Collecting: The Things We Love…

teddy-bears

“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

houses

 

Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

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snowflakes

And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

moms-clothes

 

In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

chicago

Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

The Importance of a Family Photo Album

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My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

A Gift of Family History

img139. 1893-1895 Johannes Persson (1851-1933) and Johanna (1858-1950) Per Joel is boy on the right

My grandfather’s family in 1893. My grandfather is center front, my cousin’s grandfather is on the left.

 

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The first page of our family history.

When my cousin Cecilia visited from Sweden this summer, she told me that she had a family history that traces our family back to 1663. She sent it to me recently, just in time for Family History Month.

Our grandfathers were brothers and someone in her family has traced back our family, on our grandfathers’ mother’s side, to Bengt Persson, our six times great grandfather, a man who lived from 1663 to 1709.

This is amazing to me. I’m so grateful to the person who researched this and to Cecilia and her husband Lars who preserved it and scanned it for us.

The gift of the family tree sent me to my grandmother’s photo album and what fun it was to see some of the history in family photos.

 

img136. the farm - around 1930

The family farm, called Gyllholmen, in 1930.

 

img138. with Anna Rahm Johnson 1930

My great grandparents with their 10 children, some of their spouses, and a few grandchildren.

 

For a previous post on Family History Month, I talked about school projects that got our family started on researching our history. And in another post, I listed some places that may help you get started researching your own history.

You can also get some help from the experts.

Family Tree Magazine has some suggestions for tracing your family tree.

Family Search Blog lists activities for celebrating the month.

On the Ancestry website, you can find family history events.

Here’s hoping you find a special way to celebrate and honor the story of your family.

 

kids, Bklyn2

The first generation born in the U.S. on a street in Brooklyn. My mother’s family on the left, cousins on the right. My mother is the baby standing by the carriage.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing Tasks for Snowy Days

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Snowed in, are you? Here are three great downsizing tasks good for snowy days:

1. Attack that pile of junk mail, magazines, etc. that is staring you in the face and that you now find even harder to ignore. Recycle anything you don’t need/want. File (right away!) anything you do need/want.

Now: Enjoy gazing upon a clear, clean surface, where once only guilt and dread were staring you in the face.

Alice & Johnny HulstrandUncle Lewey war letter

 

2. Do something about the old family photos/videos/movies/letters you keep meaning to “do something about.” But before doing anything, read up a bit on the issue of digital preservation. You can learn about why this is a complicated issue here, or here. And you can get some help in knowing what to do about it from the following sources:

From the Library of Congress http://digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/

From the National Archives http://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/ (Most of the information here is good, and still current. Some is surprisingly out of date, for example the allusion to videos. (Budget cuts?)

From The Legacy Project  http://warletters.com/preserve.html 

3. Browse around this blog and see what other information may be helpful to you as you plan your attack on All That Stuff when spring is here. It won’t be long now!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Finding My Way in My Grandparents’ Attic

attic 4A

“She figured she loved it for the reason we always love attics, for the reason they figure in our dreams: because they are the hidden rooms where we store our pasts.”

So says a character in Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, the story of a turn-of-the-last-century estate whose attic plays a prominent role in a tale of family and fate, art and love, surprises and secrets.

I loved my grandparents’ attic. It was above the garage, behind the house that my grandfather had built in the early 1920s. It was large, it had windows to bring in light, and it was filled with their treasures and their junk.

Everything was saved in my grandparent’s day. They, like others of their generation who raised families during the Depression, saved everything and valued their possessions in ways we can barely fathom. I remember my sister and I riding the bikes, with big front baskets attached with leather straps, that had belonged to my mother and her sister. And the attic was filled, not with the bikes, but with things they thought they might use again.

Have I used anything that belonged to my grandparents? My mother gave me my grandmother’s china – not very old, but lovely, a set that my uncle had brought back from Japan after the war – when my kids were young. I cautioned my mother that with young kids I wasn’t about to use china that I had to handle with care, and I didn’t. The plates went into the dishwasher, which over the years, cleaned off the pattern along with the food. (I still have the set of twelve perfect cream soups because, somehow, my life is such that there was no occasion for setting a table with cream soup bowls.)

Have I treasured anything that belonged to my grandparents? I have a wooden candlestick, carved from a tree on my grandfather’s family farm outside of Stockholm, prominently displayed on a shelf in my living room. It’s sturdy and practical like my grandfather, who was a carpenter and a builder, and it reminds me of him.

I also have a delicate gold pin, a gift from my grandfather to my grandmother on birth of their first child. In some ways, the pin reminds me of my grandmother; it’s small and delicate and not ostentatious, a good description of her, a woman barely five feet tall. But in other ways jewelry is not like her, at least not how I saw her, a woman who was so practical that she dyed her wedding dress so she had a dress to wear to church, made all her food from scratch, and sewed so beautifully that she earned her living as a seamstress. Both candlestick and brooch are everyday items but for me they evoke powerful memories.

October is National Family History Month, a fitting time to get family members involved in talking about family history. I feel that I have honored my grandparents by looking through old family photos – prompted, of course, by this blog post – and seeing photos of their house I hadn’t seen in years, by remembering them through a few – just a few – favorite objects that belonged to them, and mostly by sharing stories about them here and with my family.

