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How do you sort old family things?

 
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I've attempted this more often than I'll admit...

My parents were in the same house for more than thirty years and mom was considered the family link for genealogy so was given many letters, pictures and much written information...along with antiques, mostly small, but some large furniture, glass and more.

When we moved her down here to live with us I sorted a three way split with my brother, sister and I...gave away a lot to other family, friends and others....but still, there was a lot.  Some things, like her piano, we kept while she was with us and for a bit afterwards then gave it to a family who would appreciate.  Some back up genealogy paperwork (this is before digitalizing everything, she was excited to discover Xerox machines after typing and handwriting copies for years) I've mulched with...some things I actually burned, others have gone to the thrift store and I think a few things I've given away here at permies....

My stumbling block every time I dig into these trunks is 'what will future generations even care about?' and 'which things have any value without the link to family?'  I have this need to sort until it's down to a very few, personal, meaningful 'things' and that's it.  

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow and always envied the person who brought in ONE thing that was the only family thing that had been passed down for generations and was quite precious because of that.

I don't have a problem living small and simple otherwise...I guess it's feeling responsible for these family things and having some guilt about parting with them...breaking the family tie maybe?

I slip some things to our sons and their families as often as I can but their houses are full to overflowing already...and they are not sure what they might want in the future.....

I scanned and put on flash drives a lot of old letters and photos a few years back but then I couldn't get rid of the letters and photos themselves.....

I'm curious how others choose things to keep for future generations? family or otherwise?
 
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I just received a notebook full of old letters that were written in the 1940s.  I am thrilled though others might not appreciate something like this.

The letters were placed in a page pocket with the envelope. I thought this was a great way to save these wonderful letters.

My daughter has the task of going through her aunt's belongings and distributing them to relatives who would want or appreciate them.

She is contacting via email the people in framed pictures that were hanging on walls to ask if they would like them.  She asked me how to best preserve the pictures she wants to keep. I suggested getting rid of the frames and placing the pictures in a notebook (like the letters) in acid-free page pockets or archival photo sleeves.

In passing, I mentioned that I had gotten rid of her grandmother's rings and she was hurt at the thought that I had done that. It never dawned on me that she would be hurt.  She has her grandmother's wedding ring.  The rings I had were just rings to me and were too big so when someone offered me a fair price I sold them.

I know this did not answer your question though maybe this will give you some incite.


 
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I try to keep what my people touched and valued most.
(It may be something Freud would comment on, that I have my Fathers wallet, and my Mothers purse, as my most precious possessions)
Beyond that my father was a working man, and while a fire destroyed 4 generations of tools I never step into my shop without his memory as a guidestone.
My mother was a musical woman, and I sent all her instruments to kin and friends that would carry on her legacy, she helped me pick out my guitar and I never hear its strings without the caress of of her voice's accompaniment.
I kept her Melodeon and hope to honor her with it.
My hero was a drinking man, every man that knew him loved him or hated his guts,
I treasured his introspection and all the lessons he gave me both intentional and via bad example,
I name the pets that wander through my life after him, (his name was Bill and the pets have ranged from Billie to Mr. Wadsworth (William Wadsworth of course!) and Wilhelmina, (the Teutonic feminine of Bill!)) and they too, continue to teach me via introspection and bad example!
The "Stuff" their clothing, and most of the furniture, potsnpans, and cars and have gone by the wayside to (hopefully) those that need and value them, neither of them would admire my ability to store and shift cartons endlessly.
Everything with a shred of use for the future of their kin still resides at my house and I hope to dispense it as quickly as needed.
 
master steward
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Here's kind of how things have gone down on both sides of my family.

Mom's side: Before my Grammie died, she tried to give away as many things to her various children and grandchildren when she thought they would want them. And she tried to be fair so that one didn't get a bunch more than others. When she passed, all four of her children drew numbers. The one with #1 picked something, then #2 picked, then #3 picked, then #4 picked. Then back to #1. My mom and aunts and uncle also picked things out for their kids, too, on their turns. And, anything that someone had given Grammie went instantly back to that person. Unclaimed things went to charity.

