Family History Month: Spotlight on the Center for American War Letters

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“Tucked away in attics, closets, and basements throughout this country are millions of letters written by men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces….” says the opening line on the “Letters” page of the website for the Center for American War Letters.

A relatively new entity, the Center  for American War Letters was established in 2014,  when  Andrew Carroll  donated  the vast collection of war letters he had started in 1998 (known as The Legacy Project), to Chapman University in California. The Center is performing a valuable service to the nation by preserving letters from soldiers, and their loved ones, from the nation’s earliest days to the present.

It is also providing people who are downsizing their homes and don’t know what to do with the stashes of old letters they find in the process with a wonderful solution to the problem, by providing a home where they will safely preserved, and can contribute to a better understanding of our history, especially as seen from the point of view of the “ordinary” men and women who have served the nation in times of war.

If you think you might want to donate letters to the Center, you can find out more about how to do so here.

The Center also has a page with helpful tips about how to properly care for old letters, for those who wish to keep them.

October is Family History Month, and Veterans Day is coming up soon. Wouldn’t it be a nice way to honor the veterans in your family, or among your friends, to find  a way to honor and preserve their documentation of their wartime experiences, their thoughts, feelings, and perspectives–and to safeguard them for future generations?

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

A time to keep, a time to throw away….and a time to preserve…

Uncle Lewey war letter

In our book, we talk about the fact that in the process of downsizing a family home, it often seems that the world is divided into the “keepers” and the “throwers.” And how in most families there are some of each personality type, and how one of the challenges in getting through the process harmoniously requires these two opposite types to respect each other’s differences, and find ways to cooperate, collaborate, and find a middle ground–to keep some things, and to get rid of many others.

One of my cousins has been engaged in the process of going through all the things left behind by her recently deceased parents. And she has reminded me that in downsizing a family home, it’s not always just about keeping some things, and getting rid of others. Sometimes it’s about preserving things–not necessarily for ourselves, but for our families, or our communities.

My uncle was a man deeply involved in his church, in his political party, and in his community. He was also by nature an archivist. After he died my cousin spent many hours, many days, many months going through his papers. At a certain point she called for help from the local historical society, who came to take a look at the overwhelming collection of documents she was dealing with. Ultimately they took 26 boxes of his papers, and were delighted to receive them. Several more boxes went to his alma mater, a small liberal arts college where he had sat on the board, and kept all his notes from board meetings over a period of many years. Other files were delivered to his church, and some were kept for the family. All of the recipients of these documents, which my uncle kept so carefully for so many years, deeply appreciated the care my cousin had taken in going through what many people would have simply thrown out.

“When we talk about preserving things, it’s more about keeping things for others than for ourselves,” my cousin says. Of course the painstaking, often tedious task of going through papers is extremely time-consuming, and not everyone can do it. My cousin did not go through every piece of paper in her father’s office, she couldn’t! But she did at least look into every drawer, she tried to assess what was there, and what she couldn’t deal with herself, she gave to someone she knew would be able to do so.

When it comes time to empty out the family home, it’s good to remember that there is another option presented than the strict dichotomy of “keeping” or “throwing.” And there are many institutions and organizations set up to help preserve those things we don’t know what to do with–but know somehow, should not just be thrown out.  If you’re not sure where to turn or who to contact in your community, your local librarian can help. There is also help in the resource section of our book. Goodhue Cty thanks

Of course, this kind of painstaking care with preserving the artifacts and documentation of our collective history can’t be done in a weekend, or a month. In order to ensure that you will have the time needed to find the right place for everything to go, you’ll need to follow our first and most important piece of advice: start now!

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

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