So here’s to looking though your attic – literally or figuratively – and finding ways to bring the past we’ve stored there into the present, to share family memories.

Below is a list of places, some we’ve mentioned before, that may help you and your family get involved in family history.

Family Tree Magazine

http://familytreemagazine.com/article/lunch-hour-genealogy

Minnkota Genealogical Society

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~minnkota/nfhm.html

Practical Archivist: Family Archivist Survival Kit

http://practicalarchivist.com/

Adventures in Genealogy

http://deb-adventuresingenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/09/tuesdays-tip-celebrate-family-history.html

Ancestry.com

http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/category/family-history-month-2/

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Preserving Your Family Legacy

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Each family has a story. And each story is unique. We all have anecdotes, photographs, and documents that can help that story live on for generations but what do with do with these items and how can we curate what we have?

Start with a family tree.

Creating a family tree to see who is related to whom is like a writer creating an outline for a book; it’s the skeleton on which we can build the story of our family. Look through documents, talk to your elders, and check out genealogy sites.

Create a project unique to your family.

You could collect family recipes or record favorite memories or create a time capsule. Take a look at A Place for Mom for more suggestions.

Archive old photographs and documents.

Treat your family photos and documents as the precious objects that they are and preserve them so your children and grandchildren can enjoy them too. For help in preservation check out Bertrand Lyons, archivist of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress writing about archiving in The New York Times, a Smithsonian Institution blog abut preservation, and a commercial site that offers helpful information.

Interview an older person.

Document your family stories for all to enjoy. Record with audio or video the older generation. Ask questions. Get together with cousins to share stories. You can read this blog post for inspiration.

Use your estate for future generations.

A friend is creating a college scholarship at her alma mater as her way of leaving a legacy. You can check out eHow.com and scholarships.com for helpful advice on how to do this.

Get help from professionals.

There are programs to help you preserve family memories. A search online under “preserving your family legacy” will lead to a number of companies that produce CDs, videos, and bound books as well as help you create a family journal. You can also purchase journal-like memory books full of thought-provoking questions that you can use to preserve family memories. Here’s list of some of the books.

Join with others.

If you would like to add your legacy stories and photos to a pictorial and oral history library, take a look at LegacyStories.org.

And check out one of our earlier blog posts on digital preservation.

As one company that helps clients preserve family history says: your legacy is who you are, not what you have. So let’s preserve the things we have that speak to who we are.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and foodand coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Happier at Home

In Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin’s follow-up book to her bestseller The Happiness Project (which I have not yet read), she uses a line from Samuel Johnson, eighteenth-century dictionary writer, as the starting point for her journey.

“To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends.”

Rubin begins her project to create more happiness at home with a look at her possessions – not because they are the most important aspect of her home, she maintains, but because she feels her possessions block her view and weigh her down. She wants more control.

That quest really resonated with me. I, too, want more control over my stuff. Rubin’s possessions, as is the case for most of us I imagine, are valuable not because of their monetary value but because of the meanings they contain.

Rubin yearns for a certain simplicity, wants to shed the demands of acquisition. How does she approach this task? She sorts through everything in her home to find out what needs to stay and what can go. Here are some of the steps she goes through, some practical, some moments of self-awareness, that help her make those decisions.

An atmosphere of growth

Rubin writes that research shows that it’s not attaining a goal but the process of striving after goals – that is, growth – that brings happiness. In downsizing-speak, we could say that a having a perfectly clean house does not necessarily bring happiness, but the process of sorting through and getting rid of some of our stuff leads to more happiness.

Rules of engagement

Rubin questions her feelings towards each possession: both its use and her response to it. Am I interested in my stuff? Do I use it? Do I respond positively to looking at it? Do I savor it?

The meaning of meaning

Studies have shown that people with strong ties to others often represent that relationship with objects. But what do we keep, what do we toss? Can I choose something – for Rubin, two glass birds that had belonged to her grandparents – that embody a long and loving relationship? Memories don’t depend on volume she explains. That lesson alone is worth the price of the book.

A sense of order

Rubin writes of the significance of clutter – or lack of clutter – to happiness: Getting rid of clutter gives a disproportionate boost to happiness. Outer order contributes to inner calm. She resolved to go shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, to ask: Do we need this thing? Do we love this thing? Do we use this thing? If not, we should consider tossing, recycling, or donating it.

Fifteen minutes of suffering

Many of us –maybe I’m talking about myself here – are procrastinators especially when it comes to tasks we don’t really want to do. Rubin maintains that if we are willing to put up with fifteen minutes of suffering each day, we could accomplish much more. The task may be onerous but somewhere in those fifteen minutes, our feelings may go from displeasure at the task to pleasure at having accomplished a goal.

Rubin’s advice is interesting and helpful. Would I follow all of it? Would I create shrines as she calls them, grouping important possessions? Probably not, but her story is compelling and valuable for us to hear. As she says: Everyone’s happiness project is unique. As we say: Everyone’s story is different. That’s why we tell stories and read other people’s stories: to learn about others and – just as importantly – to discover more about ourselves.

≈Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home design, crafts, and foodand coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home