I’ve always been impressed with other folks’ family heirlooms – what I like to refer to as “genealogical memorabilia”. My family doesn’t have very many. For years my brother and I didn’t even know we had family. We secretly wondered if our parents were part of the witness protection program. Other kids had cool stuff from their great-greats. Old diaries that told all the family secrets? None here. Letters between family members with stories of the old days? Nope. Official documents? Not any they left behind – I had to find them through public records. Obituaries? Not even one. Wills? Zilch – there’s nothing to leave behind! Photographs? Some, but not a large number. Even when it comes to tombstones there are only four ancestors that have one out of the fifteen direct ancestors who died in this country!
You hear a lot these days about the “carbon footprint” we leave behind. But what about our “genealogical footprint”? Other than having children, what we “leave behind” our ourselves will either become treasured memorabilia or simply trash. There’s a debate over if the abondoned love letters found in a trash can should be published if the owner believed they were trash. Although I hate generalizations, it seems to boil down to two types of people: the pack-rats and the throw-outs. Children of throw-outs usually become pack-rats, and vice versa.
I come from a long line of thrower-outers. Gone are my father’s baseball cards from the 1940s, the original one-sheet movie posters he obtained while working at a movie theater in the late 40s and early 50s, and my mother’s collection of autographed glossy photos from the film stars of that same period. My grandmothers didn’t think anyone would want such clutter, and truth be told my own parents probably would have thrown them out later as well. My maternal grandmother also felt the need to throw out her mother’s china and crystal brought over from Poland in 1903 – who wants old stuff when you can have new?
But, I can live without these things. They would certainly be nice to have, but I’ve collected enough of my own junk treasure over the years. What I miss not having the most are the more personal relics from my parents and their ancestors. I have so few. A handwritten note from my grandfather to grandmother nine months before they married. A note from my almost-8-year-old father to his mother who was recovering in the hospital after the birth of his baby sister. These are the things I long for – personal memorabilia, not collectors’ items. These things tell me more about the people than any other type of remembrance.
I decided to reduce my own footprint, or rather, clutter, after college. I had saved every letter and card I received since high school (no email back then, kids). I saved those that were funny, noted some important event, or were otherwise significant to me. As I sorted through old Christmas cards to throw them out, one took my breath away. I realized it was the last Christmas card my grandmother gave me before she died the following year. While it may not mean much to future generations, it’s now in my own personal box of genealogical memorabilia.
It took me a long time to realize that my memories are more significant than any item. I pray that these are never taken from me, but in order to make my memories meaningful to future generations I have to write them down. Just as we should back-up our data on the computer, we need to back-up our own life story so we can leave it behind.
Make your memores, your family stories, your legacy, your genealogical footprint. Make your life story your heirloom!