Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Document and Distribute!

Our makeshift documentation technique: lay out each 
garment on the bed with a numbered post-it, develop 
film, and scan photos.
In a large family with a lot of heirlooms, I’ve found that documenting what is there and distributing that information to relatives is well worth the effort. In 2000, I traveled to Maine after college graduation and decided that I’d like to revisit some of the old family dresses I had seen over a decade earlier as a child exploring a closet full of mysteries with my Grammy (story here). This time I was armed with a camera, acid-free tissue, and a bit more knowledge about what I was looking at. 

With help from Grammy and a friend, we got the dresses out and laid them on a bed one-by-one for photography. I put a numbered post-it on the bed with each piece before taking the pictures so that later I could make a spreadsheet of information to go with each garment. As we finished, we carefully refolded the dresses and packed them away with acid-free tissue. They were still in trunks and suitcases, not exactly archival quality storage, but at least the tissue helped a little.

After I developed the pictures we took that day, they sat around in several apartments as I went through grad school, got a job, got married, got another job… It was always one of those things I’d get to “eventually.” By the time I finally got motivated to put the photos together into a scrapbook, about five years had passed since I’d actually seen the dresses. That was problematic because I wanted to compile a spreadsheet with information about them, but I didn’t remember as much as I could have about the materials used, the nature of the trims, etc. Still, I assembled a scrapbook with my best guesses about the age and description of each garment, and I took the book to Grammy’s where all of her visitors could see it. Then I scanned each photo and made CDs with images and the spreadsheet for distribution to the family.

After we took pictures, we packed the dresses in trunks 
and suitcases with acid-free tissue. They stayed there 
tucked away in Nanny's closet until 2011 when we had 
to start removing the antiques from Grammy's house.
 I made some mistakes in the book, but the great thing about it is that the family helped me add information and make corrections. For example, one of the dresses was Nanny’s wedding dress. I had gotten the year wrong, as well as the list of aunts who had worn the dress in their weddings. It was easily corrected, and gave my aunts a chance to educate me about our family's history.

For me, the project was fun because it suited my interests perfectly, but I think my family was also grateful because there were things in the book they’d never seen before, and if they had seen the dresses, it sparked happy memories for them about dress-up or the exploration of the “special dresses”.

Now I am grateful that I did the book because it has eased some of the angst of deciding who inherits each garment now that Grammy has passed. We decided to keep the collection together for now, but in order to determine who gets to decide the ultimate disposition of each item, who pays to replace tissue and buy garment boxes, and who can give the okay to use the dresses for education or dress-up, we are determining individual ownership and tracking who owns what on the spreadsheet I generated years ago. The only regret I have is that I didn't document everything. Recent months have taught me that there were a LOT more articles of clothing in that house than I was aware of.  
Who would throw out a broken iron? Not my 
family, apparently.

The rest of the family heirlooms have a similar story. Some were on everyone’s radar, but most items were tucked away in closets, under piles of clutter, or in unlabeled boxes. The distribution of the estate has therefore been a messy process. Many siblings with many different opinions can’t decide by committee who gets every last object; there’s simply too much stuff. Some of it is loaded with sentimental value and some has monetary value, but most would probably have value only to specific niche collectors. For example, behold the collection of irons that turned up.

Thus the importance of the ‘document and distribute’ mantra. If someone has expertise with a specific group of heirlooms, they should get it out there! When family members have knowledge that goes beyond emotional attachments, they can feel more confident that they aren't making poor decisions about what they really want to keep and what they can let go. 

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