On my Dad's side, we did most of of the work when my Grandma and Grandpa moved to a retirement center last year. My grandparents only have two kids. One side lives nearby, and my uncle's family lives on the other end of the country. My uncle and his kids only wanted a few things (my cousin wanted Grandma's gardening hand tools, and my cousin Mike wanted Grandpa's WW2 stuff), so we of course let them have those few, very memorable things. Then, my parents and my brother and our kids all gathered at Grandma and Grandpa's house on one day and went through everything, claiming things that we thought we'd need. I got a lot of the larger gardening tools because I have a larger property. My dad made up tool boxes for all the grandkids and kids out of Grandpa's copious tool and tackle/toolbox stash. Anything that wasn't claimed was sent to Goodwill. This was an emotional day for all of us (it was HARD seeing their house so empty!! And they were both still alive at the time). But, other than the emotional grieving, it went well. The only thing where someone fought was Grandma's dominoes. The thing I'd wanted most of all were the dominoes I'd played with on the floor as a kid...and my sister-in-law didn't know that and thought it would work great if she had one box and I had the other, that way our kids both had dominoes. I walked around sad for a while and talked to my mom, and she talked to my Sister-in-Law and explained how special those were to me, and my sister-in-law said that of course I could have them and she hadn't realized how special they were to me. (My brother didn't care at all. All he wanted really wanted was Grandma and Grandpa's epic green swivel chairs).

I think one thing to hold in mind is that, no matter how much  you try to plan ahead as to what you think someone will want, you'll never know for certain. I remember a few years ago I got into canning and pickling, and my Grandma said "I never would have thought you'd get into canning or I would have saved my canning jars for you!" But, it's fine--I can buy canning jars. And, years and years ago my grandpa had carved knitting needles and they'd lent them to a neighbor and my grandparents were sad that they didn't have them to give to me. But, it's fine. If you live every moment thinking "I can't give this away now, because someone might want it," then you won't be able to share with those you interact with now.

I think it's really helpful to get everyone together and have them go through it, that way you don't feel the burden of having not realized they'd want something.

Baring being able to get together, maybe get a bunch of pictures of things and send them out to everyone and see who wants what?
 
pollinator
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In a four year period when our parents were both ill, my sister and I packed up their house to move them to a house closer to where we both live.  Their house was bigger than either of ours with a storage room over the packed garage.  Our mom kept EVERYTHING of our grandmother's when she died down to her socks.  The house my sister found had a perfect layout for their safety but was smaller.  Mom was forced to have to get rid of things as there was no garage and storage room, just a small shed.  She was angry with us for some time.  We both accepted items to make it easier (just a little anyway) for her to part with things.  Most of these we both regifted, sent to goodwill and kept a few items.

After mom died, dad wanted to go to an assisted living home.  We had two yard sales since they lived in town, listed furniture on Craigslist and gave a lot away to friends and goodwill.  Mom had good (expensive) taste in some areas so we both upgraded some things from our kitchens with hers. Some "toys" we played with (like the pasta maker)  and then rehomed.  I did fall in love with her panini maker 😀 We set some items aside we thought family might want and just mailed it to them.  

We went through the house together.  We set aside items we each wanted and a seperate pile of things we both were interested in.  We agreed to be honest with each other and it ended up being a good evening. We took turns picking from the stuff we both wanted.  Although after the pizza and beer evening, I don't recommend deciding to hold a yard sale beginning 8 hours later.  Our husbands thought we were insane.  Her boys thought it would be fun.

There were some items we decided to sell. Mom had chosen that other than the house, her stuff was to go to us at her death. She had some nice jewelry that neither of us had any attachment to or desire to wear.  From the proceeds we divided the money for both of us and a portion for us to go  together on a getaway.  We rented a lake cabin with no tv or Internet.  We just hung out together and relaxed.  We spent some time telling the boys stories about the grandparents and our past.  They pretty much only knew them as sickly.  Our parents used to love to travel so we hope they would have approved.  

