Techniques to Evaluate, Organize, and Preserve Your Family Memories

Updated: Sep 22, 2018

Don’t Start with Organizing the Most Difficult and Revealing Objects in Your Life.

Learning to deal with the memorabilia in our lives is difficult and is not the same as organizing clothes or cleaning out the linen closet. Keepsakes are so closely linked to our memories that letting go or even arranging these objects is an emotional experience that requires a whole different set of tools.

So don’t start with climbing Mt. Everest. Like any challenge, it is important to build strength, confidence, and endurance. My own personal problem was a box of 200 love letters written by my husband before we were married. The notes presented all kinds of questions that I didn’t know how to deal with; I did not want to make changes that I would regret. Yet, I know leaving this task undone will either result in the destruction of the letters or the sharing of too much private information. After tackling easier areas of family memories, I returned to the box of letters. If you want to know more about them, read my blog, Going Steady: A Year of Love Letters.

Why Edit and Organize Meaningful Objects, Papers, and Photos?

If you are reading this blog, chances are you feel a need to deal with this area of your life; a strong “why” will help you dedicate the time, the physical and the emotional energy needed to accomplish this work.

There is a great deal of research that supports the importance of protecting and preserving family memories. Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush developed a test called the “Do you know?” scale which consisted of twenty basic questions that they asked children to answer. Examples of the questions on the scale include: “Do you know where your parents met? And “Do you know of an illness or something terrible that happened to your family?”. They asked these yes or no questions to numerous adolescents and came to a conclusion that,

“The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their family functioned.”

I gave my own 14-year-old son this test. He answered “yes” to fifteen out of twenty questions. I felt fairly good about this until I also told him that I was organizing my photo albums, and he replied, “Do we have any? I haven’t seen them.”

I had eight boxes of photographs, sixteen albums (many of which were of such poor quality that the pictures were decomposing), and thousands of images on the Carbonite cloud. Also, there were five large plastic containers with other keepsakes. My son was not aware of their existence because the photos and albums were inaccessible.

What Happens If you Choose not to Deal with These Items?

If your children and grandchildren’s happiness and resilience are not enough of a reason to organize your family history and objects, then consider what will happen to your collection after you are gone. Our families look to us to share and preserve their story. If we wait too long, not only do we deprive our children of the history that allows them to thrive today, but we also run the risk of permanently losing stories, stories that future generations will seek.

Key Question to Ask Yourself When Trying to Decide How to Organize

Even if we know why we want to protect our family memories, it still helps to have a philosophy to deal with the emotions of handling years worth of memorabilia. The re-occurring question that I use to make decisions on what to keep and protect versus what to release is "Will this item be a blessing or a burden to my family?"

“Will this item be a blessing or a burden to my family?”

A Blessing or a Burden

No matter what your age, you have probably collected a large number of memory items. For me, it was a four by four foot closet stuffed with five large 16-gallon, gray plastic containers. Piled around, on top, and behind the containers were loose items that included portfolios, journals, ribbons, artwork, photographs, etc. When I occasionally opened the bifold doors, I had to prepare myself for the inevitable avalanche of items pouring forward. The only reason I opened it at all was to retrieve batteries or light bulbs that I kept on the top shelf. The closet was not space I regularly cleaned; consequently, dog hair and dust covered many of the items and even a dead, legs-up Palmetto Bug (In South Carolina, we like to give our really large roaches fancy names.) To make matters worse, I secreted photos and other small memory items throughout the house. Every room contained some of these objects.

Faced with this mess, I came to the realization that when I died, the objects in this closet would probably not be valued because I didn’t show these items the attention and care that I gave to every other drawer and cabinet in my home. My linen closet contains labeled organized baskets with sheets carefully folded. Our underwear drawers are also arranged in neat rows with scented soaps and sachets. Yet, the items closest to my heart were haphazardly stored and totally uncared for.

Yet, the items closest to my heart were haphazardly stored and totally uncared for.

This closet would not only be a burden to my family, but many of the objects would probably be thrown away because they were seemingly just a pile of random junk. The paradox is that the objects I valued the most, I was caring for and using the least. Although reorganizing and editing this space was not going to be an easy task, I believed that the job could be broken down into manageable steps.

