Stopping to Smell the Roses or Look at Old Photos

My maternal grandmother, on the left, with her sisters.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences (I love that title) suggests people are happier when they take time to appreciate the good things in life, and in the study psychology professor Nancy Fagley defines appreciation as “acknowledging the value and meaning of something…and feeling positive emotional connection to it.”

The great advantage to living in the same place for well over 30 years is that it’s warm and comfortable and definitely feels like home. One of the disadvantages is that it’s easy to accumulate way too much stuff.

As everyone knows who reads this blog, I am constantly trying to sort through stuff that belongs to me, my husband, our parents, and our grandparents. I feel great pressure to make decisions about what to keep and what to give away, mostly pressure that I put on myself but also some that comes from husband and my kids.

As I was going through antique and vintage clothes that have been handed down to me, among them two Swedish dresses, actually blouse/slips that are worn under a wool skirt, that I’m interested in donating to a museum, I decided to look at my grandmother’s photo albums. Yes, I have photo albums that belong to me, some from my parents, my aunt, and my grandmother. Talk about overload!

I took time out to slowly browse through my grandmother’s photos albums, mostly photographs of people that I never knew, but filled with pictures of my grandmother and my grandfather and their families. I also looked through an album of my mother’s that had photos of my father’s family.

My paternal grandmother, on the right, with her siblings.

Looking at the photographs of my two grandmothers, I was filled with appreciation. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without those two women who persevered through good times and bad to keep their families together and who helped shape the people who would become my parents. And seeing photos of their parents, my great grandparents, was an almost out-of-body experience.

I took time to smell the roses, to look at old photos, to appreciate what I have, and to marvel at the photos that show the lives of my ancestors. What a gift to me, one I gave myself, a gift that allowed me to slow down and appreciate the women who came before me.

A caveat here. Of course I would never suggest that someone start to declutter by looking at photos. That’s too difficult and emotional and nostalgia-inducing. And I wouldn’t suggest looking at photos if you are up against a deadline. If things have to be moved out, for whatever reason, deal with the stuff first and the photos later. However, I’m a big fan of taking a break, taking the time to appreciate.

I learned a lot from looking at photographs of my grandmothers.

Looking at old photos taught me and continues to teach me, foremost, the preciousness of time.

I also felt how fortunate I am to have such a strong family and how incredibly lucky I am to have photographs of them.

And I realized that looking at the old photos gave me more joy than looking at the items they left behind. That was a bit of a revelation to me and, in some ways, makes it easier to “get rid of the stuff and keep the memories.”

At the same time as I was looking back, I could see the value of things to come. As the Irish-American poet Lola Ridge, champion of the working classes, said, “You are laden with beginnings.” Everything I do is a new beginning, just as everything my grandmothers did was a new beginning for them.

My maternal grandmother at 17, right after she came to the US.


My grandmother with my father and my aunt.

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

photo album

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.



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

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 and 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

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

Preserving Our Present: The Challenge of Digital Preservation

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand

This post might almost seem to be an anti-downsizing-the-home piece.

It’s not, really. But since one of our most frequently repeated tips about downsizing a home–and about proactively keeping  too much “stuff” from building up in the first place–is that the goal is to get rid of the stuff while saving the memories, I maintain that digital preservation is something that we all need to be concerned about.

Here’s why. I believe that some of the developments of the IT revolution we are currently living through (especially e-mail and social media networks) have been wonderful in terms of getting people to record many fascinating details of everyday life, things that were lost in the years when many of these kinds of “conversations” took place over the phone. When e-mail came along, people started writing much more prolifically again: and in the process they very naturally and unselfconsciously were creating an interesting written record of the details of daily life , the kinds of things that before the phone might have been written down in what we now call “snail mail.”

That’s terrific for archivists,  professional and amateur historians, novelists, and anyone else who has an interest in a written record of the details of daily life. The problem is, what is happening to all that e-mail (and other things that are being recorded digitally)? Are people saving it, and if so how? If they are saving it on paper, it will last as long as the paper does. (This is the part of the post that may seem at cross-purposes with downsizing the home, since they will also be creating paper documents that need to be stored, moved, etc. ) There is also a wealth of valuable video and sound recording taking place all the time, every day, all around us. But who is saving it for the enjoyment of future generations, and how are they doing so? Will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren have the pleasure of seeing what life looked like, sounded like, felt like in the early part of the twenty-first century? Or will much of the rich store of valuable information that we’re currently creating be lost?

