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Chatterbox: Tidying treasures


I’ve mentioned before that no one can do a weekly column without lots of personal information leaking its way in. Some is boring and some isn’t. This upcoming bit teeters on the brink of one’s opinion. For me, personally, it was like going back in time … not far back, but enough to be enlightening if not fun.

I spent the last three days reorganizing and updating my attic/office space. It was hard to keep from spending hours reminiscing over miscellaneous photos found among the numerous tatters of paper, each which jarred a memory lose. There were things I wanted to read, topics to investigate, websites to visit and numerous column ideas, but miscellaneous notes to myself is always the biggest category. We’ve talked at least twice about the multiple waterfalls of Post-it notes over my desk. It’s what I have in lieu of a memory, but I’ve accepted it.

The clearing task was a series of revelations but my time was also well invested. The tops of both my desks are visible and organized. I found my red pens and sharpened some No. 2 pencils. My files have been so heartlessly pared, I jammed my shredder twice. I had to take a letter opener to it to clear it out and now have enough confetti to do Times Square alone this New Year’s Eve, but there are only three spin-off jobs from the project, so that’s not too bad.

Sure, the life expectancy of this great preening isn’t certain, but I’m hopeful and, though I’ve been here before, I’m more hopeful this time – for absolutely no good reason.

Going through old files and notepads is like finding our junior high school diary. We laugh, we cry, we scratch our head and wonder, breathe great sighs of relief, or coil into the fetal position with worry. We wonder if anyone will want the family photos when no one remembers the people who are in them anymore. Labels. Labels. Where did I put those labels? Even after labeling the names, we can only hope someone will realize their value. It’s a roller coaster of joy and doubt.

Two generations ago, letters were the thing. Most were tossed in the trash in occasional batches, their value to future generations unrealized in the moment. However, the farther we move from the days these “family records” were written, the more valuable they become whether we think they will or not … ask That research site provides millions with information that family letters across the generations would provide much more accurately and with greater personal warmth.

Two Christmases ago, I purchased the “quintessential” biography of Jane Austen … not light reading. Journaling in her time was imperative, especially for young women of social stature. It was viewed as a reference tool. Journal notes helped keep well-bred young ladies informed on whom they met at whose gala, their names and lineage. Often, notes to refresh a visual would be included so as to never be embarrassed by forgetting an introduction. Journals were also imperative to provide information as to where a young lady was at any given time, lest suspicion be thrust upon her. Some rebellious young women saw them as sexist and revolted, refusing to journal despite its being seen as a social aid.

Still, even those who refused to journal wrote letters and, as that was the most common, quickest, and sustained form of keeping in touch and staying abreast of current events in other areas, most people wrote devotedly every day to friends and relatives in other places. Rare surviving letters became part of many memoirs and biographies of famous people like Jane Austen, but any are valuable to those whose ancestors’ lives were documented.

Digging through my own numerous notebooks, Post-its and torn edges of envelopes and paper napkins, this past weekend, proved to me that jotting it down in any form far out-measures my memory. In our hasty world today, that may be true for many of us.

So, though, today, our emails and texts may lack the warmth of hand written notes, they are our modern day journaling and letters. Their accessibility and frequency may mean their content is less vital or personal, and their number may be overwhelming, but they can contain information our descendants could come to know us by. Even so, these, too, are lost to time and technology, like the letters of generations past. Sadly, soon, our descendants will be wishing for a paper trail, even if it is on a thumb drive.