projects and memories

Long time readers of this blog may remember me complaining about the ancestral “stuff” we have accumulated over the years. For instance, here is part of my 15 July 2018 post:

You might guess from my recent choice of reading material that I’m still struggling with the objects and possessions I inherited from our ancestors. Things started piling up around 2008. Hard to believe it’s been 10 years! I have managed to dispose of a lot of stuff but cannot rest on my laurels. What’s left is stacked halfway to the ceiling in a corner of what is supposed to be the genealogy/guest room. The corner takes up almost half the room. … Trouble is, life (births, illnesses, travels, weddings, visitors, deaths) keeps happening and I need a good chunk of uninterrupted time to roll up my sleeves and dig in.

Four years after writing that, nothing had changed. More illness and then a pandemic… Well, I finally measured the pile of boxes. 6′ x 5′ x 4′. I’m terrible with numbers but I believe that was 120 cubic feet of stuff! And I finally realized that a good chunk of uninterrupted time was never going to come my way. I was going to have to seize it for myself. Walks, yoga, blogging, housework, puzzles, reading and family history research were all abandoned for the project.

I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. Much of it was disposed of. There were countless trips to the dumpster, the Book Barn, Goodwill and the Give & Take Shed at the transfer station. It took me a little over a month to make that pile disappear.

There were many treasures in there and these were roughly sorted and then stored where I can get my hands on them and organize them. (Soon, I hope!) At first I was trying to file important papers, like birth, marriage and death records, into the loose-leaf notebooks I created back in the 1990s. But it quickly became apparent that these would have to be reorganized to accommodate the volume of paperwork and photographs I was finding. These are the old notebooks:

There is room for expansion on the shelf below now. All the paperwork is put into acid-free sleeve protectors and kept in these notebooks. I need more! The first one was for us and our parents and the rest were for our eight grandparents and their ancestors. But I’ve had to start new notebooks for our parents and change the size for some of the grandparents. I can’t believe how many citizenship papers and wills and property deeds I found. Not to mention photographs.

One thing taking up a lot of space was my grandmother’s and my mother’s slides. My sister has made a start on digitizing them. Sadly, some are badly deteriorated.

There was about a decade in the 1990s I think of now as my genealogy heydays. My children were in their teens so I had more time on my hands. My mother had died of cancer in 1991 and my father decided to spend some of his time helping me with research. We took a day-long local family history class together with the Connecticut Society of Genealogists in East Hartford. He also came with me to a national genealogy conference in Hartford one summer where we bought a map of the Austrian Empire in 1875, as it was laid out when his parents were born there, in what is now Ukraine. I found the map and got it hung up again.

In 1993 I started a correspondence course with the National Genealogical Society.

My father and I also made many trips to Cape Cod during that decade. My late mother’s beloved parents were still alive and we visited them about once a month, sometimes making a side trip to a cemetery to locate an ancestor’s resting place. Grandfather finally had to put Grandmother in a nursing home when she kept falling and her dementia was too difficult for him to cope with. I am so grateful for my father’s companionship during those years. It was on these visits that Grandfather told me stories about his parents and grandparents, and I wrote them down. I did find many of my notes and corralled them into one place.

Grandmother died in 1996. After her funeral Grandfather took me and my sister and my cousin and my children to two of the cemeteries where Grandmother’s parents and grandparents were buried.

After a few pauses and restarts, I finally completed my course in 1998.

I wish that my mother had lived long enough to enjoy that decade with us. She became interested in family history toward the end of her life and my father used to help her visit town halls and genealogical libraries. She was just getting started with genealogy chat rooms online. She would have loved using the resources, like, that I take for granted now. Once in the 1980s, before she got too sick, Tim had a work conference in Boston so he took Mom and me up there with him and dropped us off at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. We spent a memorable day in their library doing research. Went out for lunch in the city. It was a fun day, a rare mother-daughter outing. I can’t even remember who was watching the kids — was it my father?

Time marches on. Papa fell in 2000, breaking his femur, and began his slow decline. Beverly & John moved back from New Mexico to stay with him. Grandfather died in 2001. Auntie Lil needed ever more help and finally moved from elderly housing into my father’s house. Children went to college, got married and moved away. The 2000s are a blur of eldercare to me now. Tim had a major heart attack and almost died in 2007. Tim’s grandparents’ home in Provincetown was sold in 2009 and the Dennis Port home of my grandparents was sold in 2010, if I remember correctly. We wound up with lots of stuff we couldn’t handle or absorb. Papa, and Tim’s brother Toby, who lived out his last eight months with us, both died in 2013. Auntie died in 2016, at the great old age of 101. In 2017 Tim had major surgery, a sigmoid colon resection, and later that same year I was diagnosed with cancer and had a hysterectomy. So this is all why there was such a huge, untouched pile of stuff!

It’s such a relief to have it finally done. There are some loose ends to work on but these can be handled a little at a time. I’m looking forward to making new covers for my notebooks and reorganizing the insides. That’s fun work. It was so nice being able to set up air mattresses for our grandchildren to sleep on in the space formerly occupied by that awful pile of stuff!

