Treasure or trash?

Jim Pappas

Over the past several years, I have had the task of sorting through years of collectibles; old photographs and memorabilia that have belonged to the older generations of my family. My other family members seem to have no patience to do it and the job has fallen to me. On top of that, I have a sharp memory of people and events from our collective past and am the curator of most of that information. I must decide what is treasure and what is trash.

When last we dealt with my mother’s two younger sisters, one was in a nursing home already and the other was about to be admitted. This left an amazing array of file boxes which were filled with much family history. At the time, all of our energies were directed to emptying out the house so when we came close to the end there were 16 file boxes to be sorted and decisions to be made. 

Pappas boys under age 5.

I sent them to my house to do them when I was at home and had time. Guess what? That time has come now that we are at home. So where do I begin? I have to decide what is treasure and what is trash. 

My first rule of thumb is to preserve anything that I feel is significant for family history. I begin by sorting things into family groups and have begun a rudimentary filing system of manila envelopes with names on the front. I have found my aunt’s elementary school records and the badges she won at various activities. As she had no children, I have packaged some of them for her old high school. Plaques and awards are another issue. What do you do with them? Perhaps, contact the sources and see if they would like them back for their records. 

Some family members will be receiving very ample packages of photos and other things. I feel they can decide which pile they put them in. I am merely the librarian who catalogued them for them. My children and my nephews and nieces will have a lot to sort through as the photos of them number in the hundreds. Every moment of their lives is represented in these photos and it will be their job to determine which are the salient ones they wish to keep. I am withholding some of my children’s photos personally as some of them bring me great joy, as I watch them unfold into adulthood. Others are rather pedestrian but that will fall to them to decide.

Amongst the treasures that I have found are photos of my brother Chrys and I when we were both under age five, sitting on the sofa with our hair perfectly parted and combed: two little angels with scuffed boots. We look so innocent. A photo of my mother at age 16 shows what a beauty she was and another of my father in his wrestling trunks is a complete hoot. Photos of my aunts’ weddings and seeing how young they all were. Studio portraits of them and photos taken on Portage Avenue when they were downtown walking to lunch or shopping. This was a cultural thing of the 1940s and early 1950s. The photographers would position themselves on Portage and take your photo as you walked down the avenue. 

Among the treasures, however, there is what I call a lot of trash, too. I mean that in the pejorative sense in that there are photos and letters of people and places that I have no knowledge of. If I cannot identify them, they are added to the trash. Photos of hockey games and flowers and snow do not rate highly as I am sorting. The big issue is how much of this will have resonance for my children. As much as possible I am writing in pencil on the backs of the photos to identify the people and events in them. 

That brings me to my own collectibles, too. How much of my history are they really interested in. Do my report cards from Laura Secord or Kelvin have meaning to them? What about grad photos and photos taken at various events in my career at University or in the working world? It is incumbent on me to make decisions about all this for them, to create a personal history of my life both before Barbra and I were married and all through our 47 years together is a daunting job. But I feel that I need to control what is treasure and what is trash. So, I have set myself a goal to sift through my own personal photos and papers as well and not leave it to their discretion but mine.

As I am doing this treasure hunting and sorting, I am travelling a road of happiness and sadness, combined, to see those that I loved who are no longer here and remember them with great fondness. 

These are however my treasures and my trash and it is firmly in my hands to make the decisions not to leave it to chance and my children. 

A Class Act with Jim Pappas is heard on CJNU 93.7 FM every Monday at 1 p.m.