When my aunt and uncle passed away, my cousin and I took on the monumental task of sorting through everything in their house. Because I’m the appointed family historian, I was given the task of going through boxes and boxes of old photos and papers.
The bad news is, my aunt kept everything (yes, even upholstery receipts from 1959). The good news is, she kept everything—including my great-grandfather’s bible (in terrible disrepair) as well as books he used in his early days as a school teacher.
The real treasure was the box of letters that went back and forth between my aunt and her mother (my grandmother). It was in those that I learned how much they meant to one another, and how life really unfolded for the family from the 1930s and beyond.
Among the wonderful tidbits were gossipy correspondences about everyday life: how my dad was having problems after having two teeth pulled, how Aunt Helen was making $40 a day doing piece work during World War II, and how great-Aunt Dollie was working on the quilts that just a few days ago we discovered tucked away in a closet.
Our favorite find was a letter my aunt (who was in medical school in the 1930s) sent to her 13-year-old sister, explaining the birds and the bees. It’s precious beyond words.
Where Do Letters Fit Into Genealogy?
I’ve always been more interested in the stories than the lineage (does that make me a bad genealogist??). So finding these letters has been like unlocking a treasure chest to another generation—and of course also opening up a whole bevy of questions.
Thank goodness I can pick up the phone and call Aunt Helen with questions like “how come grandpa and Aunt Lu were in St. Joe, and you and grandma were in Lone Jack?” Answer: Grandma was there tending to her sick mother—a tidbit I would never had known if it weren’t for the letter and Aunt Helen.
Many of the letters are over 70 years old, and the bible is well over 100, so preserving them is high on my priority list. I’ve already established a game plan to scan all of the letters and old photos, then burn a CD for everyone in the family. Then, everything will go into archival sleeves and boxes. But then what? It’s long been on my mind what will happen to these precious treasures fifty years from now. If you’ve solved that problem, I’d love to know about it.