What’s left behind

Facts can be so unsatisfying. Colorless (but critical) records of lives, people, places, and events, when facts are viewed in the context of heirlooms, memorabilia, or artifacts, things left behind by our ancestors, our past is better illuminated and gives us insight into older generations, providing a foundation for family stories. Readers of my posts on Vita Brevis will recognize my pursuit of and passion for those stories. Whether the facts give rise to the stories, or whether the stories begin by seeking the underlying facts, is something of a chicken-or-the-egg question, a fractal of genealogical research, repeating and replicating patterns of family interactions and history.

In Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore notes that what remains of anyone’s life is what’s kept. We leave things behind, but someone else decides what to keep. The past defines us (even if we don’t remember it!), but it’s what is kept that gives us definition and fodder for the stories we love to find. So what am I to think about the box I found full of old hearing aids, broken wire-rimmed, round-lensed eyeglasses, and an old set of dentures? (Seriously, people! Dentures?!)

Each of us at some point may be charged with the disposition of what’s left behind. How do we decide what is heirloom, memorabilia, fascinating, or just trash? For those of us who value history and all its trappings, nothing much is trash. For those who don’t agree, it may all be trash. I think there are four factors which determine what is kept: geographical, generational, functionality, and sentimentality (or the lack thereof).

When my husband’s California stepmother passed away, we of Maine were faced with the impossibility of shipping anywhere her 10-ton solid oak dining table, sideboard, chairs, and hutch that would stop armor-piercing artillery shells. She and her mother treasured them, but we lacked the familial contacts to share that feeling or to appreciate the functionality of that enormous set. The entertaining style of her generation exceeded in scope and tableware anything we could handle. Instead, we found a consignment shop owner with a big truck.

Whenever I dive into my “squirrel bins” of family “leavings,” I’m astonished at what was kept as well as what wasn’t! There is a notable lack of letters, diaries, and manuscripts, any of which would enlighten me considerably as to the personalities of the writers. I do, however, have albums of snapshots (unmarked) and old greeting cards and postcards; a ledger apparently from an 1860s business, the pages of which have been pasted over with undated newspaper clippings; an 1880s home medical manual in case I want to check on the causes of blindness (don’t even think about asking!), and the above-mentioned box of personal items, including bits of someone’s corset.

I have to wonder why these things were kept (or to put it another way, what were those people thinking?!). While my family adhered to the adage “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” I sincerely hope that didn’t extend to reusing old dentures! I understand why someone would keep a mother’s wedding gown, but a great-grandmother’s wedding gown and matching shoes may have no sentimentality left for descendants two generations removed, two states away, and who would find it severely lacking in practical function. I have my maternal great-grandmother’s huge trunk (empty, of course) that she took “around the horn” on her move from Maine to Eureka, California, in the 1870s. Because of its size, it may not move with me, nor will following generations understand its heritage, recognize the woman who owned it, or find any realistic function in it.

[Put] it another way, what were those people thinking?!

What’s left behind is not the same as what’s kept. What we have, what we find, and what we keep as family historians are important to those historians who come after us, especially if we ourselves want to define our past. I’d like to think that we do a better job now of marking, labeling, identifying, and storing what we decide to leave behind, as well as selecting a person who can be trusted to follow our final instructions; or perhaps we just have to leave better intentions. What’s kept is the history that will define us when it’s our turn to leave things behind.

I plan to leave behind my collection of murder mysteries and cookbooks with a copy of Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York prominently displayed among them. It won’t be anyone’s dentures.

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

16 thoughts on “What’s left behind

  1. I’ve inherited china, photos, postcards, etc. from a childless great-uncle. I’ve been trying to find better ‘homes’ for these items and so far have donated photos to his alma-mater and other photos to descendants of photo subjects. The china pattern was selected by his wife who pre-deceased him and she has descendants from a first marriage. I’d like to offer the china to these great-grandchildren, but they won’t have the sentimental connection of having seen it in my great-uncles home.These great-grandchildren never knew my great aunt and do not know me. It’s hard to know how others may react to such an offer…

  2. All my life my mother was “the keeper of the stuff”, and I then followed. I’ve also been the genealogist. It has been a struggle to get anyone in the “younger generations” interested in any of it. At one point I had Victorian furniture from my paternal family. I realized that it was not functional so I jettisoned that. What I have left in furniture is good functional pieces that people actually want. I had bins of cut glass. That got partitioned out. I had jewelry from my paternal side. My brother has a daughter and I decided she’s old enough to be entrusted with it, so she has it now as the next generation. She has brothers who both have daughters, so she will decide how it is handed down. I gave her photos to document the provenance of the pieces. My next project is photo albums for my children and my brother’s children, complete with genealogy charts to explain how they are related to the people in the photos. It’s VERY hard to deal with this because I feel such a responsibility to make sure these people don’t become lost!!

  3. Good reminder to get as much information from older relatives as possible while you can, especially identifying people in old photo albums. I waited too late, and my oldest aunt could only state the people were relatives on her father’s side but could not recall any names.

  4. Spot on re: the responsibility of those of us who inherited pieces. In the 1950s my mother and her siblings inherited a house in Western NY that had been in the family since c. 1815…while her little sister stood in the attic window and tossed things out, my mother was gathering. So we have among other things, a Civil War coat with bullet holes in the tail. And, my father, an only child, was the recipient of many his family pieces…a great honor to grow up with them, but who today will care?

