking closer I saw a faint inscription pencilled in the bottom margin: "Arline Allen Kinsel".

    I have no idea how these two photographs became separated from the mass of material I inherited in 2000 that had originally belonged to my grandmother. Clearly, these photos were part of the collection. Maybe my aunt had held them back so that she would have a few to enjoy. How sad that they must have become misplaced over the years, and how fortunate that I found them at all.

    I'm starting a new list of Lessons from the Archive, and this is #1-- Examine everything. Every scrap of paper, every box, bag, and bundle. Don't assume that a 6-inch stack of greeting cards contains only cards. You never know what might fall out and land in your lap!

    Please leave a comment if you've made your own lucky discovery in your family archive; I'd love to hear about it.

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    Reader Comments (12)

    So familiar, and you are absolutely right. My four brothers and I had a similar task when my 80 year old mother passed away, quite unexpectedly. Boxes and boxes... I've written sentences like yours: "It was sheets of old flyers and printouts carefully trimmed to be used for scratch paper. It was address labels cut off envelopes to be reused on outgoing mail. It was pencil stubs, old calendars, and rainy-day plastic bags from the newspaper." several times, describing what we found. And, we found bags of money, a slip of paper later used in a court case, and missing photos, just as you did. EXAMINE EVERYTHING! Thank you for sharing this experience. It is a valuable lesson that MUST BE PASSED ON. ;-)

    December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Bill (William L.) Smith

    Thanks, Dr. Bill for your comments. I can tell that we are kindred spirits when it comes to dealing with the "stuff" of our loved ones. It's a tough job, but oh what splendid rewards.

    December 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDenise Levenick

    I've had my share of experiences similar to this. When I was younger, and when he was still living, my great grandfather would let me go through all of his boxes, filing cabinets, etc. Wherever I wanted to look, he would let me. One time I was looking in a little washing basin that you would get from the hospital, but didn't think anything would be in there. I started sorting through the old bank statements from the 1980s and 1990s and thought maybe I'd find a letter from that time period. Well, as I was sorting, I pulled out this faded, worn, envelope that had an American Eagle in the corner, and a very old looking stamp in the other. Then I looked at the name. Immediately I knew who the person being addressed to was. It was my third great grandmother and it was written by her brother. Then I looked for a date, and in faded pencil, I saw the date: 1863! I could believe that a Civil War letter was in the middle of a little washing basin!

    As we were cleaning out my great grandfather's place after he passed away last year, we started sorting through the sheds. As we were throwing things out that were on the floor (everything was covered in dust and other dirty stuff), we picked up some rolled up pieces of paper. We unrolled them, and to our surprise, they were my great grandpa's school certificates from the 1920s! You never know what you'll find!

    December 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Ray

    An excellent lesson indeed, Denise-- to think that these wonderful pictures may have gotten thrown out!

    My dad sent my sister many old photos of our mother's family, and I'm having a hell of a time getting her to send them or at least send copies. Very frustrating.

    December 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Howes

    Your story is so familiar to what we have been experiencing for the last several years - right down to the pencil stubs and trimmed scratch paper. Our philosophy became that we needed to go through everything, like you say, because each box or envelope will contain something of value whether it be monetary, sentimental or historical.

    Our finds, like your the pictures in this post, are what keeps us going, and laughting and crying. And sometimes tearing our hair out!

    One day, I came across a large paper bag that felt like it had a piece of cardboard in it. I was deathly tired and as I was heading to the trash can, a little voice said to look inside. In between two pieces of cardboard were two prints from a very well known pacific northwest silk screen artist who we very much like. We each took one to keep and when my brother took his in to get it framed was told because they are in such great condition they were probably worth about $1200. That was a nice treat for all of our hard work because neither of us would ever spend that kind of money on a print but are thrilled to be able to display them in our homes.

    December 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Goodrum

    Very sound advice :-) I have newspaper clippings of births and marriages and still need to find out if they were distant relatives or old school friends of my grandparents - shame they cut the whole column out but didn't mark an X by the relevant ones....

    December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJo Graham

    In that picture of Arline, she looks just like my six month old girl. Same smile and everything.

    January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott MacPhee

    Oh, Scott, I would love to see the resemblance. Let me know if you have posted a photo of your little girl.

    January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDenise Levenick

    I have become the dumping ground for all papers and photos of our family. ..and it makes
    me the happiest person in the world. As a child I rarely got time with my grandmother alone.
    There were dozens of cousins..but when I did she got out her family bible (1748 to present)
    and showed me pictures of her grandparents and great-grandparents and told me stories
    that were told to her& shared her memories. When she passed the bible and pictures came
    to my Dad...when he passed I thought they would go to a male in the family...instead they
    came to me and I prize them. There are the usual obits cut from the paper, a four leaf
    clover which one ancestor was credited with always being able to find, tintypes and birth
    certificates..baptismal and christening records and the pictures...oh the pictures of every
    day things my ancestors did which make them come alive for me..Yes...hold on to everything.

    March 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne Place

    Reading your article alone, makes me realize how much more I need to get my collections in order. It is so easy to have items tucked away in items that need to be thrown away. Thank you for this tip of going through each paper. That is something I recommended my friend to do before throwing items away in his mother's room.

    October 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYvette Porter Moore

    The strangest thing I ever "discovered" was not during a genealogy search...I was looking for a house. I was in Bucks County, PA looking for a home to rehab. My agent and I were going through an old farmhouse with waaaaay too much work to do. In the kitchen some of the linoleum was coming up. Under it was a layer of newspapers. I pulled on intact from pager up and it was from the Philadelphia Tribune and it was dated Feb. 10, 1951. My birthday! I was born in Los Angeles but it was sure cool to have this relic to see what was going on across the country on that date.

    October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFred Barden

    That has got to be a very strange coincidence, Fred! Did you read the paper looking for hidden messages?

    October 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

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