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Are You Also an Adult Child of Paper Hoarders?

Saving your life’s paper trail may feel useful, but it actually promotes a life-long descent into disorganization. Here’s how to avoid that fate.

As I work to close down my father’s apartment now that he’s gone, I’ve had to go through literally decades of paperwork before disposing most of it. I’ve realized how critical it is to review everything, because every so often, I’ve found priceless paper artifacts hidden away in the mess. (My most recent find was a small portrait photo of my grandmother Rae from 1922 when she was young.)

Paper Trails Everywhere
Both my father and mother seemingly saved most every piece of paper that came into their apartment other than marketing mail and catalogues, though I uncovered some of those too. It was all loosely organized into many folders and stored away in different parts of their apartment. I think that simply reflected multiple decades of organization. Instead of consolidating and throwing away across time, a new file cabinet for storage was eventually curated until it became too large to handle. Rinse and repeat for the next decade.

Why all of this excess? I’m not quite sure, but I think it has something to do with having proof of transaction.

And I am an adult child of this paper-hoarding mentality. (Believe me, I’ve had my own struggles with this.) Not that my parents taught me specifically to save everything, but I know I’ve clearly picked up some of this irrational organization (though I must admit that laziness and other priorities are also part of the equation).

To be fair, though I save paperwork longer than I should, I do have a process to throw away the old, clearing up space for more incoming paper.

The Online Solution
Still, I have an unstoppable cycle of incoming paper. Who needs the mess in a digital world where most everything can be done online, such as online bill pay?

That solution is real progress for humanity right? And it works just fine.

Until it doesn’t.

Incorrect Bill-Reminder Email
I received an email this week from my wireless provider that informed me that I hadn’t paid my bill yet. What?!

This was a bill that I had set up for auto pay. (Yes, how digital of me.)

I looked at the email and wondered what could be wrong. Did my credit card expire? So, I logged in to my account and looked for my balance that was due.

It was zero (phew), and my credit card was just fine. There was also a little note documenting the recent auto pay.

All was normal, except for that email I received. (I reviewed the email address again to confirm it wasn’t spam. It wasn’t.)

Just a little glitch in the Matrix?

So now I’m left with a little less confidence in the system.

Trust your Bank Teller’s Math?
I suppose this little aberration is a good reminder that even though you shouldn’t save a physical copy of every transaction, you can’t give up total control either. There’s a balance to maintain.

Yes, you should to be able to trust our digital ecosystem.

Trust but verify.

I remember years ago when my bank stopped requiring its customers to submit deposit slips with their own math. That change was difficult for me, because I would have to trust that someone else’s math was correct. (Not that I still couldn’t do the math ahead of time and then compare it with the bank teller’s.)

That mistrust is another example of my parents’ view seeping out.

I eventually made my peace with this change. Plus I know there are other checks and balances in the banking process.

The Power of Paper
Sure, today’s digital world eliminates the need for most paper. But clearly, it’s not seamless. No, it’s not.

Still, I feel guilty admitting that I still like to receive certain bills in paper form, simply because I can leave them on my desk as a clear reminder to pay them.

Of course, there are any number of digital reminders that I could set up. But nothing beats the impact of a physical bill staring at me when I sit down at my home-office desk first thing in the morning with my cup of Joe.

Organize your Legacy
Yes, I am an adult child of paper hoarders. And if you were to take a look at a couple of my bins in our basement, you might wonder how much progress I’ve made.

But this experience has really opened my eyes. Having gone through my parents’ belonging, it’s been shocking to bear witness to such a paper trail. Literally.

I know that’s not the kind of legacy I want to leave behind.

I talk a lot about the importance of telling your own story. I haven’t really reflected on that in relationship to the concept of legacy.

I hope I have many years ahead to curate and slim down all of my stuff that may travel forward beyond me. But I clearly see this really needs to be a life-long endeavor.

It’s a lesson… I suppose the last lesson… that my parents have taught me.

It’s time to get organized.

