Mom’s Boxes Part 2: Panning for gold

My 2nd great grandmother

My 2nd great-grandmother,
Margaret Keysling Hankins Smelser (1833-1921), of whom I’d never seen a photo. Gold!

When my mom died, in 2001, she left us 33 boxes of scrapbooks and other memorabilia. Not 33 scrapbooks; 33 moving boxes full of them. In Mom’s Boxes Part 1: The Shed I described what we did with them for 16 years, and why I’m finally going through them now with my brother Mike.


We’re making progress…..

I’ve been posting on Facebook about this project (#momsboxes), including photos of some of our great finds. People leave comments like, “Wow, what a wonderful treasure trove you’ve got there!”

Well….yes and no. The analogy that comes to mind is panning for gold. Do you know how many tons of sand and silt one must sift through to find a few nuggets of gold?!


Going through a loved one's memorabilia is like panning for gold. Share on X

Boxes in shed

We’re halfway through the wall of boxes.

My brother and I get together, on average, once a week to go through a couple more boxes. Or, like this morning, one photo album (which we’d never seen, of Mom’s teenage and young adult years — gold!) and one giant scrapbook that must have weighed 20 lbs. before we dismantled it (largely sand and silt).

Windows 98 Printer Test Page

Windows 98 Printer Test Page. Really, Mom? She must have been celebrating her first foray into the digital world. Yay!?

Gold is in the eye of the beholder…

Here is some of the best things we’ve found:

  • Photos, photos, photos. Some of them I’d seen a hundred times before, and others I’d never seen before in my life. After flipping through the albums quickly, as we encounter them, we are setting them aside for further processing. My goal, as with the overall volume of boxes, is to purge the photos, as well as the other “keep” categories, by 80%, keeping only the best and most significant of the bunch.
  • Cassette recordings. This is another project unto itself. The recordings we have listened to so far are really boring. (Sand and silt?) But they contain my mom’s voice. (Gold?) So we feel compelled to listen to them all (eventually) in case one is really interesting or contains evidence of her piano musicianship. (I’m still mad at her for not letting me record a mini-concert she performed at what turned out to be her last visit to my house in California.)

    Novelty TP

    Novelty birthday toilet paper. Keep or toss? Just kidding! Toss!

  • Programs and newspaper articles about concerts, musicals, plays, and church events in which she performed, or for which she provided the music.
Old Rx

1980’s thyroid Rx for Grandma. Guess that’s who I inherited mine from.

…as is sand and silt.

Here’s a sampling of other things we’ve found thus far. I hesitate to say what we’re getting rid of entirely, or keeping only 20% of, lest you (or someone who knew my mom) consider it to be gold and protest our getting rid of it!

  • Greeting cards. From people we know, and people we don’t know. Many, many binders and scrapbooks full of them. We are looking briefly at each one to see if it contains anything of genealogical interest and ditching most of it. Sometimes we get it into our heads that some of the vintage cards might be worth something on eBay (echoing my clients’ tendencies to think their stuff is valuable), or useful to a paper craft artist. Other times we are more ruthless. Sometimes they are displayed such that each card is visible and can be readily appreciated. Other times we find layer upon layer of them, all stuck together and unsalvageable.
Greeting cards

Layered greeting cards. They weren’t all stored this way, but many wer

  • Programs and ticket stubs from concerts and plays she attended. (I’m saving some of them for a photo collage, to commemorate her life-long interest and involvement in music and the arts. But it’s not all in good shape, and we’re not keeping it all, either!)
  • Monthly newsletters — years worth — from my aunt’s old church in Connecticut.
  • Cartoons from the Saturday Evening Post. I believe these to be Grandma’s. And I do not believe it to be a valuable collection.

The jury’s still out, but we’ve already ditched a bunch of them:

  • Letters received. Every letter that anyone ever wrote to her in her entire life. Including printed out emails from us kids.
  • Letters sent. A copy of every letter that she ever wrote to anyone in her entire life after she discovered copy machines.

It’s not that any one letter, or card, or scrap of memorabilia isn’t interesting in its own way. It’s that there is SO. MUCH. OF. IT. My mom, and grandma, and their family and friends, were world-class frequent letter writers! Too bad none of them was famous, or I truly would have a gold mine here!

Mike reading old letters.

Condition Matters

For the most part, the photos are in pretty good shape, which is remarkable considering that the shed where they have lived for 16 years is not climate controlled and doubles as a gardening shed. But the rest of the paper….yikes! We’re talking about some cards attached with little photo corners, but mostly glued to paper, taped to paper, and stapled to paper. Sometimes all of the above on the same scrapbook page! Many of the items are stuck to each other, and in a way that is impossible to separate them without sacrificing one or both pieces. There was no such thing as acid-free archival storage (outside of a museum, maybe) in those days!

Making Decisions

This is the hard part, of course. We decided to, for the most part, make all the decisions ourselves, and not ask anyone else’s opinion on what to keep and what to ditch. The goal is to digitize the gold nuggets and share them with the family. We’re doing our best. I hope they appreciate our having got rid of the sand and silt so they don’t have to. We could spend a lifetime cataloguing everything, asking each person Mom ever knew if they want their letters back, etc. If you knew her, please don’t ask! I’d really hate to disappoint you.


