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In Death, New Discoveries

From death we can find new life through our family's history: letters, diaries, photographs and videos.

En español | Perfectly trimmed and waxed handlebar mustache; dark, wavy hair; piercing eyes: That was the maternal grandfather I knew, the one from the sepia-toned photograph that hung in an oval wood frame in my Nina's living room. I never knew José Silvano Saucedo any other way. He died in his fifties, long before any of his grandchildren were born.

But I'm getting to know him better, and so are my seven siblings. In 2009, the eight of us faced the most heart-wrenching losses of our lives: Mom and Dad died within months of each other. It was a year of caregiving with love and gratitude for all they had cared and given to us. In the end, we were left with memories embedded deeply within us—and a house filled with family heirlooms and boxes no one had opened in decades.

We used to laugh at Mom's penchant for hanging on to a one-year-old's first drawing, a four-year-old's first letter to Grandma and Grandpa, an old tablecloth, or a piece of lace. Now I silently thank her.

Portrait of the Grandfather

— Courtesy of Julia Bencomo Lobaco

From those dusty sealed cardboard boxes, my grandfather sprung to life: playing with the family cocker spaniel, standing behind the counter of the family hardware business wearing a funny-looking hat, and, most touching to me, posing for his wedding picture. There, between him and my grandmother Guadalupe García Saucedo, whom we called Nina, is a little girl, also dressed in white. She's Teresa García, Nina's youngest sister, whom she raised after their parents died. What a loving man my grandfather must have been to accept a child into a barely budding marriage. He and Nina later had five children of their own.

In death and through Mom's compulsive saving habits, she and Dad have resurrected their past and given it to us as a gift. It's ours to accept and share.

Who knows who you'll get to know if you open up the boxes of preserved history in your loved one's home? Once you've made your discoveries, here are some strategies to ensure that future generations are able to know them, too. And, in the process, get to know you.

Ways to preserve those memories:

Digitizing photos (scanning):
Digital cameras make it easy to upload photos to computers, but old photos take a bit more work to save. Either have them scanned professionally or do it yourself. Once they are scanned and catalogued, put the digitized photos on a CD or DVD for safekeeping and sharing. For tips, visit websites such as Basic-Digital-Photography.com or Photography.com.

Reproductions: Professional reproductions, usually done at a photography lab or studio, are best. You can use a home scanner to do the job, but the results will vary and you could damage the photos or have to do a lot of retouching.

Storage:
Remove any dust, dirt, or lint from photos; identify photo contents and catalog the photos for future generations; and then store in acid-free products and holders that will allow for safe removal; avoid glue or other adhesives.

Online sharing and storage: Consider putting your old and new photos on websites such as Picasa or Snapfish. Most are free, easy to use, and great for sharing not only photos but family updates.

Writing your history: You can produce your own "history" book using photos and telling your stories. Whether for your children, grandchildren, or generations to come, these books will help you organize the chapters of your life:

From Your Grandfather: A Gift of Memory for My Grandchild by Paige Gilchrist (AARP)

For My Grandchild: A Grandmother's Gift of Memory by Paige Gilchrist (AARP)

Conversations with My Father: A Keepsake Journal for Celebrating a Lifetime of Stories by Ronni Lundy (AARP)

Conversations with My Mother: A Keepsake Journal for Celebrating a Lifetime of Stories by Ronni Lundy (AARP)

For My Son: Special Memories of Our Life Together by Deborah Morgenthal (AARP)

For My Daughter: Special Memories of Our Life Together by Deborah Morgenthal (AARP)

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