I Found this Lost 1903 Letter from my Ancestor Harry

While going through my father’s belongings, I opened an old file box of papers to throw away. Instead, I found century-old letters that revealed the identities of my great-grandfather’s brothers.

There’s chaos in life. And there’s some inevitable chaos in death. At least that’s been my experience. With the recent passing of my father, I’ve been working hard to keep it all together, both emotionally and logistically.

One perspective my dad shared with me several times in recent years was that after he’s gone, there will be no one for me to talk with about the past. He was referring to his life story, but it also extended out to our larger family history.

Unfortunately many of those details are still not entirely clear to me. And it’s a punishing reality that the keys to that door of knowledge are lost forever.

Missing Pieces of the Past
It’s not like I didn’t try to understand my family history over the years. And yes, I asked my dad on numerous occasions. Sometimes I got different answers. I think that because he was fuzzy on some of the details.

So putting together my family history on my father’s side has always felt like a complex puzzle.

And now he’s gone.

There is Another
Fortunately, there are still ways for me to continue forward in my research.

Thankfully, there’s my first cousin. We’ve already talked a bit about this, and I intend to share my notes with her in the near future.

A few years back, I convinced my father to do a DNA cheek swab, and I signed him up for myheritage.com along with me. My Heritage is an online genealogy platform, which I’ve been using to try to fill in some of the blanks in my ancestry. It’s a slow process, but it’s a helpful tool.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found some buried treasures of knowledge as I’ve gone through his New York City apartment. For example, I found two letters to my great-grandfather Isaac from his brothers.

One is from 1903 and the other from 1909. I never knew for sure what their names were. Now, I do. They were Gustave, Harry and Julius.

The 1903 Letter
Here’s Harry’s letter to Isaac and his wife when Harry was away in the Catskills during the summer of 1903.
I love his line about giving a 100 kisses to the “little peppie” who just turned one. That was my grandfather’s sister Nora.

I can’t believe I found this amazing sliver from the past from an ancestor who’s name I didn’t even know. That’s priceless.

Building my Digital Archive
Those letters contain casual correspondence. But they were saved by my great-grandfather, passed on and stashed away by my grandfather, and then transferred and forgotten for almost five decades by my father. (Perhaps my dad never even knew he had them. They might have just come in with some other random paperwork from my grandfather after he died.)

This sounds crazy, right? The irony is even with all of the neglect and disorganization, those letters survived for over a century.

Now, I’ve got them.

Of course, I immediately digitized the letters. And then I uploaded them to a cloud folder.

They’ve joined my online family archive. I’ve been building it slowly across the years, but now I feel this huge need to accelerate my efforts.

I’ve talked about digitizing my family’s old photo albums. And I recently begun digitizing some of my father’s analog slides. I’ll also add many of those images to my online family archive.

Trying to Finish the Job that Nobody Really Started
It doesn’t take a psych major to know that my organizing behavior is being driven by my sense of loss. It’s an effort to replace what is gone forever.

But while I’ll never be able to talk with my parents again, there is certainly an independent value to completing a family’s history… as best one can.

And that’s what I’m doing.

When I’m finally done, I’ll focus on how to best preserve it, so the knowledge can be carried forward into the future.

The Challenge of Preserving for the Future
While digital organization is great, I can’t help but wonder how well hard drives and uploaded content in cloud services will withstand the ravages of time.

I think I’ll likely create an analog version (book?) that could make it to the next century in the back of another closet. I’ll also pass forward the original photos and letters that I’ve carefully placed in Print File archival sheet preservers.

And if you’re a descendent of mine reading these words in the 22nd century or beyond… and if you haven’t found the archival preservers or my family history book yet, but you’ve uncovered random pictures of my son as a twelve-year-old boy holding an unidentified cat… that was his pet. The cat’s name?

Zane.

You’re welcome.

How to Quickly Convert Old Slides to Digital

A little film to digital converter can easily bring new life to old slides like this 1978 photo of my parents in Greece.