Since dads death was lingering, we had it prearranged as to what would be done with the remaining furniture and such. While sitting with him, we spent time going through pictures and telling stories out loud hoping he could hear and kept only what really meant something to us.  By this time we both felt hardened and ruthless with items.  Pictures with people we didn't know were trashed. No other family of his came that we offered things to.   A friend whose mom is sick wanted his lift chair.  Most remaining clothing and such went directly to goodwill.  

The good thing about this exhausting experience is my sister and I have gotten closer.  Not the way we would have chosen, but at least there WAS a benefit.

And then my husband and I had to do the same for his mom...the last year and a half has definitely been "interesting" on so many levels...I need a nap just remembering all this!
 
pollinator
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Personally I only really value things that I know I will use. My wife and I have been sorting through her grandparents junk. And unfortunately that is what most of it became. They couldn't take care of things and in this climate anything will rot or deteriorate without yearly attention. If you use it, it won't go bad. If you don't use it, you end up throwing it out. I find I only ever look at sentimental messages, letters, and photos when I'm cleaning up. Your mileage may vary, but I'd rather cherish the moments now, and in my memory than worry about keepsakes.

I'm probably not the first person to say it, but: If you don't think you will use an item before this time next year, you should find it a new owner who will.

 
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Anecdotal, but my son's take on "What will future generations even care about?":

A planet they can still survive on. Skills to keep themselves and their loved ones alive through disaster after disaster.

That's about it. Get rid of any "stuff" that is burdening your life or cluttering your home or storage.
 
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Faren Leader wrote:Anecdotal, but my son's take on "What will future generations even care about?":
A planet they can still survive on. Skills to keep themselves and their loved ones alive through disaster after disaster.


Yes, but why would one exclude the other? I care about the future and about those that brought me into existance (leaving genealogy* for the colder months when I can't garden).

On the original question:
You have to get the balance between „I or my descendants will want it some day“ and „nobody ever will look at that clutter that is just taking space“.

I am the one keeping all the family heritage – documents, photographs, albums, some books, small furniture, kitchen gadgets, silverware, monogrammed napkins, handwritten cookbooks...
(I am not only the only female descendant of my generation but also the only one with a stable family and my own home).

Ten years ago I stood in the large flat of my grandaunt who had passed at 102 years (no kids). I had three little kids, no car and was overwhelmed what to do with the belongings of not only one life, but that of her mother (my great-grandmother) and those before.
My aunt (no kids) who is not sentimental at all had most of it hauled away and compensated the antiques and furniture cost-wise with the expenses of the removal – this was also my mother’s wish (who lives abroad).
I was allowed to take personal belongings (the grand piano my great grandmother had received for her 18th birthday was already at my house at that stage).

I got all the remaining pictures and documents plus decorations, my neighbour who drove me got to pick some things as well as I was simply overwhelmed (I will ask him for some things now that I have redecorated and have more space available for certain things), so did my sister in law.
Did I get/take everything? No, for example a box with cards and letters about death notices was just too much then; today as I am interested in genealogy I would certainly be happy about it (although I did find two albums with the life dates of all relatives and friends up to the 1980s).

What do I still have? Mostly things that are either dear to me or interesting for genealogic reasons:
Loads of old photographs (the latest from the 1850s), letters (from my great grandmother to her daughter when they were separated in the 1920s; war letters from my grandpa), documents (all the bills regarding my great grandmother’s wedding in 1903), the portrait of my 5x great grandfather (born 1749), the friendship album of my 3x great grandmother from her teens in the 1830s, family trees, memoirs of my great grandaunt (born 1878) and similar – things that have a personal meaning to me and that are in some cases valuable testimonies of history.
Those items that are not on display fit into various boxes. Yes, they do take up some space but they have all found their place in our house.

