When we went to that farm auction in Buffalo, we talked to a lady who was related to the family having the estate auction about the pains of estate sales.
She told us of how there were many items and shelves inside the home marked “save for” with a family member’s name, and that all the children and even great grandchildren were there for the sale too. We told her how glad we were that photos and things were kept in the family, saying, “The only thing worse than seeing neglected and possibly abandoned furniture was to imagine things like photo albums ending up like that.”
“Oh no,” she said, “everyone who took something is taking care of it. She made the daughter that took the piano promise to keep it in good shape — and to play it. She not only promised to, but had her over to play a duet. It took a bit of playing first before her memory fully came back, then she said, ‘I think we can both do better than that’ and they played the song again.”
Such stories reminded me of when my Great Aunt passed away just a few years ago. She was the oldest member of the family and had the best stories of the generations which had already passed. I’m ashamed to say that while we had the best of intentions to record her stories, but we didn’t. For years we talked about how we should get a tape recorder out while she told stories at holiday time, but we never did. I’d like to say it was because we were so lost in her stories that we forgot; but the truth is there was also discomfort at the notion of doing it. It was like saying, “Hey, we don’t think you’ll be around much longer.” But by being so polite (to a woman who knew she wasn’t going to live forever), we missed the opportunity — and many of our family stories are lost.
The lady at the estate auction and I discussed a few ways to keep such history alive, such as tape recording or video taping older members of the family as they go through family photo albums, documenting their stories of family members, so that you don’t lose the history of the people in the photos. This would be a good thing. But why not take it a few steps further, and record them discussing the objects & heirlooms as well?
So many times at yard sales the sellers will tell their stories of the things up for sale. (Sometimes it’s because you ask; other times it’s because they want to keep the price high and believe their sentimentality will affect you — which it does because they hold firm on the price, not necessarily because it matters to you that ‘Aunt Sally’ owned it.) But for every story told, how many are lost — even when the object itself is saved?
This time of year, as the garage sales & flea markets diminish due to colder weather, we will be spending more time indoors. It is all too easy to busy ourselves with back-to-school stuff and indoor projects, but we should save a little time — make a little time — to record our own family stories. Better still, to have the oldest members of our families do this with us too. We can use audio & video to record these talks, use memory books with prompts, or even just write the stories in notebooks & place them with the other papers we leave for whoever we must leave behind.
What’s more, we can do this with our ‘stuff’ too.
As we spend the winter months placing our comic books in protective mylar sleeves, organizing our ephemera in acid-free containers, placing photos into family photo albums, maybe even making lists of valuables for our insurance agent and considering to whom we will leave our beloved collections, why not record what’s really valuable about all these objects? Record why those old tie clasps & cuff links shouldn’t be sold for scrap, and why that Shazam! glass or those old mixing bowls shouldn’t to go to the thrift store.
I realize this is dealing with death and that can creep-us-out; but by avoiding the inevitable, we are making the choice to leave the stories behind. And for all our talk here at Collectors’ Quest about objects & how to protect them, including making preparations for what becomes of them after our passing, it seems only right that we should also discuss what will become of our stories. They are the links between objects and people, between people in our families, and what we really treasure; we should be collecting & preserving the stories too.