Don’t wait until your relatives die to explore boxes and bags of “stuff”

As a young child, I loved to look at the boxes of greeting cards my parents kept.  I would ask endless questions about the people who sent them.  Regretfully, I was too young to write the stories down.  Thankfully, my parents are alive and well and can retell the stories.  All too often this is not the case.

An elderly relative used to tell us of a story in which her mother corresponded with another female relative in France.  The mother spoke no French and would send the correspondence with her grandchildren to their school for a French teacher to translate the letters.  The elderly relative was not able to tell us anything more about the French connection.  She said she had no photos or papers that belonged to her mother, and although we made a brief foray into her basement looking for boxes that might contain clues, we weren’t very thorough.

The elderly relative’s husband died and her daughters went into her basement to sort through boxes.  They found two photos in a tucked away box that were from France – one from 1921 and one from 1944.  They identified the people in them by first name.  The names were French – we could tell that from the accent marks, but there were no other identifying marks.  Several months went by and the elderly relative died.

This time, her daughters had to clean out the basement and prepare the house for sale.  They found boxes tucked into the most unimaginable spaces.  In one of the boxes was a letter in French dated 1966.  It was signed with a woman’s first name and there was a return address on the envelop.  The surname was unfamiliar, but there were enough clues.  I  needed to find someone with that first name who had married someone with that last name, in the part of France from which the letter was sent.

Several more months went by, and finally – a jackpot.  I now know who the French relative was, how she was related, and many more details.  The moral of the story?  When people live somewhere for more than a few years, there are often boxes, bags and envelopes tucked away and forgotten.  Get permission to open boxes, and go for a trip down memory lane with your relatives, and take good notes while they’re talking.  Even better, make a video recording.

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