Organizing Memorabilia

For several months, I have been working with a client who had moved into a new apartment and wanted to ensure that it was set up in an organized and maintainable fashion. As we unpacked boxes and put things away, we set aside two categories of items that I knew would be time-consuming to tackle: photos and memorabilia.

When we were done with every room and every storage area in the apartment, it was time to tackle the photos and memorabilia. I suggested we start with the memorabilia.

My client describes herself as a sentimentalist. She was also quick to point out that we would be organizing memorabilia from three homes: her adult apartment, her childhood home, and her mother’s apartment. Her mother passed away recently and that memorabilia had ended up mixed in with my client’s stuff. So what to do with a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia and then some?

The answer is: divide and conquer. The sheer volume of memorabilia was overwhelming, but breaking it down into smaller groups would be the key to making it manageable.

We started by going through each piece of paper and deciding what broad category it belonged to. Was it related to my client’s parents, to her childhood, to her work life, to her adult years? Was it a card she had received at some point ?

We spent several sessions going through the unsorted papers, always with a garbage bag nearby. For every piece of paper that she saved, another one went in the trash. As we performed this exercise, I recalled the words of Australian organizer Peter Walsh, who said, “If everything is important, then nothing is important.”

Once we had touched every single piece of paper and sorted it into a category, we focused on each category and reviewed every paper again. I sorted things into subcategories to ensure that there were no duplicates. We eventually ended up with a core set of papers that my client considered special.

Now it was time to figure out how to contain everything. I measured the size and shape of each pile and later e-mailed my client with some suggested purchases. She ended up buying four boxes of different sizes and colors made by Bigso, ordered via Amazon.

The picture below shows what the end result was. We settled on these four names for her categories: My Cards, Professional, Mom & Dad, and Memorabilia. (The last category encompasses everything that didn’t fit into one of those other categories). I used my labeler to label the boxes, and then we found a shelf in her closet where they all fit and which is easy for her to access without a stepladder. That means she can continue to add things to the boxes as her life goes on.

She was thrilled with how things turned out, and I was thrilled for her. Now we are turning our attention to the photographs, which is even more challenging than the memorabilia. But we are forging on, with the vision of orderly, labeled photo boxes dancing in our future.

My Mother’s Books

When I was a child, my mother owned just a few books that she had amassed during her girlhood and early adulthood. Having grown up during the Depression, neither she nor my father owned a lot of books despite being voracious readers. The public library was a godsend for them growing up, and that habit continued through their adult years.

From her college years, there was her textbook from her class on the Romantic poets as well as the complete works of Shakespeare and a dictionary that was old enough not to have the word “astronaut” in it. Amongst her small stash were two children’s books. One was “Eight Cousins” by Louisa May Alcott, whose name was familiar to me as the author of “Little Women”. The other was “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” by Margaret Sidney. I was not familiar with this author’s name, but the title of the book delighted me.

My mother’s books were a source of endless fascination for me. They were a mark of my mother’s intellectual life before becoming our mother. They had no shiny book covers, just cloth binding. At one point, my older sister made construction paper covers for the two children’s books because their bindings were starting to age. Those covers themselves are now disintegrating more than 50 years later.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother told me that she had saved those two favorite children’s books because she had hoped that her children would read them. I was so surprised to hear this. I don’t recall my mother ever expressing that wish. Perhaps she did and I just didn’t pay attention.

When my sister and I cleaned out my parents’ apartment after their deaths, I did not take much with me in the way of souvenirs. I did, however, take these two books. They have been sitting on my own shelf since 2015. During a recent sweep through my shelves, I put them front and center. While I may have disappointed my mother by never reading her favorite books, I am determined to rectify that oversight very soon.

This situation puts in mind one of my favorite expressions: “Unspoken expectations are disappointments waiting to happen.” I see a lot of clients saving things for their children, some small and some grown. Do your children know that you expect them to embrace your favorite things at the appropriate age? If you don’t make it clear to them, you may end up disappointed like my mother was. Perhaps your children will reject your favorites and you will be disappointed anyway, but at least it won’t be for lack of trying.

Honoring Your Family’s Legacy

When my father passed away in 2015, my sister and I took on the laborious process of going through everything that he and my mother had left behind in the apartment where they had lived for 40 years. (You can read more about that experience in Home is Where the Heart Is.)

Among the few things I brought home were two pieces of jewelry that I had never seen before. One was a tie clip that my teenage mother had given my father before they were even married. It had his initials (JL) and was accompanied by a note saying, “Because I love you.” I had never seen my father wear this tie clip and I didn’t know it existed. The other was a ring with several small diamonds that might have also predated my parents’ marriage, as I never saw my mother wear it.

I sat on these items for several years, not sure what I wanted to do with them. Recently, I reached out to my colleague Jane Becker of JB Jewels, to whom I have referred several of my clients when they wanted to remake jewelry. I knew that I wanted to turn the tie clip into a necklace but wasn’t sure what to do with the ring. Jane and I discussed some of the possibilities and ultimately decided to remove the stones from the ring and turn them into a unique pair of earrings.

My father’s tie clip is now a necklace

I recently received my new jewelry and was delighted with the results. I feel so good that these pieces that my parents saved for over 60 years have been given new life. Jane wrote about my new pieces (including photos) in her latest newsletter, which you can read here.

