As I write this, itâ€™s a gorgeous Saturday morning here in South Jersey. Itâ€™s bright and sunny–a perfect day for a walk. So my husband and I decided to meander around our town.
Not surprisingly, we stumbled across a few garage sales–and then, an auction. An elderly woman had been placed in a nursing home, so something had to be done with her belongings. That something was an auction.
History for Sale
All of this womanâ€™s possessions had been piled in rows across the lawn and driveway. A crowd of perhaps twenty-five people milled about and poked through everything as an auctioneer sold off lot after lot. Linens, once stylish hats, even canned goods. You name it.
Of course, I had to look. I had to do exactly what I do whenever I enter an antiques store and check for any family-related items. Much to my dismay, I spotted it almost instantly. A framed, 1916 marriage certificate written in Cyrillic. I picked it up and sounded out the names–Maksim and Anastasia. I could make out that they had married in a church called St. Michaelâ€™s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 12 February 1916. And this really got me–they were Greek Catholic. Thatâ€™s the same relatively unknown faith of half of my own ancestors. An authentic marriage certificate like this was a treasure, up for sale to the highest bidder.
I went around to the back of the house where still more items were lined up. Here was a bag of framed family photos–one of them likely of the 1916 wedding. Picking up a book, I saw that it had been owned by Alice Shamley. In her school girl writing, she had scribbled her name multiple times on the inside cover. As is often the case, a slip of paper was tucked inside. It read:
â€œSometimes you meet people who seem to take a delight in being discourteous. Everything they say is said in such a tone of voice and in such a manner that it can hardly fail to give offense. We naturally avoid such people. We have just as little to do with them as possible. Promotion passes them by, if indeed they are not dismissed from their ancestors.â€
The pieces started fitting together. Alice was the woman who had just been put in the nursing home (in the interest of privacy, Iâ€™m deliberately not sharing her married name). Maksim and Anastasia had been her parents. That toddler in one of the photos was Alice. It was her familyâ€™s history that was being sold, and I couldnâ€™t help wondering if she would consider the people selling her possessions â€œdiscourteousâ€ and worthy of being â€œdismissed from their ancestors.â€
Whatâ€™s the Solution?
Iâ€™d like to tell you that I rescued these items–and if they had price tags on them, I probably would have. But they were being sold in lots and I would have had to wait hours for them to get to the family photos and documents–Aliceâ€™s husbandâ€™s Social Security card also being among them–that were scattered around the property. Like everyone these days, Iâ€™m busy, and therein lies the problem. Weâ€™re all so busy that we hardly give any thought to protecting our own family treasures, much less someone elseâ€™s.
Iâ€™m trying to be pragmatic. We literally cannot take it with us when we die, and we obviously have to be selective when we downsize into a smaller home or nursing facility. And Iâ€™m not trying to insinuate that auctioneers are somehow evil; the fact is that they provide a useful service. But how do we stop this epidemic of family history, and to a certain extent, national history (Iâ€™m thinking now of the fact that the only known photo of Annie Moore, the first immigrant through Ellis Island, may have been tossed when her unmarried granddaughter passed away a few years ago) being tossed out, or at least, sold to strangers? This is not a rhetorical question. Iâ€™d like to hear your ideas. Seriously.
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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through rootstelevision.com/blogs/megans-rootsworld.html, www.honoringourancestors.com, and www.genetealogy.com.
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