If none of my children will be interested? I would still want the things to be kept, in case the (great) grandchildren or descendants of my nephews once get interested.
As my great grandaunt wrote as a foreward to her memoir: Maybe one day one of my nieces of nephews will take an interest (it was then me, her great grandniece…).

I have also been able to forward photos or document scans to distant relatives in the US (when siblings of my ancestors had emigrated), I know there are people desparate to have just one photo! There are even people out there „rescuing“ old photos to re-unite them with possible family.

So I can only say what I would do:
• Things that are just stuff to you and is a burden – get rid
• Family items like photographs and letters (just of family, not strangers) – put in a box until someone might want to have those
• Historical documents that have no personal value – try a historical society or list them online (I know there are genealogists going treasure hunting online for those things)

* Genealogy is a frugal hobby in my eyes, compared to most sports, travelling, art collection etc. I don’t think it makes you a better person if you know your lineage into the Middle Ages or have noble ancestors, but it does ground me and makes history palpable
 
Faren Leader
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Anita, I feel guilty that you typed out such a long response, because I think you may have misunderstood what I was trying to say.

My son is 13. Here in the US at least, among kids who haven't already been poisoned with disinformation about climate change, most of my son's peers feel that by the time they are 35 or 40, they won't be living anything close to a stable or normal life, including the possibility of not even having a home to store things in. They see the climate change chaos (including potential of necessary migration, on foot, due to extreme disasters), and civil unrest/civil war that are brewing right now as the future they will be living in, and so having a shoebox of great grandma Mildred's letters from WWII or whatnot won't really have meaning anymore in a day to day life of survival. I know that's bleak, but that's how they feel. My son doesn't want the dining room table that he'd be the 5th generation to inherit. He doesn't want his great grandfather's wedding ring. He doesn't want his grandmother's wedding album. He has no interest in his family tree further back than his grandparents. If I told him that one of his direct ancestors was Abraham Lincoln he'd probably shrug and say "Well, that's cool. Wish they hadn't been using coal for everything back then since that crap is up in our atmosphere now."

Editing to add: I'm also not particularly interested in genealogy, and I'd be pretty frustrated if someone handed items down to me with a note of "Hey, even if you don't care about this stuff personally, please keep it to hand down to your own kids or grandkids someday, because they might be interested." I'm really not in the business of holding onto items just in case someone who isn't even born yet might be interested in them in 50 years. That's a personal preference and I know many might feel differently.
 
Anita Martin
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Faren Leader wrote:Anita, I feel guilty that you typed out such a long response, because I think you may have misunderstood what I was trying to say.



Thanks for spelling it out again!

Yes, this is a topic with personal views and I totally understand the point of your son.

I get bitter from time to time when I see the disinterest in the future of our planet and the trivial distractions of today's kids. I wish I could make the point clearer to my own kids (one is mildly interested in environmental issues, one has become vegetarian, the third hears what I say but thinks I am boring and radical).

Then again I am more optimistic and think there will be a big paradigm shift (like now with the pandemic) and even our lobby-ridden, slow government may make necessary changes and our children and grandchildren will have a future worth living.

In any case, it is ok for anybody to choose interests while keeping the priorities of our struggle in mind. It is not easy, not now, not in the future.
 
Judith Browning
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Thank you for all of the responses...helpful views all!

I got lost in postcards yesterday...my maternal grandmother was a school teacher so there are lots of them, for every occasion, many very beautiful...

...and a large bundle of letters from my dad to his mother during world war 2.  Those are some of the easier things to give to grandchildren.

...and the one that I've always been curious about, photos of mom's earlier Italian boyfriend?

One of the reasons I want to sort mindfully and dispose of, give away or sell in the same manner is that no matter what we think about these family things, even if one looks at it as unnecessary 'crap' ...just 'getting rid of it' is never that, as I think there are repercussions to whatever method is chosen.

