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Find Your Family - One Man’s Trash

Article Date: 
14 January, 2011 (All day)

When I was growing up I often heard my father comment, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  I have seen the truth of this countless times in life.  The many garage sales, and the success of them, attest to the accuracy of the statement.  My son was laughing when he came home from a friend’s house a couple of months ago.  He said, “Dad, my friend’s mom came home with deformed candles from a garage sale.  People will buy anything.”

This month in Family Tree Magazine there is an article on how to sort through items you inherit and it got me thinking.  What is the treasure among the trash?  What should we keep in our lives as well as when our parents or grandparents pass away? What items will we hold on to for years and never touch and which items will we throw away that we will wish we had kept?

I have mentioned before that I am the youngest of fifty-two grandchildren and the youngest of six in my parent’s family.  It tends to be the youngest that inherits the family history and that has been true of me, so far.

If you are trying to decide what to keep in your own life or if you have recently inherited items from a relative, I will try to give some practical advice as to what to keep.  I am not an attorney or an accountant, so you should take my advice for what it is, that of a family historian.  There may be reasons to keep things beyond what I list.  Check with your attorney or accountant for their advice.

Some items to keep, seem like they should be obvious and not need mentioning.  One of these are family photos.  Of course you should keep the photos.  They are clues to your family’s history and they are often the items that help other family members become interested.  So, keep the photos.  One piece of advice, though, if someone has passed away and you have inherited photos take advantage of the times the family is together to identify who is in the photos.  It might be a great way at the lunch after the funeral to reminisce and remember the departed and also identify individuals in photos.  I, personally, write the information on the back of the photo.  It is very easy for a photo to be separated from the book in which it is mounted and then if there is no information identifying those in it on the photo, the identification is lost.

Journals are another obvious one to keep.  You may want to copy them, or scan them and put them online so more of the family can enjoy them.  The general rule of preservation is that the likelihood of something surviving is directly related to the number of copies of the item that exist.  

Another obvious item is genealogical records.  It will take time to go through them.  As you go through them if there are duplicates with your records they can be discarded.  It might be worthwhile to see if another family member wants the genealogical records that are duplicates of yours.  You clearly will want to keep all the vital record information.  Birth certificates, blessing or christening certificates, baptism and other religious certificates, marriage, and finally death records are all important to keep.  Again, you may want to check with other family members who may want copies. Sharing the item online is always a good idea.

Tax records are good to keep.  They show family relationships, addresses, occupations, and other information.  They contain a wealth of family history information. 

Car registrations are also good to keep.  Again they have addresses and family information.  They also give some clues to your ancestor’s personality.  Did they drive a Corvette, or a Chevette? 

 You may also want to keep membership booklets from organizations to which your family member belonged and phone books from where they lived.  

Letters and Christmas cards are also good to keep as they can provide clues to family and friends.  It is also good to keep recipes.  It will sometimes give you clues to their background, but will also add flavor (pun intended) to your knowledge of their lives.

Things that are probably not worth keeping are magazines, cancelled checks, bank statements, and utility statements (you may want to note the addresses from these items). Other than family history books, the book collection may have sentimental value, but little family history value.  Old newspapers are worth skimming to see if the family is mentioned, otherwise they have only modest value.  If they are more than twenty years old it is probably also worth contacting the newspaper to see if they would like the copies.  

You will save your children plenty of time in the future if you will follow this policy of keeping and throwing away as well.  There are so many stories of children who have had to sort through every issue of National Geographic that had been in the basement untouched for years.  Or stories of the remainders of soap, or mayonnaise jars, or any number of other items like this.  Unfortunately it is often these types of inheritances where the records of value are lost because those to whom the responsibility for sorting through the huge amount of items just begin throwing away everything for the sake of time. 

Think carefully about what you want to keep so that your children and grandchildren will have a legacy that they can appreciate, and not a burden to clean.  If you have inherited the responsibility of sorting through an estate, take time, as you are sorting through the collection of items to enjoy them.  It is an opportunity to remember those who have passed.  It is also an opportunity to find those hidden treasures of genealogical information.  You just may find the clue to unlock the family history mystery you have been trying to solve.