On a Wednesday night a couple of weeks ago I got a telephone call from my mother at 10:30 p.m.. After panicking for a brief moment (my mother is normally in bed by 9:00 p.m.), I realized she was up late because she was staying at her sister’s house. They were doing a major cleaning of closets and things at my aunt’s house. My mother said “We had this on the throw out pile, but I thought I’d call you first, just in case you were interested. Would you want a big family portrait of your grandmother, her parents, and her brothers and sisters?”
What escaped my lips was the sigh heard round the world. I have lost track of the number of times I have told my family that instead of throwing away photographs, papers, documents, etc., from family members to please put them in a pile and give them to me. When my folks downsized from a four-bedroom colonial to a two-bedroom modern house ten years ago, I had to go diving into trash bags to save the bride and groom from the top of my parents’ wedding cake, a bracelet my mother wore on her wedding day, and numerous other items of memorabilia. I even had to convince her to save her wedding dress so that they could use parts of it to create dresses for her granddaughters.
Back to the telephone call. I responded that yes, I would very much like to have the picture. She described it as a very big picture that used to hang on the wall. I said that was fine, I still wanted it. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Yes, Mother, I’m sure.” I finally went to see her this past weekend for a visit and to pick up the picture. After spending some time talking, I asked her where the picture was. We went out to the garage, where she opened a box and pulled out the “very big picture that used to hang on the wall.” It was an 8”x10” picture in a photographer’s frame. On the back was a built-in easel for standing on a table, with some string wrapped around the easel that someone used to hang it on the wall at one time. Needless to say, it was a bit smaller than I anticipated.
She then reached into the box again and pulled out another picture. I recognized it immediately. It was a 12”x15” cardboard frame, with an 8”x10” photograph of my great-aunt and her husband on their wedding day, and an 8”x10” photograph of my grandmother (in her bridesmaid dress) on the reverse. Along one side: the tattered remnants from where it had been bound into my great-aunt’s wedding album. I had seen the album many times growing up, and after it fell into my brother’s possession.
My great-aunt and great-uncle had no children of their own. My brother, sister, and I, were like grandchildren to them. My brother was their special favorite, and he inherited everything from their house when my great-aunt passed, including the wedding album. Despite having told my family multiple times I wanted the album if they ever decided to get rid of it, they had apparently pulled out the only images that meant anything to them, and thrown the rest of it away. I was crushed. The album contained pictures of other great-aunts and great-uncles, my great-grandparents, and others. And I knew even without asking that it was gone forever.
I write this as a cautionary tale. Try to make copies of images and documents as quickly as you can after you discover their existence. This is especially important if they are in private hands. Even if the relatives who own them are close and want to give them to you later, this may never come to pass if they die and distribution of the estate is left to an heir who doesn’t understand the value of the items.
By the same token, do not assume that your genealogical and family materials will be passed on as you wish. Even if you make specific arrangements, your wishes may not be followed. The only way to be certain your research, photographs, and other family items will be preserved is to entrust them to another person or institution while you are still alive and have control over the items. If you have made provisions for their disposal in your will, the best way to make certain materials will be preserved according to your wishes is to make an attorney your executor. They are impartial and make no value judgments (as your family might).
Donating your research and heirlooms to a repository is the best way to insure that they will be available for family members for generations to come. Such donations are the basis of the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections at NEHGS, and we are grateful to all those who have donated materials. It is never too early to start thinking of this. Although I have thoughts of my life coming to a close anytime soon, many of my papers from my terms on the boards of nonprofit organizations have already been donated to a historical society, and I am in the process of organizing some of my genealogical research to NEHGS.
Whatever arrangements you make for your materials, don’t wait. Act now. No matter how many times you tell your family members, if they are not genealogists your valuable items may be lost.