If this documentation is being saved only digitally, the concern is, how will it be accessed in the future? Are we assuming that we (or future historians) will be able to “somehow” decode this information despite changes in technology?

According to Howard Besser, an expert in digital preservation at the Library of Congress, that’s not necessarily something we can count on. “One of the daunting issues with digital preservation is that you need an entire complex infrastructure to display the contents of a digital file: the “right” player, driver, interface, operating system and software (and version). That infrastructure is fragile and continually changing. If even a single element within it breaks or becomes obsolete (which inevitably will happen within a decade or two), the entire network can become unviewable. Today we might not be able to read the contents of a 10-year-old floppy disk or disk drive or decode a mid-1990s version of Microsoft Word. By contrast, we can read still read something as tangible and simple as a papyrus scroll thousands of years after its creation. Humankind’s least sophisticated media – chiseled or painted stone – might last for millennia, and our most sophisticated media – to date, digital – might last a few decades.”

Of course there is always the possibility that much of this material is not being saved at all. As a writer, and as a person who was born with the soul of an archivist, I find that to be a deeply regrettable thought, though of course it is always up to individuals what private information they decide to keep and what they decide to get rid of. That hasn’t changed with changes in technology.

In April 2010, the Library of Congress demonstrated their belief in the potential historical value of the highly ephemeral medium  named Twitter by acquiring access to the entire Twitter archive. I have no doubt that future historians will find interesting things in those files. I only hope that similar efforts are being made to ensure future access to other places where the details of are daily lives are being recorded.

As October is American Archives Month, this seems an appropriate time to consider the issue of digital preservation. The Practical Archivist is a very helpful resource written by a professional archivist, with valuable tips for nonprofessionals who want to do their best to preserve their own family’s history for future generations. I think paying a visit to her site is a wonderful way of celebrating American Archives Month.

What are your thoughts about this matter? Are you saving your e-mails (and other digitally recorded materials)? If not, do you think you should be? Do you have any tips for the rest of us out here who are trying to get a handle on this situation?

We’re all ears!

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

For more on digital preservation:

April 22-28 Is #PreservationWeek!

This week marks the third annual celebration of  Preservation Week, a week when libraries across the country “present events, activities, and resources that highlight what we can do, both individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections. ”

Founded by a coalition including the American Library Association, the Library of Congress, and the Society of American Archivists among other professional organizations,  this week offers a wealth of opportunities for ordinary Americans to learn about ways to preserve everything from old quilts to comic books, from old family photographs and letters to old home movies–just the kinds of things you may be finding in your basements, attics, and garages–and not knowing how to properly care for them.

If you’ve already missed some of the events, you may still be able to find valuable information online (or from your local librarians) that will be helpful to you as you go through things in your home and find ways to ensure they are not destroyed by the most common destroyers of precious items: heat, light, moisture, dust, dirt, insects and other pests–but also dirty hands and rough handling. (So BE CAREFUL as you approach those precious family treasures you’re finding in closets, trunks, and under beds! You wouldn’t want what had been preserved for 100 years to be damaged by you, now, through careless handling.)


The Power of Photographs

A birth certificate shows you were born.
A death certificate shows you have died.
A photo album shows you have lived.

Whoever said that understands the power of photographs.

We all keep photos. Some of us even organize them into photo albums or share them online. But we often forget the impact photos can have on our lives.

For an aunt’s birthday gift, my husband scanned old family negatives too fragile to print conventionally and printed out an assortment of them. We created a collage of photos of our aunt as a teenager, as a young adult, and with her very young children. We honored her 90 years of life with photos.

Before my Dad’s 90th birthday, we drove to Brooklyn where my husband photographed the house where my father grew up. We also photographed a photo of his father’s business stationery that had appeared on a History Channel show about the Crash of 1929. We framed both photos very simply. They are a memorable keepsake of his family history – and a gift that he adored.

Now it’s time for another birthday celebration. Happy 92nd Birthday, Dad! On the way to you are recent photographs of you and the extended family at dinner last Friday night. Here’s to many more photographable occasions.


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