People ask me how I’ve been doing since my father passed away last month. Well, truthfully, I haven’t had much time to really process it. I’m not sure exactly how I’m doing. These weeks have really been more about what I’ve been doing.

I’ve been spending most of my free time clearing out my dad’s apartment. And while one might say that’s a tactic of psychological avoidance (and I’m sure it is), I still have to do it.

Yes, it’s been somewhat overwhelming. It’s more than simply going through his belongings and deciding what to save. I quickly realized that I needed to go through the same exercise for some of my mom’s things that my father saved (or never addressed). And so you don’t think I’m being judgmental, I’m also faced with going through my own stuff I abandoned decades ago.

I’ve quickly realized that maintaining a sense of organization is critical to this overall process. Throwing things in a box and simply moving it to my own home is a half-baked strategy. There’s only so much available space.

I know I need to break through my inner grief and the urge to save as a counter against my loss, and instead really consider the future value of these items.

The Forgotten Photo Collection
Of course, I saved all of the photos I found. Many will go through a digitizing project to integrate into my larger family photo archive.

But then I uncovered a forgotten photo collection. Deep in the back of a closet lived 12 boxes of old 35mm slide carousels. Yes, for several years, my father shot photos that turned into slides. Remember those slides that could be viewed by projecting them onto a screen with a clunky projector? Yep. That’s what my dad had.

So I popped a couple of those filled-up carousel boxes into a bag, brought them back home and placed them on a shelf.

And then I thought about housing all of these boxes. I asked myself why I would want to keep the carousels. Sure, the boxes provided pure organization and safety for those slides. But I was never going to use the carousels. I needed to extract the slides from the remaining carousels and just bring the slides home. Those slides were like negatives that simply required digital conversion. I just had to find a method to do that…

Wolverine Data F2D Titan Film to Digital Converter
So I looked online and quickly found a variety of devices on the market that will convert old slides to digital files. Some are more high-end than others. I just needed a basic conversion. Nothing too fancy.

I decided to go with the Wolverine Data F2D Titan Film to Digital Converter. It’s compact, easy to use and $150 at B&H Photo.

I also picked up some compact Print File Slide Storage Boxes to put the slides in.

First Use
I powered up the F2D Titan and got to work with the first batch of slides from my parents’ 1978 cruise vacation in Greece.

It’s a straight-forward process. You slip your slides into a mini light tray, and then you press a button to take a picture of the side. The Wolverine creates jpegs with plenty of resolution for me. (5472×3648) and between 4-5 MBs in size. It has a small amount of internal storage, but the better process is to pop in an SD card, which is what I did. You can make color/brightness adjustments if you choose, but I decided to do all of that in Adobe Lightroom. It’s faster.

The Wolverine is perfect for my project. The image conversions look good. The process is quick, and the Titan’s footprint is small.

New Views
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen many of these family slides before, and it feels pretty remarkable to view these images of my parents.

It’s almost reality-bending for me, as I integrate these moments into my larger world-view of my family.

Find the Time
This is all great, but you might be wondering how I’m going to find the time to convert hundreds of slides while I’m also going through hundreds of old photos and digitizing those? And clearing out my dad’s place. And handling the rest of my life.

That’s a good question.

What I do know is every time I digitize three or four old photos or slides and add them to my family photo archive, I feel a warmth that fuels me for what may otherwise be a cold day ahead.

It takes about 15-20 minutes.

I figure if I can regularly carve out that time during my early mornings, that could actually help in my healing process. (Plus, it breaks down a massive project into achievable little pieces.)

Maintaining Ownership
So that’s what I’m doing. Yes I know I could pay a service to do all of this digital conversion, but I want to do it myself. Plus, I know I won’t need to digitize every old slide and photo. And only I can make that decision.

If I’m going to first look at every slide to decide its fate, it doesn’t take that much more time to slide it into the Wolverine converter and create the jpeg.

Don’t Wait
Family history is important. I don’t want to just save these photos and slides. I want them to be a part of my story. No, I shouldn’t have waited this long, but I’m glad I still have the opportunity to bring them forward into the future…

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