Too Much Easily Collectible Family History Is Lost



We had a family reunion at my house the other day. My wife's sister, Betty, and her husband drove up from the Valley with her older brother, Jim, who had recently arrived from London, and her younger brother, Trevor, who had just flown in from India. Seeing all four of them together again for the first time in several decades gave me a lot of pleasure.

What didn't give me pleasure, though, was something that happened -- something minor but, I thought, meaningful.

Lolly and her sister and brothers got to talking about old times. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was digging out albums and boxes of old photographs for them. Watching them look at them and reminisce was good fun. They were pointing at faces, laughing and smiling, chatting about friends and relatives, and having a great time.

Out of a box came a very old black and white photo.

"This is Mom," Lolly's younger brother said, "but I don't recognize any of these other faces."

The picture got passed around. Everyone said more or less the same thing.

The only person they recognized was their mother. The picture got turned over and over, but there was nothing on the back, or written on its margins. There were five people in the photograph, four of them unknown faces, even though the context of the picture clearly showed that they were relatives or close friends of Lolly's mother.

It got me thinking.

Yesterday, I bought some small labels. I'm going to stick them on the bottom of, or on the back of, some of the things in the house, things like hand-made pieces of furniture, pottery, paintings, and on the backs of some otherwise unlabeled photographs. Why? To record some small bits of history before they're gone forever.

For example, right at the foot of the stairs leading down from the room where I'm writing this column stands a mahogany plant pedestal. It's nothing spectacular, but I know some things about it that no one else knows. Here's what I'm going to type on the label that I'm going to stick under its base: Turned out on a wood lathe in his sophomore year (1946) at Chapman Technical High School, New London, Conn. by Tom Garrett.

I have two children, both in their forties. I suspect that they might value that information some day. Perhaps your children, or your grandchildren, might someday treasure information that only you have, information you have never bothered to record because you consider it too "ordinary."

Look at it this way: Suppose that after a certain supper that took place in an upstairs room a long time ago, someone had just casually decided to turn over an ordinary little drinking cup and scratch the date of that supper, the exact location where it took place, and the name of the person who drank out of it. Think of how we would treasure that cup today.

That didn't happen, though, did it? Why didn't it happen? Because we are often blind to the value of information until after that information, or the object that relates to it, is gone.

Think about that little cup. It was no doubt passed from hand to hand, its significance totally forgotten. Perhaps it became bent and twisted, dented, scratched. Maybe it was tossed into a pile of discards, ending its days with other discards destined to be dumped into a melting pot and turned into something as mundane as a vase or as inappropriate as a spear tip or bronze dagger.

What would you pay if you could go back in time and retrieve that little cup just before it was dropped into that hot glowing pool of molten metal?

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