I just got done with a week of helping my mom search through her mom’s stuff to try to find journals, photos, movies, letters, important documents, and genealogical information. Let me tell you, it was a marathon week. It is one thing to find all of that stuff, and it is quite another to try to pare down the mass of it into something that is the MOST IMPORTANT.
The challenge becomes all the more arduous when the people whose stuff you are looking through were in the habit of keeping every letter, every greeting card, every picture. That was the case with my grandmother and grandfather. One thing that made it challenging to deal with was that all these letters and cards and other documents were not all kept in the same place. We kept finding caches of them—every dresser drawer seemed to have a little stash of letters and cards at the bottom of it. We found cards in among the knitting projects. We found cards and letters among the paint brushes. It began to seem like we’d have to look everywhere to make sure that we got them all. The first step in dealing with it was to consolidate all those caches into one place.
Then came the job of sorting through those cards and letters. Everyone has dreams of discovering a stash of their parents or grandparents love letters tied with an old ribbon, right? But what if you also discover letters from parents, letters from children, letters from siblings, letters from neighbors, and more? You can’t keep it all, and frankly, you shouldn’t keep it all.
But this raises the question—if you shouldn’t keep it all, how do you distinguish between what you should and shouldn’t keep, and what do you do with what you decide to not keep? How do you get rid of it in a way that still honors the people who sent the letters in the first place?
In the process of examining all that memorabilia, I was able to find some answers to those questions because of what I observed.
One of the best ways to help whittle down a card collection or a bunch of letters is to view them from the eyes of your descendants 4 generations in the future. Think about the kind of information they would want to know about and then look to see if that kind of information can be found in the letters or cards. How helpful are the cards and letters doing their job to communicate important information about names, dates, places of family history or character traits?
Observation #1: When people send greeting cards, they tend to not write much in them. 95% of the greeting cards we went through only had signatures. If you place a priority on keeping memorabilia with real meaning conveyed by the sender, greeting cards usually are meaningless. The way I began to see it, if the greeting card sender really cared that much about the message they wanted to convey, they would not have sent a greeting card to speak for them; they would have worked to find the words to say it themselves. It is the words written by the sender, not the words written by the greeting card publisher that have real, lasting meaning.
(Now, I know there are those who will argue that if a card is really pretty, it should be kept, but when you are dealing with a large stash of cards and letters, you need to be RUTHLESS and look for every excuse you can to get rid of the cards, otherwise you will end up burdened with Other People’s Stuff (hereafter referred to as OPS).)
So, the first step is to go through the entire pile quickly and get rid of all the greeting cards that have nothing written in them besides a signature.
Observation #2: Letters tend to share much more information about the person who sent the letter than the person who received the letter. (Love letters are an exception to this.) Because of this, letters tend to be more valuable to the sender as family history documents than to the receiver.
The second step is to sort all the remaining letters into piles according to who sent the letter or the card. That way, you’ll have all the letters from mom in one pile, all the letters from each sibling in its own pile, all the letters from friends in their own pile.
When all the piles are sorted by sender, get some manila envelopes and mail each pile to the sender if they are still living. Hopefully the letters will still have addressed envelopes, and you can tell by the postmark on the envelopes which return address is the most recent. Letters usually include little slices of history from the life of the sender, so when the sender gets a pile of letters back that they once sent, they get two benefits:
-They get the pleasure of knowing that their letters were important/interesting enough to be saved
-They get the pleasure of rereading what they wrote in the past. It can trigger pleasant memories. Put in order, those letters can even do the job of a personal journal, if they hadn’t kept one before.
In the case of my grandmother, she had letters from her sisters and her brothers and her mother. We can mail back the letters from her sisters and brothers because not only will it help them remember and preserve their own family history, but their descendants will have a chance to read through those letters someday and learn about them.
As for the letters to my grandmother from her mother, those were valuable to us because they were in our direct line of relationship.
Now, many people might stop here, but this doesn’t have to be the end of the process of evaluation. Whether you go further depends on the amount of correspondence and the amount of other memorabilia available to establish important family history facts.
If there is a lot of family history material to go through, it is important to find the best items to establish the important family history facts. You don’t have keep everything that establishes a fact, just the best things. Letters are very important if they are the only source for family history, but if other sources such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, etc., exist, then letters are better for conveying slices of life.
If there are a lot of letters that convey slices of life and other documents establish family history data, then you should not feel obligated to keep all those letters. Rather, you have a license to read through those letters and choose according to your own criteria which ones are best representative of the qualities that you want to remember about the sender. Are there any that display wit and humor? Are there any that display courage in the face of difficulty? Are there any that display a certain originality of thought or expression? Is any special devotion communicated? Don’t be afraid to use sticky notes to mark parts that especially please you as you read through. At the end of reading through the pile of letters, you will be able to see at a glance by how many sticky notes are applied which letters are most worth keeping. This will aid in making decisions about the relative value of each letter.
Extra credit: If you have old family letters that you want to make available to more people to read, consider setting up a blog devoted to your family history. You can scan the letters inherited or found and then post the images of them on the blog, along with careful explanations that will allow a viewer to understand them. This method of sharing is most effective if you have already whittled down the collection to the most important and significant letters. (Word of caution: Avoid embarrassing the living.)