Paper-thin heirlooms worth keeping, and sharing

Precious possessions take many forms. Some come with hefty price tags and impressive provenances. Others, small and plain, may have no monetary value, but can tug at the heartstrings and stir memories and affections, making them priceless. Think of old family photos and letters.

Yet their size and ordinariness make items like these vulnerable and perishable. Stuffed into shoe boxes or stashed away in trunks, they can languish unseen for decades. They can also be easy targets for a spring-cleaning purge. Bye-bye, family memorabilia.

So consider the surprise and delight these artifacts can generate when they come to light, and when an owner shares them with other family members. It's a novel form of recycling that can gladden the heart of an appreciative recipient.

When my father's cousin in California sent an envelope last month, it contained more than her annual Christmas card. Explaining that she was going through papers in preparation for a move, she enclosed letters my father had written to his grandfather long ago, announcing his new role as a parent.

As his neat handwriting marched across cream-colored paper, he included the usual birth-related details: date, time, weight, length. Then he wrote, "This has been almost the biggest event in my life. I plan to take some pictures within the next few days and will send you some soon." He added, "Needless to say, I took half a day off," as if that constituted a brave act. What a measure of how the workplace has changed since those decades before paternity leave.

Fifteen months later, my father wrote another joyous letter to his grandfather, beginning, "Just a word to tell you that we have another lovely daughter."

His cousin also enclosed a letter my paternal grandmother received from a university dean when my father was a college sophomore, commending him for academic excellence. The envelope also contained the birth announcement my father's parents sent when he was born, as well as a black-and-white photo of his young brothers.

What treasures these modest gifts are. Given a choice between the family silver and these humble pieces of paper, I just might choose the paper.

What makes these mementos increasingly precious is the realization that items like these are becoming an endangered species as technology advances. Today news of a baby's arrival, for example, is more likely to be conveyed by cellphone. ("Hello, Grandpa? We're in the delivery room. I've just become a father!") And as e-mail replaces letters, the pleasure of handwritten missives - pen and ink on stationery - is also becoming rarer. Even when letters still exist, recipients are less likely to save them for future generations.

Similarly, as photos go digital (in one sign of the times, Kodak stopped making film cameras last year), pictures could become more fragile. Thanks to e-mail, sharing photos will be easier. Just click the Send button and presto! the latest family snapshots can be beamed around the globe. Grandpa can practically get a photo of his new grandchild straight from the delivery room.

But this wondrous advantage also carries the disadvantage of making pictures less permanent if no one prints them out.

Even so, the good news is that there are still millions of shoe boxes filled with old photos that can be sorted and shared with relatives and friends the old-fashioned way, by mail.

One summer after my father retired, my parents spent weeks sifting through a married lifetime's worth of family photos. With pictures spread out on the dining room table, they assembled albums for my sister and me, as well as one for each grandchild. They also mailed duplicate prints of certain shots to relatives and friends. The appreciative responses made their efforts worthwhile.

On other occasions, an aunt and uncle in the Midwest have sent us sepia photos of earlier generations in the family. And last month, a distant cousin shared photos of my sister and me, taken when we were preschoolers. What unexpected treasures for our albums.

Old photos carry an appeal that goes beyond mere sentimentality, offering a window into an earlier time. To look at the serious faces gazing into cameras in turn-of-the-century pictures is to wonder: When did solemn expressions give way to ubiquitous "Say cheese" smiles? Photos of the same vintage, showing women in corseted waists and long skirts, also make a viewer wonder: How did women ever relax and move freely in the starchy era before casual clothes? For that matter, how did babies of that time crawl and play in the cumbersome clothes they wore?

Old letters carry other invisible messages. They recall a time when penmanship was prized and even given grades on report cards. Even old postage stamps on envelopes - a 2-center on a 1915 letter, a red 8-cent airmail stamp from the 1960s - add to the pleasure.

No wonder modest heirlooms like these, arriving unexpectedly in the mail, convey a silent, urgent plea to recipients: Continue this tradition by sharing the paper bounties tucked away in your own shoe boxes, drawers, and trunks.

Recycling doesn't get much better than this.

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