November 26, 2014

What to Keep When Cleaning Out a Relative’s Home

Cleaning Out a Relative's HomeRecently, Genealogy Gems podcast listener Debra Ingrum Trammel wrote to me with this question about cleaning out a relative’s home. Does it sound familiar?

“Hi Lisa, My husband is faced with the daunting task of disposing of his parent’s belongings. His parents at age 92 and 86 have things that go way back!!

We live in Tennessee and his parents lived in Texas so that in itself is a real chore to have to make numerous trips back and forth. My husband is so eager to get all of this finished but I am concerned that he will overlook or not be aware of any items that should be kept for his family history.

I continue to work on researching his side of the family. I know that we should keep certain documents: birth certificates, marriage licenses, definitely old photographs, etc. but I fear that there are items that I might not think about as being important. Might you offer some suggestions for us?

Here’s my answer:

Debra, I sympathize with your concern about overlooking things. When my Grandpa died I was pregnant with my last child and unable to go back and help clear out the house in another state. I worried too about things being tossed without folks realizing they were important.

One area to keep an eye out for is bills & receipts – a lot of folks (like my Grandmother) kept receipts from way back. While on the surface they seemed prime to toss, I actually retraced their steps and homes through the 1940s and 1950s based on the addresses written on the receipts!

Old letters genealogyPaperwork is often the area we itch to toss, but old envelopes and letters from other people writing to our relatives can provide many clues.

I also carefully go through all old books before giving them away because more than once a special tidbit has been tucked inside the pages. If you don’t plan on keeping the book, or don’t want to keep the item in the book, be sure to make note of which pages it was nestled in between. There could be a special meaning there. If everyone involved is in a big hurry to finish the clean up and you don’t have the luxury of time to go through the pages of the books, at least give give them a gentle shake over a table allowing anything tucked inside to fall out.

In Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 39 I tell the story of one of the most significant finds in my family that almost got tossed out. But Grandmother was tapping me on the shoulder, prodding me to look further before wrapping things up – and boy am I glad that I did!  If folks in your family think you are being too persnickety about not over looking things, play that segment of the show for them, or tell them the story.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. I invite all of you readers out there to share your unusual finds and recommendations for Debra on the Genealogy Gems Facebook page. (And don’t forget to “Like” us!)

Wishing you family history success, and many thanks for writing!  Lisa

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About Lisa

Lisa Louise Cooke is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show at www.GenealogyGems.com. She is the author of the books Genealogy Gems: Ultimate Research Strategies and The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, and the Google Earth for Genealogy DVD series, an international conference speaker, and writer for Family Tree Magazine.