Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My!: Sorting Through a Loved Ones Estate (Part 3)

We're finally here--down to the nitty gritty. I know you are saying to yourself, "Thank goodness. I didn't think we'd ever get there." (Actually, my husband said exactly the same thing just the other day...) I am currently sorting out at the item level and in the process of organizing literally a hundred letters, thousands of photos and slides, and bits and pieces of memorabilia, hoping to glean whatever genealogical information I can from them.

Before I go any further, however, I would like to say a word about your workspace. I have a fold up table in my den/guest room to stack, store, and organize the projects I am currently working on. I'm trying, I said trying, to keep all of my active projects in one place. I also have three cats that jump everywhere and little boys that battle aliens with light sabers in my house. On top of that, spilling drinks and other liquids comes naturally to us. My fold up table is out of the way where it is not likely to get knocked over or spilled on. Keep all liquids away from your photos and other materials.

For supplies, you can spend what your budget allows. I would love to buy an extensive array of archival products, but they can be expensive. I have purchased basic non-archival storage items from Walmart, Staples, and Target. For acid free archival materials A.C. Moore, Michaels, and the Container Store are possibilities. There are also online product purveyors of archival products such as Gaylord. My supplies are pretty simple. They include archival boxes for storage, PVC-free photo sleeves and slide sleeves. I use acid free tissue paper for wrapping fabric items. I am also planning to purchase acid free copy paper and folders.

I have about 100 letters, mostly in Polish. I don't read Polish, but saved the letters hoping to find someone to translate them for me someday. I'm lucky that I've made contact with a cousin from Poland who is as interested in genealogy as I am. He is kindly translating letters for me one at a time. I scan them and send them via e-mail. He replies with a translation. I have organized the letters in an archival box purchased at a crafts store. They are arranged first by sender and then by date. My cousin translates the earliest ones first, so we can learn about our family using a chronological timeline. I'm planning to print the translations on archival paper and put them in the box next to the original letter.

If you are interested in translating letters get your name out there via blogs, message boards and the like. Stating the obvious, RootsWeb is a great place to start. You too may have a cousin who is interested in genealogy and happy to translate letters for you. Other options to consider: hire a professional translator; contact a poor graduate student looking to make some extra cash; or make friends with another genealogist. Are there any ethic churches or schools in your area you could contact? A final note on letters--if you have envelopes keep the envelopes with the letters. I have the street addresses of our family back in Poland dating back to the 1930s, because my family kept the letters in the envelopes they came in.

I've organized my photos in archival boxes purchased from a crafts store. I also have some photos in archival plastic sleeves and slides in archival plastic sleeves inside a three ring binder. If you have photos in old photographer's folders/portfolios, carefully, and I mean very carefully, remove the photos from the old acidic folders. If you can't remove the photo without potentially damaging it, place a clean piece of acid-free copy paper between the photo and the folder to protect the photo. Before you toss a folder/portfolio make sure there isn't writing on it, like a personal note from the sender to the recipient. You don't want to toss away an inscription by mistake and lose valuable information for your research.

Consider purchasing a light screen to organize slides. If you buy a scanner, can it scan negatives and slides? How many slides can it scan at once? Unfortunately my scanner can only scan four slides at a time. Given that I have a couple thousand slides, I expect to finish my scanning project sometime in 2035. I am currently the process of scanning and organizing photos onto my hard drive, preparing them for a digital scrapbook. I haven't yet, but hope to in the near future, check out one of the photo sharing websites to share all of these great photos with other members of my family. Also, if you are looking for a great gift for someone--birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day--consider scanning your old photos and then give your loved one a digital picture frame.

Do you have yellowed newspaper clippings? You might want to consider photocopying them onto archival paper. You can keep the original and the photocopy together in an archival folder, or you can toss the smelly yellowed original and keep the copy. You may want to eliminate the paper all together and simply keep a scanned copy on your hard drive, memory stick, or photo sharing website.

As far as memorabilia is concerned--tickets, programs, postcards, menus, diaries, yearbooks, etc.--archival boxes are handy. If I have several copies of something and the item is of special significance or interest, I keep three copies. I don't think more than that is really necessary. I don't really see the need to keep more than one copy of most things. As I mentioned earlier, acid free tissue is great for storing fabrics.

When I started this process in 2004 my son was 18 months old. It's now 2010, and my son will be heading off to second grade in the fall. I say, somewhat tongue in cheek, by the time I finish he'll probably be in college. At least I won't be bored in my retirement years. Yes, my organizing project has taken a while. As I said, my process may not be the best way or work for everyone, but it's worked for me. I hope you find some what I've shared useful. Now go forth and organize...

Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My!: Sorting Through a Loved One's Estate (Part 2)

Now that you have all of your boxes at your home or storage spot, it's time to sort some more. For some people sooner is probably better than later, because it is easier to remember what items are in what box while the big sort/clean out project is still fresh in your mind. Other people may want to wait a while, particularly if they are dealing with photos and mementos of lost loved ones. Do what is best for you. Personally, I usually think about sorting through stuff when my husband asks, "Oh sweetie, can we get rid of some more of that stuff?" Time to get to work!

You might want to organize items that might be of interest to other family members. One of the first things I did was gather and give away some stuff that might be of interest to my mother's brother. While it was fun looking at my uncle's homework from the 1930s and 1940s, I didn't really see a need to keep it. Ask yourself if what you are keeping is vital or peripheral to your research.

Next, do you have photos in frames? Do you love the frames? Do you even like the frames? If not, take the photo out of the frame and toss the frame. Better yet, sell your frames at your next yard sale, and put the money you make towards a genealogy or family history project. I found I was able to condense what I had, just by getting rid of the picture frames I didn't like or need.

Consider sorting items into boxes according to family surname. I organized a box of stuff for my dad's Shenette family and several boxes of stuff for my mom's Szerejko and Bulak families. I labeled the boxes with their last names and indicated what was in the box: Szerejko photos, Szerejko memorabilia, Shenette photos, and so on. Depending on how much you have, you might want to extend it out according to family surnames or lines.

Next I tried to identify people and figure out what family they came from. Unfortunately a lot of the photos I have either didn't have any information written on them or were written in Polish. Even though I don't read Polish, I made some pretty good guesses by looking for clues on the photographs. I sorted photos out by where the photo was taken. I knew my grandmother's Bulak and Kowalewski families came from the Ostrolenka area in Poland. My grandfather's Szerejko family was in Warsaw. If I saw a photo that was stamped with a photographer's stamp from Ostrolenka it went in one box. If I found a photo that said Warsaw on it, either from a photographer's stamp or written on the back, it went in another box. Here I would say go with your gut feeling. Your guess may be right! My guesses have been surprisingly on target for the most part. I recently made contact with a cousin from Poland and together we have been working on identifying photos. While I can't say I've been 100 percent accurate, I've been pretty darn close. Another tip for identifying people, ask yourself, "Who do they look like?" I have looked at photos and just known that a family group belonged to the Bulak family. The resemblance to my grandmother and her father or mother leaves little doubt as to what part of the family they are from.

Finally, I have a box I've somewhat unceremoniously labeled "Unidentified Dead People." Poor souls. I don't have a clue as to who they are. In my collection, this box consists mostly of photos of wedding groups. I keep thinking I'll finally be able to identify them some day. I've considered scanning them and saving them to my hard drive in order to free up physical space and toss the actual photos. I've considered posting their photos on one of the websites aimed at identifying old photos. For some reason I've had a hard time either letting them go or deciding what to do with them, so for now they just hang in limbo. Other projects and research take precedence. At least they are all together in one box...

Coming up next: Getting down to the nitty gritty...

Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My! (Part 1)
Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My! (Part 3)

Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My!: Sorting Through a Loved One's Estate (Part 1)

In April of 2004 my mother unexpectedly entered a nursing home. As an only child, I was left to close out and sell her house and sort through the belongings of not just one lifetime but two. My mom's house belonged to my grandmother for almost 30 years and my mom lived there for another 25. Both my mom and my grandmother were savers--they saved everything. At the time I was a new mom with an 18-month old child. To say I was overwhelmed--with a toddler, running back and forth to the nursing home, and the endless task of sorting through my mom's belongings--is an understatement. On top of it all I was surprised to find a treasure trove of old letters, slides, photos, and memorabilia hidden in the basement.

I had to decide how best to sort, transport, store, and organize my little gold mine. I didn't have the luxury of time, because my mom's house had to be put up for sale. Sorting and organizing was and continues to be a process. Thankfully, with hindsight, I think I made some pretty good decisions. I'm not saying that my way is the best way, but I'd like to share some tips on what worked for me. For the purpose of this article, the term "estate" means photos, slides, letters, and memorabilia or items relating directly to aiding my genealogy and family history research.

I think the stuff in my mom's basement is probably pretty typical of what many people find when sorting through estate items. I found the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of the items in my mom's basement were in great shape, some dirty or dusty, and some moldy and downright disgusting. I did a physical review to decide what to keep and what to toss. The first thing I did was purchase some large cardboard cartons with handle cut-outs for easy sorting and transporting. Another option, if you don't want to spend money is to go to a liquor store and see if they have any empty cartons available. Empty liquor boxes are just the right size to pack stuff but are not too heavy to carry. I didn't use archival containers/boxes at this point. I saved those for later in the process.

