Old papers shed light on a family's past

Every family stitches together pieces of its history with a patchwork of stories that span years and generations. Some involve small events. Others recount larger dramas, becoming beloved anecdotes told and retold in family circles.

But tucked away in file drawers and attic trunks is another kind of domestic record that also defines and preserves a family's past. This one involves written treasures - letters, diaries, and daybooks.

These documents often languish unseen and nearly forgotten for decades. Then, here and there, a moment arrives when a self-appointed family chronicler decides: Now is the time to preserve these papers, at least for immediate relatives.

These unofficial historians know the fragility of old memorabilia. Ink fades. Paper yellows and grows brittle, or succumbs to the ravages of flames and water.

And so these chroniclers begin tapping away on the computer, reveling in the stories and personalities that emerge as they decipher page after page of spidery handwriting.

Four of my friends, scattered around the country and unknown to each other, are in various stages of transcribing irreplaceable documents.

For some, it's an ideal project for retirement. Lannois Neely of Albuquerque, N.M., who took an early retirement from IBM, has been transcribing family letters that date back to the 1840s. They include love letters her great-grandfather and great-grandmother wrote during their courtship. She and her sister have also transcribed daybooks that a great-aunt kept from 1920 to 1950.

"When anybody finishes transcribing a batch of anything, we make copies and send them to all the cousins - nine of us," Ms. Neely says. She adds, "This is one of the most rewarding things I've pursued. I've loved doing it, as it takes me back into a totally different way of life."

A former Monitor colleague, Cynthia Hanson of Princeton, Mass., has spent uncounted hours transcribing 75 letters her great-great grandfather wrote from Civil War battlefields. He fought twice at Bull Run and at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Williamsburg.

Although she was never interested in military history until now, she finds the letters fascinating. The transcription, often done late in the evening after her three children are in bed, is a gift to her father.

In Claremont, Calif., Pauline Erickson has been compiling records and letters written by her great-grandfather, a native of Poland - documents she found in the Library of Congress and in New York libraries.

When another friend, Marie Edwards of Rome, Ga., inherited 1,000 family letters nearly 20 years ago, she knew she had a treasure. They date from the era of the American Revolution through the early 20th century. Next year they will come out of obscurity when the University of Florida Press publishes them in a book, "The Seeding of the Old South: Selected Correspondence of the Gibson-Tilson Families."

My own project involves transcribing my maternal great-grandfather's diaries. Written in narrow ledger books, they span 55 years, from 1879 to 1933. As the owner of a general store, a mortuary, and a large farm, he worked 10-hour days, six days a week. His entries are factual rather than reflective. But taken as a whole, they provide an amazing portrait of one man and his family, and of life in a small town in central Wisconsin during a period that went from the horse and buggy to the automobile, and from kerosene lamps to electricity.

In each of these cases, bringing family papers to light offers a dual reward. There's the satisfaction such endeavors give to the transcribers and conservators. There's also the pleasure these documents will bring to descendants and other appreciative audiences, opening small windows into family history and offering insight into people and events.

In an age of e-mail and voice mail, papers like these may someday become an endangered species. "Future generations might not have any of this material from us," says Neely. "Depressing thought. There's something magic in seeing the writing of our ancestors."

It's a sentiment that could spark an intriguing question in families everywhere: What hast thou in the attic?

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