Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

Of late, many family historians hunkered at home to face their accumulated records, photos and artifacts. Some sorted through boxes brimming with postcards, pennants and all manner of mementos. Others reviewed carrousels of color slides, selecting a few to digitize. A few tossed out all the slides without looking at them, exhausted by the potential challenge.

One family’s junk is another’s treasure. Old greeting cards long ago served their original purpose and some family historians toss them all. Yet, one or two may contain an intriguing note or portray the context and culture of an earlier decade. The decision is in the eye of the beholder-genealogist. 

You may opt to scan only the clearest, most informative photos and documents, and then toss the remainder along with all the originals you scanned. Or you may decide to give those originals to extended family members. 

As the most indecisive of family historians, I am loathe to part with anything. Still, I recognize that if I do not part with and share these items, they may become lost forever. So, I spend too much time deciding how and to share them.

To add to the challenge, extended family members, seeing my interest, send me more stuff, especially photos and documents they can make no sense of. They may say, “Mom saved this photo, so I know it was important, but I have no idea who these people are.”

The process is also never-ending because I, too, change.

In the late 1940s my parents vacationed in Yellowstone National Park. Many of their black-and-white photos remain intriguing — Dad standing shirtless at the door of a tiny tourist cabin, a moose in a swamp, and a bear begging into the window of the car ahead of them on the road. But others, blurred by movement or gray with undecipherable scenery, fail to tell their story.

Initially I kept all the images, good and bad alike, as documentation of their trip. Now I’m more selective, though I’ve kept the photo of the dead jackrabbit in the road. It amuses me. Mom once explained she took that photo because they had never seen a rabbit so large, even though the photo does not feature any other item as a size comparison. 

Today I keep the dead jackrabbit as a reminder of both Mom’s story and my own indecision. Such decisions help create our family stories. What ancestor photos are in your collection?

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit http://henschelhausbooks.com.