Now it was time to sort. I had boxes for photos, boxes for framed photos, boxes for memorabilia, and boxes or trash bags for gross stuff. All the clean photos and letters went into clean boxes. If you find a collection of items that seem to belong together, keep them together. My grandmother's sister traveled to Poland in the 1930s, so I made sure all of the items I found from her trip or that I thought might be from her trip, went into the same box. If you find letters, keep them in their envelopes if they come in envelopes. If you find letters in a language that you don't read, keep them. Maybe someday you'll be lucky enough to find a long lost cousin to translate them for you. I did.

Put all of the dusty some what grimy stuff in a separate set of boxes. Keep the dirt together. Finally comes the tough part. What to do with the gross, moldy stuff? Toss it unless you have the time, knowledge, or financial means to consult with a professional conservator. If you believe your item is of historical significance, of course, consult with a professional conservator. If you bring moldy stuff into your house, be prepared to battle a potential mold infestation in your home. You can use your digital camera to photograph and document anything that might provide valuable information for your research. You can write down information on a notepad or type into a laptop. Finally label boxes before transporting them to their new location.

After transporting your boxes don't do what I did if you can help it. Don't store your things in your basement. Luckily we have a dry, finished basement. I simply didn't have adequate storage space in the upstairs part of my house. Also, during this part of the process, keep your loved ones in mind. I didn't want to bring a bunch of dusty boxes into the house with a small child around. My husband, while indulgent regarding my genealogical pursuits, doesn't always see things the same way that I do. How that is, I can't imagine. I see all those boxes as a 100 years of my family history waiting to be preserved for posterity. He sees them as a pile of dusty junk. If you must store your boxes in the basement, try to raise them up onto shelves or flats to get them off the floor in case you do have flooding. If you have to stack boxes on top of one another, don't stack them more than three high. Place the heavier boxes at the bottom to avoid crushing the contents.

Coming up next: Sorting, sorting, and more sorting...

Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My! (Part 2)
Letters and Photos and Stuff, Oh My! (Part 3)

Postcards from the Edge: Genealogy Road Trippin'

You've done it. Come on, admit you've done it. It's okay, really. You've talked some poor unsuspecting non-genealogist--husband, wife, significant other, sibling, friend--into taking a research side trip somewhere. Your can hear yourself already, "It's right on the way. We're driving right past it." In my case, the vacation to the Poconos in Pennsylvania has been planned for some time now. Last week I had the happy fortune to discovered that an ancestor lived for a while in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, only an hour away from where we are staying. Imagine my excitement. Imagine my husbands excitement, or not.

Two years ago on on our way home from a vacation/business trip to Charleston, South Carolina I asked my husband if we could stop in Winchester, Virginia. I found my grandfather Frank Chenette's half-brother Francois Chenette, a Civil War soldier, was buried in the Winchester National Cemetery. Winchester wasn't that far out of our way, after all we were heading north. I asked my husband if we could stop and check out the cemetery. He said sure. We found the cemetery without too much trouble. I found Francois' grave without too much trouble, using the information from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Nationwide Gravesite Locator. After we left the cemetery we decided to find a hotel room for the night. Not being locals, we didn't realise the Shenandoah Valley Apple Blossom Festival was going on in Winchester. Every hotel room in the city and the surrounding area was taken. A very kind hotel clerk at one of the hotels took pity on us and called around to the other hotels. He said he literally found the last room available. We took it.

I'm looking forward to the visit next week to Shenandoah, PA. A coal mining town, I plan to look around town, check out the library, and maybe visit a cemetery or two. Now that's what I call a great vacation. I'm already thinking ahead to our vacation in Virginia in August. I've already told my husband I want to check out the battlefield route--the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor--around Richmond. I can't wait. Maybe we'll stop in Winchester again. After all, it is on the way home heading north...

Books of Interest - St. Denis: A French-Canadian Parish

While Horace Miners book, St. Denis: A French Canadian Parish was published over 70 years ago, much can still be gleaned from its contents describing daily life in St-Denis parish, Richelieu County, Quebec. The book was of interest to me as my great-grandfather Francois Chenette and grandfather Frank A. Shenette were born in St-Denis and my grandmother Marie L. Comeau was born in the neighboring town of St-Ours. Miner's book provides a glimpse of life as it was in St-Denis and it's environs in earlier times. Chapters include information on the history of the town, the land and it's people, kinship and the family, the role of religion, life according to the annual calendar, as well as the childhood condition, married life, and mourning rituals. Appendices include age-sex distribution of the population of St-Denis in 1936, traditional cures and remedies, the "autobiography of a habitant," old and new traits in St-Denis. A bibliography and index are included.

Miner, Horace. St. Denis: A French-Canadian Parish; Chicago: University of Chicago, Phoenix Books, 1963, 1939.