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The Right Stuff

Carrying on the legacy of ancestral pack rats.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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There is a "pack rat" gene in my family. It's been there for at least three generations, as far as I can tell, and it's a good thing. The things that have been handed down in our family are truly priceless. The most notable are my great-grandfather's Civil War diary and the diary his wife kept while he was in the service. There is little of historical value contained in the diaries—no new insights into battles won or lost, or the politics of the day—just recordings of life as my grandparents lived it, day by day. But what a gift for us, to have that kind of window into their lives—real glimpses of who they were, something few ancestors leave behind.

Then there are the pictures that were in a trunk in my grandparents' attic: old tintypes and a small photo album containing photos of my great-grandfather's Civil War buddies. Even pictures of his parents when they were younger! Among the other treasures were my grandparents' wedding picture and sepia-toned portraits of each of them in their youth; a box of snapshots—many labeled, many not; letters—still in their envelopes, some postmarked as early as the 1800's. There were many relics from the lives of my grandparents, who passed away in the '60's. My grandfather saved notes on expenses incurred when he built his house in the early 1900's, as well as every report card from his days at MIT in the late 1800's.

Recently I had the experience of helping my brothers sort through my parents' belongings, following my parents move to the Alzheimer's unit at an assisted living facility. We were tasked with deciding what should be saved, what should be sold, and what should be discarded. For two solid days we waded through boxes of dishes and glasses; bookshelves laden with books—both antique and new—desk drawers full of papers, letters, cards; dozens of photo albums; dressers with clothing and a jumble of jewelry—a lifetime of memories. It was more difficult than I expected—deciding what to keep.

Some things were obvious. The folder of poems my father wrote when he was a young man (a surprise discovery for all of us), pictures of my dad's family when he was a small child—there was no question these things should be kept. But what about my grandfather's passport? The letters to my mother from her best friend? Was any of the jewelry "keep-able," or was it all junk?

We sorted through everything as best we could. Each of us selected things that had some meaning for us, and we put a lot of things in a category "to go through later." I brought home some trinkets for the printer's box I have on the wall in my den, and packed up a box of books—including some of my mother's old cookbooks—to have shipped to me. And I saved the letters from my mother's best friend.

But after I got home, I couldn't help but wonder if we had been too hasty in some of our decisions. Had we saved the right stuff? Did we save things that would illumine the lives of my parents for us, our children or grandchildren? And a question that now looms large in my mind is: What things have I saved to pass on, so that, generations from now, my descendants won't have to piece together scraps of information from town clerks or state archives to find out who I was, who my parents were?

I'll admit I have the pack-rat gene. One look through my office and my attic will confirm it for anyone. But every now and again I try to resist and have wholesale clear-outs. I wonder if I've thrown out things that should have been kept? Were there things that seemed like no more than flotsam on the sea of my life that would have meant something to my children or their children?

In our zeal to track down ancestors many generations back on the family tree, we often forget the importance of what's right in front of our noses: our own history. Building our legacy for future generations is as important as discovering the history of generations past.

I'm starting to feel guilty about the pictures—still in the packets from the 1-hour photo developer—that are sitting in stacks on my desk, unlabeled, instead of in photo albums. And I'm thinking I shouldn't be too quick to toss out my old report cards or the high school essays stashed in the boxes in my attic.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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