The Boxes In The Attic

January 4th, 2011

I spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks going through boxes of old papers, books, and pictures with my parents and brother.  We moved into the house over 30 years ago when I was less than a year old.  Since then, we have accumulated all the usual papers and such that people create, as well as boxes of things from various grandparents and other relatives who have passed away.  Twice when I was growing up we went as a family on a sabbatical and rented out our house, once for a full year and once for a semester, but that succeeded only in pushing the boxes further back into the recesses of the attic.

A lot of what we found was junk.  Boxes upon boxes of old, outdated tax records gave a reason for my parents to use their new favorite service: document shredding.  They called a company that came to the house with a shredder on a truck and the company took all their boxes of old documents and shredded them right there.

There was a great deal of gems that had been lost or forgotten.  My parents found their original Ketubah hidden in a box that hadn’t been opened since the 70’s.  There were a number of boxes of photographs, some in albums and some loose, as well as boxes of my brother’s and my preschool and kindergarten art.  We found a pile of poster boards which turned out to be most of my old science fair projects.

There was a lot of junk.  A lot of things that got thrown away immediately, a lot of things that we donated to various schools or charities, but there was a category of things that I struggled with.

My uncle, Steve, my father’s only brother, passed away when I was young and many of his things ended up in our house.  When going over bookshelves I came across a book on the history of mathematics, which was heavily annotated in pencil.   The inside cover included a course schedule and room number as well as a list of corrections.  It was a neat little piece of my uncle, that was of no use to anybody today.  Anyone wanting to study the history of mathematics could easily acquire a more modern cleaner book.  It went into the garbage, but not after i picked it up and went through it at least a half a dozen times over the course of two weeks.

My grandfather on my mothers side, Morris Ullman, also passed away when I was young, and when my grandmother passed, many of their things also ended up with us.  My grandfather was a statistician by profession and worked with the government, but he also had many interest in the sciences.  One of the shelves of books contained a collection of seven or eight booklets published by The Atomic Energy Commission during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  They seemed to all be attempts to reassure the public of the safety, usefulness, and efficiency of nuclear energy.  Most were nondescript, but one was written by none other than Isaac Asimov extolling the virtues and safety of nuclear energy.  Another went into considerable detail about the amazing new things that would come about one nuclear fusion was figured out by the mid 1980’s.

What do you do with these things?  These are treasures and junk at the same time.  AEC public relations pamphlets from the 1970’s are not the kind of thing you find every day, and they give an interesting window into what the country was like at the time.  But it’s not like they are gaining any sort of value…

It was not easy to throw some of these things away, and maybe it was a mistake to throw them all out.  What will be left for the archives if we throw everything away?  Who has an archive aside from Presidents, the very famous, or the very rich?  None of which describe any of us.  So, you have to throw these things out.  Maybe not today’s annotated books, but yesterdays.

My brother and I poked around a bit to see what kind of market there is for our baseball card collections.  Most of our cards are from the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and everywhere we turned we were told that cards need to be at least 40 or 50 years old to be of value.

My parents got rid of notebooks of theirs from their undergrad and graduate school days.  Meticulously taken notes from courses and professors that continue to influence their work today.  I, on the other hand, am still holding on to notebooks filled with half written notes and doodles from high school and college.  Maybe in twenty or thirty years, I too will part ways with these books.  Maybe that’s the answer:  These things have little or no monetary value, and wont unless something creates a demand for them fifty years in the future.  Which is very unlikely.  However, they do have emotional and historical value personally and as a family.

The exception that proves the rule: The Elementary School Diploma of my grandfather from 1919, his highest level of education.  That one is staying with us a little longer.

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