I’ve seen so many of my clients hold on to items that came from their parents and grandparents, burdened by the space they take up but not using them and not wanting to part with them. If this sounds like you, then I urge you to think about how you can make some of these items work for you. Don’t let them be sources of guilt when they can instead be wellsprings of joy.

The Pile in the Corner

I’ve written previously about how the Broken Windows Theory applies to organizing. In a nutshell, if you have a little bit of a mess, it’s easy for it to become a big mess because your standards are already lowered.

Almost three years ago, I started a pile in the corner of my bedroom. Specifically, I placed a box of files there. The contents of the box were my father’s papers. We had just placed him in assisted living, and I was no longer visiting his home once a week. So we gathered up the papers I had meticulously organized and filed in his desk, and brought them to my home.

My father passed away just a few months later. I continued to access the papers for a while, but then I didn’t need to anymore. And the pile grew. Other boxes got placed on top of it. There was the box of old family photos that I had removed from one of his photo albums and sent away to be digitized so that could share them with my cousins. When the photos came back, that box went on the pile. Then there were the boxes of my own negatives that I had sent away to get digitized. They went on top of the pile, too.

“Clutter is postponed decisions,” declared my wise colleague Barbara Hemphill. And the pile in the corner of my bedroom was my own pile of postponed decisions.

The pile in the corner came to my attention recently as a result of a plumbing issue in the bathroom adjoining my bedroom. The building handyman came up to tell us that there was a leak in the apartment below ours. He isolated it to the pipes behind the wall of my sink. A couple of days later, a crew came in to demolish my bathroom to replace the leaky pipes. They had to drill through tiles, and dust was everywhere — not just in the bathroom, but in my bedroom as well. It took a full week until the bathroom was fully repaired, and then we spent a day laundering linens and dusting every surface.

As I dusted the pile in the corner, I felt ashamed that those boxes were still there. I knew I needed to do something about them!

The next day, I tackled the pile. Of course the most time-consuming — and the most emotionally fraught — was the box of my father’s files. To make it more palatable, I took the box into the living room and put on some music. Then I sat on the floor and dug in.

When I was done, I had six bags of shredded paper to recycle. I kept the most important papers and found room for them in my file cabinet (which resulted in me disposing of some files of my own that I didn’t need anymore).

Now, when I pass that corner, I do a double take. I’m not used to it being empty. It’s a great reminder to me to manage clutter — and tackle those postponed decisions — before they grow into larger piles that will be even harder to control.

Sharing Priceless Family Photos

After my father passed away earlier this year, I took possession of his priceless family photo albums. These were photos that he had obtained over the years from his parents. Some of them showed his parents when they were teenagers back in Hungary in the early part of the 20th century. Others were of him and his brothers during their youth in Brooklyn. Some included their young wives, including my mother.

I knew that these photos were special and needed to be shared. I was a little overwhelmed with tying up the loose ends of my father’s passing, and these albums sat for several months in a shopping bag in the corner of my living room where I have my office. Eventually I got tired of looking at the clutter and made some decisions about how to proceed.

My grandmother and her four sons, circa 1935. My father is on the bottom right.

My grandmother and her four sons, circa 1935. My father is on the bottom right.

The first thing I did was remove all the photos from the album. My father had marked in the photo albums identifying information about some of the photos — who was in them, and what year they were taken.  I transferred that info to the back of each photo. The next thing I did was to sort them. Photos that focused on one person were separated from those with multiple people. I made a pile for each of my father’s three brothers, plus a couple of other relatives whose survivors I was in touch with. Then I sent pile of photos off to each of the appropriate cousins. They were thrilled to have these old photos of their parents when they were young! I even sent a package overseas to my father’s one remaining brother, who lives in Europe. His wife told me was really touched to see them.

The next phase of the project was to share the photos that had multiple people in them, or that were of general interest to everyone, such as the photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents in the old country. I decided to have them professionally scanned. I sent them to ScanDigital ( to be digitized and stored on a CD. I sent the package in early August, and they finally sent me back the photos and the photo disk in October! But they communicated with me throughout the process, and the final result was very high quality.

I did a little bit of research about the best way to share digital files. I wanted my cousins to be able to view the photos in high definition, and to print them if they wanted. I also wanted to ensure that the photos would remain secure. I decided to share them via Dropbox. I have been using Dropbox for a long time to share files, but my main concern has always been that it is too easy for a user to drag a file out of Dropbox and onto their own hard drive, and then it’s no longer available for anyone else to view. I discovered that Dropbox has a feature that enables you to share just a link to the folder, which let’s others view the files but not remove them. I tested it out and seemed exactly what I needed.

I copied the 120 photos to Dropbox and shared the link with my cousins a few days ago. The photos have been getting good reviews! I was also able to share via e-mail the identifying information about who was in those old photos taken in Hungary before my grandparents emigrated to the United States almost 100 years ago.

Many of my clients have photo projects sitting in corners of rooms, and you may have one as well. Here are some of the things I learned as I progressed through my project:

  1.  It is time-consuming. Don’t expect to get it done overnight
  2.  Not all photos are created equal. Throw away blurry photos, unflattering photos, and photos of people that no one can identify.
  3.  Don’t agonize over every decision. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
  4.  It felt great to get these photos into the hands of my cousins. You’ll feel great, too, to get these photos out of a box and into a viewable format.


I know that my father would be pleased to know that these photos are bringing joy. After all, that’s why we take them, isn’t’ it?