I love the examples you've all written about...thank you

I know that my views have changed from my teenage years to my present 'senior' years...my interest in the past and the things that I hold dear.  

There are interesting things we can learn from our ancestors and I feel the connections are even more important now than they ever were.

and just to put things in perspective, I hitchhiked down here to the Ozarks with a big backpack and a couple garden tools at 23yrs, 47 years ago.

We've lived quite simply ever since.....my footprint is still very small


EDIT to add...even though I do believe 'everything is everything' and all things are connected, I am going to suggest if anyone wants to discuss climate change and the future of the planet that the 'cider press' is the place to do so.
I can see where the subject of 'stuff' might lead to that topic.....






 
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Having been a military wife for 20 years and moving more times than anyone would care to read about, I'll sum up my experiences with just one sentence: "Stuff" is just "stuff." If I can easily replace it, I try not to keep an emotional attachment to it.

That being said, I wasn't raised that way. My parents are borderline hoarders. Some of their stuff is probably worth something, most is just junk.

When they retired, they had a buy a four bedroom house with a separate den and garage just to hold all their "stuff." They don't own their "stuff." Their "stuff" owns them. They always put their "stuff" before their family. (Okay...y'all can probably see that I have a chip on my shoulder about this...)

When they pass away, my sisters and I will most likely hire an estate sale agency to handle the "stuff." After that, donations to thrift stores. But I do, sadly, envision the rental a construction-sized dumpster to empty their sad, lonely, overstuffed house.

Thank you for reading all that "baggage." I mentioned it so you could know the background from which I give my own two cents' worth:

One of the reasons I want to sort mindfully and dispose of, give away or sell in the same manner is that no matter what we think about these family things, even if one looks at it as unnecessary 'crap'  ...just 'getting rid of it' is never that, as I think there are repercussions to whatever method is chosen.



Memories are what can't be replaced. The "stuff" we keep is often because of the memory associated with it. So, offering to give away your grandmother's keepsakes is emotionally charged. You're "giving away" memories. Trying to detach the sentimentality from the physical object can be tough, nearly traumatic for some people. What some people value as "unnecessary crap" can be very sentimental to others.


Whatever you decide to give away or offer to one person instead of another does indeed have repercussions. And somebody will get their feelings hurt because you didn't offer them what you thought they'd want. So, with that in mind, I'd email everyone in the family a list of what you've got, and ask them if there's anything particularly special to them they'd like to have. Then, after a suitable time has passed, start giving it away. Then if someone gets upset because you didn't handle it the way they wanted, you can politely remind them that you asked them for their input, and they had their chance.

I'm dreading the day I have the job you're doing now, Judith. I'm very sorry for the loss of your grandmother. Please hold tight to the fond memories you have of her...THOSE are priceless, irreplaceable, treasures.

 
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I had a great aunt who died in Vermont. They were a big important family there and had a lot of documents, etc. The local government was interested in getting the letters and other paper documents to keep in the library. So all of these paper things are being properly archived and curated by the library and I think that's the way to go! So contact your family library and see if they are interested in the genealogy documents.
 
Judith Browning
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Elle, I did try several years ago to connect with a Historical Society near mom's home town to give things to...they wanted them in a certain form as I remember that I didn't have time to accomplish back then...good idea and one I will check into again.  One of the challenges to that is for years mom kept things orderly and in a recognizable form (she was a secretary/office manager at a college for a couple decades) but then Alzheimers happened and she began 'shuffling' things in a way that has been difficult to sort out...not impossible though.

Stacie, no one died recently and yes, memories are sweet and more important than tangible things....mom lived with us for ten years back in the nineties but grandparents had been long gone by then.  I guess what I really hope for is that I can pick out the meaningful, personal tidbits out of the mountain so that if any of our grandkids or great grands are interested the information is easy to find and they can feel a link with their past.

This is just my ongoing project that I pick at a little here and there.  This year the goal is to consolidate pictures and letters and memorbila down to one big old train trunk and give away the empty one.


