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)

1 comment:

Joan said...

Cynthia, I wished I had had you along when we closed out my mother's house. I think we got the good stuff, but she had lived in that house for 65 years, and in the county all of her life --- lots of stuff.

I like the way you thought about sorting and boxing. Good stuff.