Since I started this project, a number of people have told me: “I have the same boxes!”

Did your parent(s) leave you gold? Or silt and sand? How did you deal with it? Or, how do you plan to deal with it?

Please share with us in the comments below!


Mom’s Boxes Part 1: The shed

Mom’s Boxes Part 2: Panning for gold

Mom’s Boxes Part 3: Trip down memory lane

Mom’s Boxes Part 4: Grandma’s Lawn Chairs

Mom’s Boxes Part 5: The Old Man of the Mountains

Mom’s Boxes Part 6: Sometimes Organizers Need Help Too!

Future Mom’s Boxes episodes: The Gangster Hideout, Saving the Photos, Sharing the Photos, ???

Copyright 2017 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. Stacey Agin Murray on July 31, 2017 at 8:53 pm

    Cassette recordings–definitely gold. I recently came across tapes while working with a client. We popped them into a tape deck and sang along with her relative’s show-tune singing while we continued to purge. Slow and steady wins the race…

    • Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Yes, they were unexpected. I’ll bet your client was pleased!

  2. Jane Severance on August 1, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    This was not my mother, but still a similar process. My friend, Paula was a generous and talented woman. She was a wonderful friend to me, particularly when I was in my early twenties and coming out. She was also a hoarder. The kind of hoarder who has twenty duplicates of everything that she owned. The kind of hoarder who collects everything with no consideration for quality or display. The kind who has a mountain of not just unopened Denver Posts, but an equally large pile of the Rocky Mountain News. Years of papers never touched, but not to be parted with. Over the thirty years that I knew her I saw her living space grow smaller and smaller, until it was just piles and stacks with small cleared spaces connected by narrow corridors. She made it clear that it was not to be mentioned or discussed. When she died unexpectedly she left behind several storage units about which we knew. A lot of family stuff had been ruined by poor storage, but our mutual friend, Stephanie, helped her sister and mother sort through the units and then came to my house with boxes and boxes of lesbian and feminist periodicals books from the seventies and eighties . I knew they had an historical value and resisted all pressure to throw them out. Luckily I had a garage. Last year I had to move. Again lots of pressure to throw everything out without going through it. However, I had been recently doing research at the Colorado Historical Society, where I got to hold a scrapbook that was over a 100 years old. It contained clippings of suffragist events in Denver. The woman who put it together was no one special or famous. She was just interested in woman’s suffrage. I was inspired to began going through Paula’s boxes.

    I was lucky in that I did not have to go through the storage units, Someone else siphoned off the 80% crap for me. And I was lucky in that the University of Northern Colorado in Greely had a feminist collection in their library. I thought they would ask me to send a box, but they sent two archivists down with a trailer to pick up everything. I cant even describe everything that was in those boxes, but they chronicled a piece of American history that is largely ignored. I was thrilled to be part of it and it inspired me to do research and find homes for several other small things that I discovered while packing. (Like that sample packet of needles put out by the Quick Meal Stove Company.) If I was doing it today I would have taken some of it directly to the Historical Society.

    So, sometimes there is a treasure. And if you can get someone else to do the sifting all the better!

  3. Wendy Wilson on August 2, 2017 at 9:47 am

    The time you are spending with your brother sifting through all of your mother’s belongings is definitely “GOLD”. It would be nice if parents would go through their belongings with their children before they passed, because the real treasure is the time spent together reliving their memories!

    • Hazel Thornton on August 4, 2017 at 9:04 am

      I agree on both counts. Time spent with my brother (although…I have two others who are not involved, due to non-proximity, and I think it would be more difficult with more people involved), and parents going through their belongings with their children before they die. I guess not only do they not know when they’re going to die, but don’t want to think about that, and don’t remember what they have or realize what might be interesting to their children. I am an avid genealogist, and I had no idea my mom (and dad, who is still alive, but had some photos I’d never seen until recently) hadn’t shown me everything there was to see regarding our family history!

  4. Hazel Thornton on August 3, 2017 at 8:54 am

    It’s always nice to find the perfect home for something, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your story, Jane.

    • Jane Severance on August 3, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      It’s tremendously satisfying. When I moved I gave away thousands of dollars of stuff to strangers, but the most satisfying give aways were the specialty items that I listed on our Next Door app. Like the Halloween tarot deck.

  5. Janet Barclay on August 4, 2017 at 11:26 am

    As a child, I kept the cards and letters that were sent to me. I still have them. Fortunately, I only did it for a year or two, or someday someone would be going through boxes of my stuff!

    • Hazel Thornton on August 4, 2017 at 11:46 am

      I’ve saved mine too, so I understand the mind-set! I’m tempted to trash it all….but meanwhile, I also have a written inventory of my stuff, with notes about who gets what if something happens to me, and what should be done with the rest of it (sell donate, toss). I’ve had the inventory for years, but it will still go in a “Mom’s Boxes Part X: Lessons Learned” blog post! Actually, I think it deserves its own post. And a link in the subsequent post. The trick is to keep it updated and store it in a place where a designated person (who is aware of it) can find it!

