Preserve memories, not stuff
Updated: Mar 25
“Should I keep this?” It’s amazing how often the question comes up.
“How long should I keep my kid’s artwork?”
“What should I do with these old photos?”
“Do you think anyone wants my grandma’s collection of 2,000 dolls?”
People ask for my opinion on these questions all the time. I'm not a big believer in hard and fast rules, but seeing this struggle with clients, and living through it firsthand, I can tell you there are ways to to make the decision of what to keep and what to toss a lot easier.
We know we can’t keep everything. There simply isn’t enough space. But throwing things away that are part of a good memory is hard for most of us. It’s easy to be sentimental about the objects we own.
But that doesn’t make the object worth keeping, especially if you're not preserving it according to archival standards.
Forget about the object; what's its story?
Let's start with my dad’s solid gold watch. Objectively, it was worth its weight in gold, no more no less. Sentimentally, it was the watch he received from his own father. That watch was the only item of value my dad inherited, and one of only a few material links to his father. Sadly, it was stolen.
Dad was a great storyteller, and I heard the story of how the watch was stolen many times. It was one chapter in the larger tale of Dad’s trip hitchhiking cross-country during the Great Depression. I never once saw that watch even though it is part of how I think about my dad. But I know that watch so well I could draw it.
It never really occurred to me to want the watch because it was made of gold. I wanted it because I wanted my dad to have that link to his father back. And I wanted him to avoid the heartbreak of loss. I wanted to save him from making the error in judgement that allowed the watch to slip through his fingers. Every emotion around a watch I’ve never even seen is about love and human behavior.
Watch vs. memory of the watch? My dad turned that watch into part of the family history. He didn't have a choice. But I can't say I miss having the watch.
Or, take the case of my grandmother’s enormous, brown, supposedly antique furniture. I know there are some of you out there who will relate to this one… a grandparent (or parent) trying to unload their old furniture on you.
My grandmother loved her furniture. She took pictures of her favorite pieces. On her massive hutch, there sat a photo of the hutch. (I am not making that up!) There were also photos of the furniture in her albums next to our baby pictures.
My cousins and I don’t regret saying good-bye to that furniture. It wasn’t for us. And it didn't reflect anything special about our family history that we cared about. We talk about it sometimes, and laugh about her extreme attachment, but that amusement wasn't strong enough to justify keeping it.
I know you have stories like this too. We all do.
The true value of an object is the story and meaning that come with it.
Sharing memories is an incredibly important part of who we are. It’s the fabric of our relationships. Storytelling is a basic component of how cultures work. Instead of thinking about whether to keep something or throw it away, I want you to think about how the item relates to your story and how you will share that story with loved ones.
You are your own family story curator, whether you know it or not.
I don’t have a personal agenda motivating me to make you get rid of your possessions, or to have you keep them. But I do care about memories and how to share memories with others. That’s why I do what I do for a living.
Memories are a big part of your legacy. It's what makes family history meaningful. It's what makes ancestry come alive. Genealogy gets exciting when you learn the stories of the people in your family tree.
And that's the fun part: extracting the memories so everyone can benefit, not just the one lucky (or unlucky) enough to end up with the object.
When you're considering keeping an object or throwing it away, consider how that item or the story of that item fits into your family and its history. If there's a good story there, then it may be worth sharing. That's how you develop a family legacy.
Some thoughts about preservation
Preservation doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It’s a shame because the work done in that field is remarkable. Librarians are a kind of hero, as far as I’m concerned.
The category of librarians generally referred to as archivists and conservationists are the ones who are the most specialized in taking care of objects so they last as long as they can. If you decide to keep objects, whether they’re photos, furniture, knick knacks, etc., you should commit to preserving the item. That’s where archival standards come into play.
If you love it, preserve it. If not, toss it!
Proper care and preservation of objects is a little extra work and expense. But it's a good litmus test, too. If you are not investing in the proper care of an object, that is an important indication of how strongly you feel about it.
Next time you are on the fence about an item to which you are attached, think about why that object matters. Is it important enough to preserve? Is there a story that needs to be written down? Is it unique or irreplaceable?
Get in the habit of thinking of questions like these, and you'll be well on your way to building a family archive and legacy, but not keeping unnecessary junk!