I'm picking up lots of useful ideas from this group as I knew I would.....you are all so appreciated!


When my paternal grandma died, the last of that generation in my family, we were living in a cabin and had no room for anything.  My cousins did though so much of the familiar furniture was shared in the family.  Later I asked one of my cousins who had ended up with the spin around aluminum ashtray of grandpa's that he would 'let' us spin when grandma wasn't looking.  They found it and sent it to me...a silly thing but it has links to family get together memories, personalities and overnights at grandma's.....

 
 
Judith Browning
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Lew Johnson wrote:.

I'm probably not the first person to say it, but: If you don't think you will use an item before this time next year, you should find it a new owner who will.



I've always heard this as a way to minimalism...I just don't know how it relates to real life living on a farm or even in permaculture?

I look around our living room and see beautiful family handwoven navaho rugs from the early 20th century, lots of my husband's woodworking including coopered buckets, bowls and at the moment some wooden pitchforks in the corner by my computer; my dulcimer that I have not played in a few years, a thousand record albums that are played but I know some have not been played in a year; a high shelf that holds our handmade basket collection...some get used of course, but others do not...these are things I suppose seem unnecessary but I like being surrounded by beautiful handmade things and we live very simply without a lot of other things that some might see as 'necessities'.

The shop and garden shed though do hold more things that have not been used in a year but we would not be able to replace easily when we needed them....I have all of the parts for a hoop house, including some windows I want to try for this one...it did not get built this year but likely will within another year.   The siding on our house was cut by our son at his mill and sat in a pile in the yard for five years...now it's sided the house...another pile of cedar is finally being used as fence after a few years....the list is long

...and books! guest bedding! candles and lamps for a power outage!  our old set up for a sawdust toilet, just in case!

Actually, when we moved this last time, we did give away a lot of things that we either had not used or just didn't want anymore...smaller house, less stuff.  




 
L. Johnson
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Judith Browning wrote:I've always heard this as a way to minimalism...I just don't know how it relates to real life living on a farm or even in permaculture?



Thank you for asking me this. It made me sort out my thoughts more so I could answer.

First off, I use that as a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast law. There are things that I keep that I won't use but am not ready to throw away, sell, or give away. But I find it very useful as a guideline to reduce the amount of things around me to a manageable amount. As I mentioned in the previous post, in this climate things degrade fast without attention. We can't provide attention to all the things that are here (even after reducing heavily) so I find myself perennially continuing our reduction of stuff until we have only what we will use and can maintain. I truly hate to see things go to waste because of neglect.

My personal opinion is that minimalism as an ideal is a necessary component of a long-term sustainable human society. We have been overconsuming, and overproducing, and accumulating hoards of things we don't use. I can't see that as a sustainable way forward. I think we need to create in ourselves the mindset that we have enough already (usually), unless we really don't.

On the flip side, what I love to see happening (though nowhere near me) is the broadening of the term "library". These days there are tool libraries, seed libraries, and in the future I'm sure there will be other forms of them that I can't even imagine now. If we can learn to share then we don't have to own everything. It always seemed ridiculous to me that both I and my neighbor have the same expensive tool that either of us only uses once in five years.
 
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One huge issue I have come to face in the process is that what I see as a heirloom  other family members may see as junk.  
 
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One thing folks may not have thought of: my Dad was a student/then professsor when Caltech was young. I've given lots of papers, photos, etc. to the school's archives. I've also sold some pieces to historical societies, for not much money. (A hand-made book about a neighborhood, for example, someone took hours making it.)

If the family member was important in their field or early, the letters, etc. may be wanted by a specialty museum. If your family has lived in Whatdoyacallit County for 100+ years, the county historical society may be interested, or the state. They probably have no budget to buy such things, but it's an email you can cut/paste from the email to the family of what's left. If they lived in the same house for 50 years, the local library may want papers...

You may be surprised!
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