Steps to Handling Keepsakes

1. Bring all memory items such as loose photos, postcards, letters, etc. from other rooms of your home or from the attic or basement. It is important to gather items in one space. This does not include framed photographs, but rather the items carelessly thrown in drawers or other areas. Yes, this will probably create a mess. It may help to organize and sort in a room not used very often, such as a guest room or home office. Unfortunately for us, the process did create a mess in our bedroom, but the inconvenience forced me to deal more quickly with the chaos.

2. Decide on a safe location for storage. I paid a heavy price for thoughtless storage because after a particularly tricky move from one house to another, we stored our wedding photos temporarily in an attic over the garage. The “temporary’ turned into a year, and during that time the entire album was destroyed by water coming from a leak.

I also remember my mother telling me that when she was little, her father had an old chest full of jewelry and family documents. The trunk was stored under the rental house. Her father died when she was only 11 years old, and her destitute family could no longer afford to pay the rent. The chaos of the death and the move resulted in the loss of that chest with all of its family treasures.

3. Clean the area you choose to store the items thoroughly. Taking proper care of items indicates to your family that what is stored there is essential. A clean area also protects items.

4. Make an overall plan for organizing, but keep the plan fluid. Perhaps your first thought will be to move to a larger home or rent a storage unit. More space doesn’t usually solve this problem, but instead provides a means to procrastinate dealing with the items, and it also allows us to accumulate more without editing. Also, there is a desire to run out and buy all new adorable containers. You may choose to do that, but wait until you have completed the editing process because until you have edited, you will not know what your container storage needs will be. I chose to reuse the 18 gal/68L plastic containers. I decided to use one container per family member. I taped a picture of that person on the side, but a label works equally well. The photographs and albums I stored separately. Edit First, then decide on storage needs.

5. Separate important keepsakes from ephemera. Ephemera are paper items or collectible memorabilia not meant to be retained or preserved. For instance, in a memory book, I have kept a scorecard from my one and only gymnastic meet. The score was a 5, that is a 5 out of a possible 10, which is about as average as you can get. Besides, I hated the balance beam where I earned that perfectly mediocre score and remembered crying after the competition. Although I do believe in the value of saving some of our disappointments, gymnastics was only a temporary hobby and insignificant to my story.

On the other hand, my son recently made a B on his report card because he didn’t turn in an assignment that he could have easily completed. My husband expressed his disappointment in the lack of effort. This occurred during the time I was uncovering the objects that my in-laws had passed to me from my husband’s childhood. One of these items was a high school report card where the only A was earned in p.e. My husband is now an IT vice-president for a large company. I showed my son the report card. He said, “Wow, Dad really overachieved!” This led to a discussion of how effort is essential, but perfect grades are not the sole determinant of success.

Determining keepsakes from ephemera is deeply personal and difficult. It may mean revisiting certain items at a later date. Over the years, I have kept every family photo holiday cards sent to me. I find it difficult to let these cards with the lovely pictures go. But during this process, I realized that it is not my job to store and protect other families’ histories. So now, I proudly display the cards during the season. Then, I take the time at the end of the holiday to really look at the cards again and wish blessings on each family before releasing the cards.

6. If you simply can’t let items like this go, then it is important to dedicate the time to organize them properly, maybe with albums either by the year or by family. Yet for me, I realized that I have enough to do just organizing, storing, and maintaining my own family’s memories.

When choosing what to keep, think about the story you want to leave future generations. Do the items truly represent the family member and point to key characteristics of their personality? Do the articles present a window into the different ages and stages of their life? If so, then even the tiniest piece of paper may be worth keeping.

Probably the key thing to remember about editing is that by keeping every notebook, piece of art, and certificate, you are giving them all the same value. This will increase the chance of really important keepsakes getting lost among the ephemera. Keeping everything honors nothing!

Keeping everything honors nothing!

Key Points to Remember…

  • Organizing, preserving, and sharing family memories leads to emotional health and happiness for our children and future generations.

  • Begin with an easier task and use this success to conquer more difficult memory items.

  • Leave behind blessings, not burdens.

  • Edit items before buying storage containers.

  • Ask yourself if the items you keep provide a window into the soul of the individual or family.

  • Designate location for the items you choose to keep and make sure that your family understands their value. In addition, make sure the items are protected from the elements such a too much sun or moisture.

  • Clean the area regularly.

  • Keeping everything honors nothing!

Here is a photo of the closet after I accomplished the above steps.


Kim Winslow

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