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.
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?