Tracking Your Past

The recent, forced downtime has given many genealogists an opportunity to declutter and review their family history materials. From letters to photos to graduation certificates to — you name it.

Doris Green

Many years ago in the attic of the home where I grew up, I stumbled on a batch of letters Mom and Dad had exchanged before their marriage. Cleaning out that home after Mom’s 2015 passing, I kept those letters, along with many others. Ever since I first saw them as an admittedly romantic young woman, I’d always thought of those letters as love letters, though they were far removed from the Elizabeth and Robert Browning benchmark.

When my parents wrote them, Dad was stationed in Louisiana for army basic training during World War II. Far from steamy missives or intimate revelations, these letters describe the day-to-day concerns of a couple coping within a world event. What will Dad’s address be tomorrow? Will the electricity stay on? (Mom’s family is running out of candles.) Did Dad receive the new radio? The black sedan, which Dad gave to Mom during his absence, needs tires. How to get them?

Mom’s home also contained letters sent to one of her older sisters by the man who eventually became my uncle. At the time, also during World War II, Uncle Jim was helping build the Alaskan Highway, and his letters describe life on this final American frontier. Recreation opportunities were limited, except for hunting and fishing, which suited Uncle Jim just fine. The limited opportunities also enabled him to save money for a future with my Aunt Pat.

Another letter stash records the illnesses, births, deaths, graduations and other life events of Aurora, Illinois, relatives. When one of Dad’s brothers passed away, his widow connected with Mom, writing scores of family newsy letters over many years.

Once I’ve gleaned all the family history, I’ll send these letters to an Aurora cousin who will want them and will value them. Mom and Dad’s letters will go to my sister’s family, or possibly to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. The museum may also want Uncle Jim’s letters. 

Wherever these letters go, they will be saved. While I easily toss blurry photos, Mom’s shorthand workbooks and my own early spelling lessons, these letters are too valuable to consign to the recycling center. A stay-at-home impulse to declutter can go hand-in-hand with reorganization and preservation.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Newly available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” is co-authored Greg Brick. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.