      • Janet Barclay on August 31, 2017 at 10:34 am

        I think I need to put all such memorabilia in a box labelled “Read if you want, then let it go!”

        • Hazel Thornton on August 31, 2017 at 10:38 am

          Good idea!

  6. Autumn Leopold on August 6, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Hazel,

    I love this series you are doing!

    You know as much stuff as my mom had over her life I really thought my brother and I would have so much to go through when she passed away.

    Well, when she passed suddenly in 2014 all that she had left from her whole life was what fit into a Jeep Grand Cherokee. I guess you could say she dies an unintentional minimalist.

    After sorting her clothes and personal items and a few what-nots we found two bins of paperwork and pictures. Luckily, in the years past I had already made copies of all of our family pictures.

    I sorted what I wanted into a bin and my brother got a few things too.

    I shipped home one single bin of my mothers belongings.

    It sits in my basement and I haven’t looked in through it again. Not because I don’t have time or want to, but my mom was a writer and I am honestly not yet ready to read what she wrote. About me, my brother, her family, life or whatever. I am hoping I am up for it this fall.

    To me the writing is the gold.

    One other thing I was lucky enough to have was 200 voicemail messages I was able to get off of my phone onto CD’s for my brother and I. They run the whole gamut of her emotions, mad, sad, happy tired (she must have called and tole me she was going to take a nap a hundred time) and she always left long messages which used to annoy me but I am so thankful now!

    Thank you so much for this series which is encouraging me to write about mom like this. 🙂


    • Hazel Thornton on August 6, 2017 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Autumn! Yes. The writing. OMG, I have so much of it! I have all of it. And it was the “Do I really want to look at, and read, this stuff?” that was as much a deterrent as the sheer quantity of it. I’m glad if I have helped you in any way. You can do it! Or… well, it’s only been 3 years for you. And it’s only 1 box. It took me 16 years to face it!

  7. Gigi Bost on August 7, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    Oh Hazel, I love this.

    Sounds like you and Mike are methodical and purposeful. What a fun project for you two. Lots of work, but also lots of resurfacing memories???

    We were fortunate that there were many siblings in our family. Mom was so good about making us go through pix, etc. when she was still with us. It started paring down with that exercise for each of us, and wasn’t bad when it came time to distribute and clean up the last. That little lady had a plan 🙂

    This reminds me though that I should start going through my own pix. Although they are organized into years, and the kids will want their’s, there’s many no one would want.

    Thank you for sharing!


    • Hazel Thornton on August 7, 2017 at 9:55 pm

      Lovely to hear from you, Gigi! Yes, one of my blog posts in this series will be about how much more this project has been about my own memories than I anticipated. You are smart to go through your own photos — we all take thousands more digital photos these days than we used to take paper photos.

  8. Cora Schlesinger on October 4, 2017 at 7:49 am

    Good morning, Hazel

    I just returned yesterday from our Ohio farm after a funeral. The original part of the house was built in 1860. It is pretty well organized for a home of that age. This trip, we found my grandfather’s scrapbook, which contained a ticket stub for the infamous 1919 World Series, depicted in Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams! This should qualify as gold!
    The house was full of an extended family members, so, too busy to remember to photograph.

    Needless to say, this necessitated a quick Google search. It’s interesting to get the true facts.

    The next link describes how Shoeless Joe Jackson was innocent, and had reported the plan to fix to the extremely stingy and despised owner, Charles A. Comiskey, whose ill treatment of the players led them to fixing the game in the first place. Shoeless asked Comiskey to bench him to keep his name clear from the scandal.

    A few good quotes:

    “Jackson, before the Series, attempted to inform Comiskey on what was going to transpire during the Series. Jackson went to Comiskey and requested to be benched during the Series so he would not be implicated in the conspiracy. The Old Roman refused Shoeless Joe’s request, and the Series went on with him in the lineup.”

    When the”Shoeless Joe is considered by many to be one of the purest hitters to ever play the game. The greatest home run hitter of all-time, Babe Ruth, once said “I copied (Shoeless Joe) Jackson’s style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He’s the guy who made me a hitter”. Detroit Tiger great, Ty Cobb, said Jackson was the finest natural hitter in the history of the game.

    “In fact, Jackson’s .356 batting average the third highest career batting average of all-time trailing only Hall of Famers Cobb and, St. Louis Cardinal Rogers Hornsby.”

    “Jackson was no slouch in the outfield either. A famous sportswriter once called Joe’s glove ‘the place where triples go to die’. It’s no secret, Joe was a great player.”

    So this led me to have an opinion on something that I never thought I would have an opinion on: Shoeless Joe Jackson should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame!

    • Hazel Thornton on October 7, 2017 at 2:50 pm

      Fun story about a fun find. Thanks for sharing it with us, Cora! And I’m sorry for your family’s loss.

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