How do you decide?

This is a combined post for Family Tree Frog’s National Family History Month blog challenge thinking on our genealife in lockdown. I don’t know about you, but downsizing, sorting and clearing “stuff” has definitely been a theme for me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been confronted by the same choices many of us are having to make, or have made, in relation to our family’s belongings and indeed our own, if we’re downsizing.

Being family history researchers is a wonderful calling, but at times like this it can also be a curse of sorts. How do we decide what we should keep as part of the family archive, what needs to be recycled, and what can be culled entirely? Even when an item is worn and tattered, if we know the story or the memory behind it, we feel conflicted about throwing it out. Mostly at this point my decision is to take a photograph, document the story behind it if I remember it, and then dispose of the item. And yet, still it pulls at my conscience to consign such formerly-precious belongings to the wheelie bin.

Keep all special thoughts and memories for lifetimes to come. Share these keepsakes with others to inspire hope and build from the past, which can bridge to the future. Mattie Stepanek, author.

The reality is that we don’t live in grand landed estates or castles with multiple rooms and spaces to store an unending supply of memorabilia. In Australia, we may have a backyard shed, but most of us don’t have attics or basements. Even the quintessential Queensland home with its “under the house” space, has a finite limit, not to mention the potential damage from water or dust, dirt and bugs.

Also, as we move through the generations, we have generally become more affluent. Our great-grandparents would mostly have had limited belongings to leave behind, if their wills are any indication – and do you find yourself wondering what happened to some of those things mentioned? As we move through the generations, most of us have our own collection of “stuff”, some precious though most of it not valuable in any financial sense, however they evoke memories for us individually.

Will our children want any or nothing of our belongings? Should we be clearly telling them in advance what we’d really like them to treasure into the future if possible? And if we don’t have immediate family, what then?

Who do we pass these on to? Do we wait until we leave this mortal coil or do we pick an age when we’re willing to forfeit them from our lives – perhaps on a niece or cousin’s special birthday?

One of my grandfather’s Hibernian sashes.

Current décor styles tend to reject dark heavy furniture thus discounting the appeal of inheriting larger items which often won’t even fit into modern houses or units. While we were grateful to inherit some of my grandparents’ furniture in our early married years, all these decades later I sometimes long to just dispense with it and choose my own style. All I wanted for years was the gramophone that my grandmother used to foster my love of bagpipes. I have it now but finding it an appropriate home within the home isn’t easy. So much for downsizing!

One type of thing it’s worth giving thought to is the handiwork of our maternal ancestors. As we know, so often the women in our family are hidden from the public record. Their craft work, memorabilia and recipe books can give us insights into them as individuals. Curating a sample of these to keep across the generations is probably a worthy family history activity. So have a close look at the doilies, embroidered tablecloths, baby books, address books, diaries (we wish!) and other collections that may come your way.

It’s probably fair to suspect that most family historians won’t be doing a Marie Kondo on their homes, but surely there’s some balance to be found.

Grandma McS ginger beer

Do we reach a decision on when to part with a lot of our stuff, or leave the myriad items to our families to curate or dispose? 1800 Skip anyone?

Have you made specific bequests to family in your will and consulted them in advance?

Most importantly, have you made specific decisions about what happens to your decades of family history research? It may come down to which “child” has the highest tolerance for “stuff” and is most likely to preserve it.

Alternatively, you could write up as much as you possibly can, incorporating your key research documents even as attachments (and remembering copyright considerations). But that’s a topic for my next GSQ blog post.

The best book I’ve found to help me on this genealogical downsizing exercise is Downsizing with Family History in Mindby Devon Noel Lee and Andrew Lee.

This post was originally submitted to the Genealogical Society of Queensland’s blog in May 2021. Why not pop over and have a read of some of the great stories published there.

It would be interesting to learn how readers have resolved these questions for their own inheritances. Please share your views or experiences in the comments.

My grandmother’s merit certificate from Scotland.

10 thoughts on “How do you decide?

  1. I had a feeling of deja vu when reading this post and put it down to my feeble memory. Thanks for putting m out of my misery.

    It was definitely worth reading again. These Covid times find me not able to concentrate on my decrapifying projects. I think it may be that, in these difficult times, it gives one comfort to have familiar things around. They add some stability to my environment

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought it might be helpful to share with my own readers as well as GSQ’s. A little bit of sorting has been going on, with encouragement from DD1, but not the things I’m attached to….though heaven knows there’s way too much stuff even in that category.


  2. Dear Pauleen – thank you for writing such a thoughtful blog and well timed for our #ANZAncestryTime chat this week huh? Of course these are the things I am wrestling with just at the moment. Who wants an ice bucket that was awarded to a great-grandfather they never met for goodness sake? And yes I agree…those things made by our female ancestors who are so hidden in formal records are precious indeed. If you can’t walk the land your ancestors lived, holding something that they made is equally precious I believe. Lots to think about here. And thank you for participating in the blog challenge even though I think you thought you couldn’t do it, I knew you could. You are one amazing sheila 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The family research of papers I’ve gathered through 30 plus odd years is another thing I wrestle with as I know one of my kids aren’t that interested – now! But I’ve told them to never be hasty in getting rid of things as how you think today will not be how you think later. I’m hoping the grandchildren will be the savers. Hoping my kids generation of less is more will not be the motto of the grandchildren’s generation. And maybe a few of them will want my research and heirlooms to hold onto. I keep trying to downsize.., then I take up a new craft snd add more things to my pile.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s hard to know what might help the special things survive. Good on you for keeping up new crafts…clearing stuff is all I can deal with right now, but creative activities make us feel better.

      Liked by 2 people

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