The Treasure in Trash - Ephemera


I love old things, and I have a fondness for paper. Books, letters, cards, written things, call to me, especially when they are old. Paper not designed to be retained is called Ephemera. If the paper is old, discarded, and has a story—for me, it's love.

I've been out of touch with that love for quite a while. I collected postcards and stamps as a child. I still have my collection, and boxes of stamps and postcards preserved someday to be added to when I have the time. During the years that I worked on the Sketchbook Project, I found that passion once again.

One of my fondest paper memories is scavenging two boxes of letters in my husband's grandmother's attic, tagged as trash. I sorted through them, organized them, read them, treasured them. I learned all about this lovely lady's early life and her travels, boyfriends and beaus. There were even a few photos. I saved them from loss. It made me happy.

I have another recent Ephemera adventure to share. My mother (who is awesome by the way), recently visited a local estate sale and on the want of a Christmas quest (which I won't disclose right now), she acquired all the old paper and photos at the sale. She got one big box lot, at a fixed price.I cannot tell you the pleasure I got from sorting through the boxes. If you understand the love of paper, you will know.

In that box was a marriage certificate, some school records all in German, two family trees, a bunch of letters (including one dated 1907 which outlined a family history back to Russia through China), and a few photos. I was stunned and saddened that these precious bits of family history, this ephemera, would be lost to the family that to whom they belonged.

You might not know, that I'm the keeper of our family tree, and I enjoy a good hunt for information. For me, it's like treasure hunting. I find a crumb of lost family history exhilarating. This particular family, were well-traveled, spoke more than one language, and were living near me—I couldn't bear to drop the papers in a pile, or cut them up and use them for collage.

On a whim, I googled a couple of names. I found an obituary and a bunch of kid's names. Now I had a context for this family. I knew I had to go deeper in the search. More googling and I hit a dead end. I went back a generation, and I googled the marriage certificate. Nothing. Off to Ancestry.com. BINGO. There was a family tree which included the names on the certificate. I sent an email, and I got an answer. I was fortunate enough to have stumbled upon the family historian. Yippee! I filled an envelope and sent it off. Happy Ending for this family.I hope that the goodwill gets paid forward.

I hope you, who are reading this, will consider it twice before ditching, trashing or selling that box of old paper, or the photo album, or the family bible, without carefully sorting through it. It only takes one tiny crumb for the Family Historian to open up a whole wing of research. The photo with the name on the back, or the old letter with a return address, or a mention of a family member—any of these could be vital links to a never-ending family quest.

Our uncle who is the other historian of our family has his grandfather's trip diaries which he kept when going to Alaska for the Klondike Rush. He's transcribing them, and I hope that somewhere within is a mention of that grandfather's mother or father, as for now it's a family mystery who they were.

So, the rest of the ephemera in that box lot? Not of use to the family, but perfect for my collage art and my postcard/stamp collection. I forsee many happy days of cutting and pasting ahead...

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