35 thoughts on “projects and memories”

  1. Well, you did it. It is so easy to pile things in a corner and forget them. Your organization shelf looks very nice. I am sure memories filled your mind as you took on this chore.

    1. Thank you, Peggy. There was no way I could forget the pile, though. It had been the bane of my existence and in my face for years. Tackling it turned out to be an unexpectedly nice trip down memory lane.

  2. Barbara, That is an accomplishment to truly be proud of! And the benefits of knowing what you have and where it is, as well as space for the grands to sleep…priceless.

  3. Congratulations of making sense of the past, letting go of that which doesn’t serve you. I have slowly been going through boxes of photos and documents like the ones you have. It’s takes a steely will to stay the course. I want to feel organized about what I have but am not sure why I’m doing it so I flounder.

    1. Making sense of the past, I like how you phrased that, Ally. When I sat down to write about the mechanics of going through all that stuff the memories started flooding and falling into place. Sometimes I wonder why I’m making the effort, too, except that I get a kick out thinking of future generations discovering their family history all organized into one neat package.

  4. Ahhh. The sigh of relief you must feel. This motivates me to continue working through my doom (didn’t organize; only moved) boxes!

    1. Doom boxes is a great acronym! I told Tim about your doom boxes yesterday and he thought it was a good name for them, too. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Eliza! It will be interesting to see what the fresh start this new year will bring. 🙂

  5. Nothing feels quite as good as finally completing an overwhelming task! Congratulations, Barbara. Now the fun part while organzing is taking the time to really look at the valuables you’ve retained, I’m betting you’ll find lots of interesting facts.

    1. Thank you, Donna! It does feel very good and I’ve been enjoying the time now to sit and plan my next steps, how to organize things so future generations can understand what they’re looking at and how they’re connected.

  6. Good work Barbara! I know you mentioned your “project” and I thought it was strictly decluttering as I had mentioned my need to do massive decluttering. You took your decluttering up a notch with examining more of your roots. That is interesting to delve into ancestral history and know at a glance where all that info is. Kudos to you for your patience when you had other things you enjoy and could be doing all that time. You’re right – the grandchildren had plenty of space to sleep and will be able to hear and see all your hard work.

    1. Thank you, Linda! It seems that most of the clutter I collect is genealogical, although there was some other stuff mixed in with it. Since everyone in both our extended families knows of my family history passion every time they found anything I might find pertinent they would give it to us. I just didn’t have the time to sort through it as it came in over the years and so the pile kept getting bigger and bigger as we moved it from room to room as our uses of the bedrooms kept changing. Now I have elbow room to spread out and organize the details.

      1. That’s great and quite the undertaking Barbara. My friend Carol lives in New York and she spends a lot of time working on her family tree, so much so that she has hired genealogists from overseas to help track down relatives, especially when an interpretation of foreign records/documents would be needed. She has been working on her family tree for years.

        1. That’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing, hiring a genealogist in Ukraine or Norway to trace my ancestors. My sister and I were looking into it just before the war in Ukraine broke out. It seems to be expensive, though, so I’m not sure if we’ll be able to afford it. My father always said that all the records were probably destroyed in “the war” but I’m not sure how true that might be.

          1. My friend got a geneaologist in Germany to do that work for her and she paid him up front and he was able to do the work quickly and said he would refund the balance. Instead, she sent me a message and asked if I wanted Mr. Porten to trace where my father was in Germany as my mom and I knew he returned there after he fled the country. (He once wrote me and offered to send a ticket for me to visit him … stupid man, as I’d never do that and also he didn’t remember our address, though he lived there from 1966 – 1983 and sent the letter in care of the police and two officers showed up at the door one day while I was at work. My mom thought something happened to me. Anyway, Mr. Porten was very nice and found out he had remarried (though not divorced) and lived in a tiny town in Germany. He found that info out fairly quickly. I don’t speak any German, but we communicated by e-mail and wrote spoke perfect English. I follow a blogger named Eilene Lyon and her blog is mostly about geneaology and tracing her family’s roots. She is on a blogging break in January while she works on another book. You might enjoy her blog as she really delves into her ancestors and uses images of the old documents and lots of old pictures. I’ll put a link to her blog in a separate comment in case you are interested.

          2. Your father fled the country??? Oh my goodness, Linda. How old were you when that happened? I wonder if you have any half-siblings living in Germany… Genealogy does involve having a sort of detective mindset. Thanks for Eilene’s blog link. I think I visited her blog a couple of years ago but I will stop by again and have another look.

