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A baby boomer's job: working in the archives


WE, THE WAR babies of the second World War, may be the first generation in which quite ordinary people find themselves surrounded by personal archives. Royal and semi-royal families have always had to cope with complicated heaps of written and graphic material, but peasants never had much paper, or much of anything else, to leave behind to mark their passing. We do, now, as I notice every Sunday afternoon when I devote myself to Working In the Archives, otherwise known as cleaning out the closets.

Around the turn of the century, our family started keeping things in a big way, and I am sure they were not unique among American families. I find myself meditating on this cultural change as I try to think just where to put a box containing several copies of the 1927 wedding portrait of Great Aunt Blanche and her first husband, Burrell, who died of tuberculosis only 16 months after the photograph was taken. These photographs of a smiling young man may be the only record of his existence. I have no way of knowing.

Licenses and certificates

There are probably many documents about their union somewhere in my house. I have plenty of documents. I have death certificates. Wills. I have licenses: marriage, fishing, driver's. Letters. Newspaper clippings. Locks of hair. There are anguished love letters between my father's mother, Goldie, and TC her handsome cad of a first husband, my grandfather, who ran away shortly after my father was born. There is the formal family photograph with my grandfather's face cut out.

There are old, sweet Valentines and Christmas cards and crumbling family bibles. It is a picture of my great-grandfather's plow and horses. There are report cards and yearly budget books and a newspaper declaring "ITALY SURRENDERS." These are all over my house. I have spent the past two years trying to organize and isolate and understand them, ever since my mother died in her sleep early on one pretty May morning.

I have gotten custody of this incomplete, tantalizing and fascinating archive through the deaths of the people who carefully put the papers into briefcases, suitcases, albums, folders and boxes which eventually ended up in my house. I got the job of family curator because I cannot bear the thought of all this cherished paper, all these smiling photographs, all this commentary and narrative being lost. Whenever my other pursuits drop me into a blank week, I begin again to sort through the archives.

Trash vs. nostalgia

I have recently spent many hours in serious contemplation of the practical problem of adequate reasons to preserve stuff. Nostalgia is all very well, but when does a Christmas card from someone you do not remember turn into trash? When does a tender letter from your ex-lover deserve to be thrown out? How many drafts of your book should you keep, how many should you throw away? How many pressed flowers? Postcards? Expired passports?

The answer which came to me, finally, was that the things in the archives are worth preserving only if they have meaning. I have discovered that, as curator, it is my task to find the meaning and if it is too small, bear the guilt of discarding the artifact; if it is too large, bear the pain of sadness and loss, shed the tears and pack it up again. But in the welter of paper, along with distressing pangs of grief, there are also love songs and jokes, unique ideas and sharp little comments, and when I encounter them, then I feel the curator's joy of reading these messages from the past and hearing these dead voices speak.

And I imagine the small museums, the arrowheads and dolls, the Life magazines and military uniforms, the baby shoes, the baseball cards and diaries occupying closet space all over the country, tended by people my age, who spend long Sunday afternoons sorting and remembering, weeping and filing and wondering what to keep and what to throw away, wondering what our children will think about our own archives. What will posterity make of the love letters that escaped our intention to shred, the 25 years of canceled checks, the poems in six different versions, the notebooks with hundreds of blank pages, the Phi Beta Kappa key? My daughter will know what these things mean but what will subsequent daughters think of the pile of worthless lottery tickets and tear-stained rejection notices? Will anyone remember Burrell and Aunt Blanche? Will anyone remember me?

Our personal archives invite us to ask ourselves those big questions of meaning and memory. Those questions are the same ones that speak from the National Archives, from every small town library, from the Smithsonian, and from the terrible anonymity of the flea market table with its burden of unidentified pictures. And those of us working in our archives can answer that yes, we do remember, and we will remember, as long as we can bear it. As long as there is a single closet shelf left in our houses, we will keep the memories and the papers.

We may have to get rid of some comic books, though. And some clothes that don't fit any more. And some instruction books for small appliances that drifted trashward a long time ago. Or maybe not, not yet. Maybe next Sunday.

Jean Blake White, author of the novel "Don Juan de Marco," writes from Laurel.

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