  5. Your article caught my eye initially because of the old trunk; I have an identical one from my great-grandmother manufactured in Omaha, NE. I also inherited many other items from this ancestor and am attached to the stories that I learn from my mother. Now I need to document the heirlooms so my children can decide if they want to keep particular items. Your story resounded with me.

  6. I too have old family trunks–2 of them–one full of family pictures dating back to 1870 and one full of family made quilts dating back to the 1880’s. I am attempting to make heads or tails of all this for my granddaughters, one of whom, at least, is interested. Am writing a family history also, for said granddaughter who wishes to teach history.

  7. Jan, who was your maternal great-grandmother who came to Eureka? How much do you have about her? I ask because I am the President of the Humboldt County Historical Society in Eureka. I would love to see what we have on her and the family.
    I have inherited things from the three previous generations of my family who lived in the Eureka area and am trying to get those saved or dispersed before it becomes four generations for my children to take.

    1. Hi, Catherine! My maternal great grandmother was Eliza Sawyer (Parsons)(Lovell) Roberts (1845-1912). She and her 2nd husband Joseph Ireland Roberts (1850-1919) went to Eureka with her son Warren Lovell. Their daughter, my grandmother, was born there in 1876. I have quite a bit of information about the family (but not much about their lives in California), as well as photos and memories of her. I’ll be glad to exchange information!

      1. Jan, we don’t have a lot on families going back, but we do have quite a bit about the local family information and certainly what was going on around them. Do you have specific questions I can keep my eye out for?
        What is the best way to send you information I find? You can contact me via my email which is available at NEHGS.

  8. All of this is so true: “…We leave things behind, but someone else decides what to keep. The past defines us (even if we don’t remember it!), but it’s what is kept that gives us definition…”

    I remember my mother in law saying her step-mother had tossed out everything her father had owned into the rubbish after he died. I was aghast at the thought of such an act. Yet one wonders if she just didn’t speed up the process of what eventually happens to us all. I am told that she didn’t do this with malice, but as a part of her grieving process. It was as if to have nothing left of the man she loved was to utterly honor him – or at least her grief. Ah! Buried grief or secrets? – Hard to know.

    Great post Jan!

  9. Great article, Jan! Have you yet deciphered the ethereal equation which will “force” our succeeding generations to make these keepsake decisions?? Somehow, in my experience. it seems that the older and more “supported-with-information” these things are, the more likely they will be kept for posterity, say– 3 or 4 generations. You are absolutely correct in that, if there is no story, it’s not important! This is why we do what we do! A fellow Maine-iac.

  10. Oh My! The responsibility for’ stuff’ goes on and on. Here are a couple of things I have learned — photos with unidentified people may be welcomed by a historical society as examples of how people dressed at certain times. Sometimes in the background is a building, landscape, item that is pertinent to an area or how people lived. Example: a small black and white snapshot of people in front of a tent, camping in the mountains. Enlarging the snapshot showed that the ‘fish’ hanging from the tent pole were lobsters!! The clothing on the people was circa 1900-1910, and enlarging brought up detail of magnificent blouses, tremendous hats, etc. Further squinting made it clear that the camp was along the rocky coast of Maine, not in the mountains!! I have given some really nice china to a refugee family from what was Yugoslavia. Rationale: They had been through so much, just possibly some pretty, matching dishes would be of comfort. (One has to be creative!)

    My greatest challenge is books!! Slowly but surely I’m making decisions and dispersing books that I have grown up seeing. Please cheer me on!!!

    Great article, Jan, with thanks from a former Maine resident.

    Betsy Fosburgh

    1. I am the child of two, spouse of, and daughter-in-law of only children as well as the spouse of a person who grew up in the great-grandparents’ final home. My family collection has been vast and varied. As I downsize, I have been discriminantly giving things away to museums, historical societies, libraries, archives, and family, some turning out to be very valuable to their collections. To make items meaningful to family, I add value through careful labeling each item through a variety of ways. And then I have an “heirloom” folder with more information and stories, appraisals, etc. It’s already working.

  11. Sometimes when you are overwhelmed with the enormous task of sorting and dispensing an estate, especially one with which one has marginal connections, the only thing to do is laugh and get on with it however you can. People do keep all kinds of useless or outdated things, and some people have such a strong sense of nostalgia for whatever some objects remind them of that they have difficulty discarding them. Anyone who has done this encounters “stuff” with no idea who it belonged to and no idea who to contact. In those I’ve been involved with, every person known to have a close connection was given the opportunity to ask for items of meaning to them. Sometimes there is no one. And always there are things that need to be disposed of. It is a huge responsibility and sometimes an unfair one. Jan made an important note early in her article, a point that established the point she was making. What we see of a person’s life is what is kept. Believe me, some of the things people keep and what is missing can tell an odd story. I, as Jan did, had to wonder why keep the dentures, but discard letters that would illuminate lives lived? Who knows? In the end, what was left was the story. And Jan’s point, ultimately, was that had there been a story attached to these random items, they might have assumed an importance to this woman’s relatives that they otherwise didn’t have. An object lesson to the rest of us to take time to document the stories, label the photos, tie them to still living persons. A point well-taken. ( And maybe also, get rid of the eccentric stuff that we all tend to keep as a memory that has no meaning to anyone else!)

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