          3. Yes Barbara – it was quite a story and I told it in a blog post from 2019 before we “met” so I will send you the post in a separate comment. In a nutshell, my father, on Christmas Day 1983 announced he was leaving the family … it was just Mom and me. I have no siblings. He did not “share” that he had stopped at the bank and withdrawn all the money the day before, plus he had written to the company that held their annuity fund. He committed mail fraud by saying my mom’s signature could not be obtained for the annuity funds as she was out of the country and they gave him the money. He left and went back to his native Germany. I was 27. My mom was 57 so too young to collect his Social Security and she had not worked since she had me in 1956. She had some orthopedic issues, so had never learned to drive, could not climb onto a bus. They were married 30 years, married in 1953. I don’t know about step-siblings, but we were furious when he tried to reach out to me through the police and my boss at that time wrote a cease-and-desist letter to his address on the envelope to never contact me again.

            I wondered if I had send the link to Eilene’s blog when you mentioned your interest in geneaology as most of Eilene’s blog involves tracing her ancestors.

          4. Oh my, Linda, what an incredible story! What a cruel thing to do his family, no matter how unhappy he was. (There are far more humane ways to end a marriage.) No doubt the stress of that shock added to your mother’s health problems in multiple ways. It was good you and your mother had each other and helped each other to be strong and live through the terrible trauma. Thanks for sharing your story. I hope the passage of time and your connection to the world of nature has helped with healing.

          5. Yes, my father was something else Barbara. I tell people he is dead and have said that since he first fled the country. The genealogist gave me the town where he lived and he suggested I read the town bulletin which came out monthly and gave me the link. That is how he saw my father’s name – celebrating a wedding anniversary (of all things). So he told me to check to see if there was news of his death. I don’t understand German so it was difficult to follow the bulletin. The genealogist knew he was alive because in Germany there are historical records and every time a German citizen is born, their birth is recorded and a space across from the birth date is blank, awaiting a date of death. So he told me unless he moved to another country, he was alive, then he went about looking for him.

            My mom and I worried he would return to the States and make trouble. He had a bad temper. We got steel doors and heavier storm doors and never left the door open to even go around the back. I still do not do that now – he turned 96 on December 3rd, assuming he is alive. He committed mail fraud because he wrote to the annuity company and received funds from them by lying why my mom’s signature could not be obtained. You’re right about my mother’s health – he left her high and dry and thankfully the house was paid for long ago, so that was not a worry. My mom knew how I felt about my father (and my grandfather to an extent as he was a miserable old coot who treated my grandmother like dirt under his feet) plus I have heard stories of my great-grandfather as well. She knew these three men tainted my feelings about having a relationship myself and my mom worried about me being alone after she was gone. She wouldn’t be surprised that I am still alone. Yes, the passage of time heals all wounds and being out in nature, I can forget about everything else.

          6. What a long sad story, Linda. If he’s still alive at 96 hopefully he is too frail to be a worry for your safety any more. It’s a terrible thing to have to live with that kind of fear and I’m sure there are many victims of domestic abuse who share your experience. It seems like your mom and you made the best of a very difficult situation. It’s no wonder she worried about you being left alone. I can only imagine… Not that it helps much but you are in my thoughts and prayers.

          7. Thank you Barbara for thinking of me and keeping me in your prayers. I agree he is likely not a threat and I don’t see him coming over here now at age 96. But we both did worry that he might run out of the funds he took (especially since he would have taken a loss for early withdrawal) and he would decide to return to the house like nothing had happened. I am so relieved that never happened. My mother used to have terrible nightmares about him returning and breaking in when she was alone. She would go to bed and wake up screaming, a very blood-curdling scream, because in the dream she was running from a man holding a big knife and he would be getting closer and closer and just as he raised the knife, she would wake up screaming. I would get up and sit on the edge of the bed with her and she’d be shaking like a leaf and afraid to go back to sleep. For a while it happened every night.

          8. Your poor mother, my heart breaks for both of you. What a monster he was to leave you both so deeply traumatized. May you find enough peace in your life now to soften the pain at least a little.

          9. Barbara – here is the post I wrote about my mom in 2019 and what happened with my mom as a result of a car accident at age 11 and the fiasco with my father. It is my favorite post of all because I started writing a short post with our “first photo” and “last photo” but I wanted to include more things and started looking in the digital photos and the post morphed. It is a long post so here it is to read when you have time.

  7. Good for you, Barbara! They always say that beginning is the first — and hardest — part of any new project. Congrats on freeing up your space and getting such a good handle on your records. Now I suspect you’ll be more inclined to tackle those loose ends.

    1. Thank you, Debbie! That’s so true. I have a tendency to avoid projects I don’t think I can finish in a day, even though putting it off only makes it harder and harder to start. Those loose ends will be easier to break into smaller tasks, and more fun, too. 🙂

  8. Well done, Barbara! I can almost hear your sigh of relief at having conquered the project. I really liked this: “And I finally realized that a good chunk of uninterrupted time was never going to come my way. I was going to have to seize it for myself.” Isn’t that true of anything we want to do in life? I’m going to keep your words around as a reminder to myself that how I use my time is my choice. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Robin! As it turned out I had overestimated the time I would need to accomplish the goal so it felt wonderful getting so much done in less than the allotted time. I’m glad you’re finding my words helpful. 🙂 In the end, as you say, how we use our time is ultimately our own choice, unless of course we are the parents of small children. 😉

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