• Cheryl Libutti

Catching Up/ Mother as Archivist.

Happy Fall! I had a busy, productive summer, learning how to juggle working almost every day with three kids home from school for the first time in 11 years. Thankfully I had my mom close by to cover for me on days I was gone for more than a few hours.

June and July were busy and then things slowed down a bit in August... I found many of my clients' motivation waned in the heat of the summer. And then as soon as September hit, I started getting calls and emails and things picked up again.

Right now I have 9 clients I'm working with. One I am working with twice per week and we are tackling an area of her living room that houses a large roll-top desk filled with papers, photos, documents, schoolwork, receipts, banking information, mail and various items of memorabilia. We have had many long discussions about what we are going to keep and what we can part with and how we are going to develop a long-term, flexible storage solution for those items so they are safe, clean, accessible and able to be added to.

I have been fascinated with something she said during one of these conversations: she told me that more than just keeping important pictures or certificates earned by her three school aged children, she sees herself as an archivist of the family and their history. This may not seem like a big distinction from the "historian" role we moms see ourselves as being- the person who manages the pictures, important papers, vacation mementos, school awards, recital programs- but as I talked with her abut this I realized how different these roles are.

Here are some examples of how she creates and maintains her archival material:

1. When her kids are in a concert, she grabs not one, but five programs. If the covers are different colors, she makes sure to have a few of each color. If its an important recital (her kids are dancers) she will grab 10 programs. She keeps extras to give to family and friends who couldn't make the actual event and feels helpful keeping extras that in case someone ever needs an extra copy she can happily give them one and still have enough for her records.

2. One of her kids collects American Girl dolls. When they get a limited edition doll, like the Doll of the Year, she will keep an American Girl Doll catalog so she can tear out the pages featuring the doll's clothing and accessories so it is archived what items you could purchase for that doll.

3. She purchases every photo package available- sports, dance, school, tourist attractions. She views it as "proof" that you did that activity or went to that place.

4. She saves every greeting card she and her family receive for birthdays and holidays.

5. When her children are involved in a production (like a school play) she keeps every order form (including the t-shirt form and DVD form), information sheet, cast list, everything to create and maintain a record of the entire experience as a whole.

So you can see how this leads to a large collection that needs to be properly organized, respected and stored.

I usually start these conversations with clients by having them think about how much they realistically want to save and hand off to their children when they are grown. I have a method that I have employed for years that has worked well: I have two flat, large boxes for each child, and as meaningful papers come home, I pop it into the box. When the first box gets full, I move to box #2. When box #2 starts to get full, I have to take an item out to add another item in. This helps me to constantly be culling and evaluating what I am keeping while placing a space limit on me.

Clothing is another important item for me: I have one plastic bin for each child and again, I place particularly important-to-me items in there for safe storage. My older girls' bins are full now and to add another item would require me to give up an item already in there. (Thankfully, items from the pre-teen and teen years don't seem to hold the same emotional connection as the toddler dresses and t-shirts, so I am pretty much done with their clothing saving.) My goal is to eventually make each child's clothing bin into a quilt that I can wrap myself up in and cry in a rocking chair when they are grown and gone. (Just kidding. Hahaha.) (Not really.)

But my point is this: how many items from your childhood do you really want as a 20-something new adult? How many boxes, bins, papers, items, pictures are enough to give an idea of who you were and how you grew up? How much is not enough? How much is too much? How much becomes a burden? How much is being saved for the child to show who they were -and how much is being saved for the parent to show how they raised the kid?

For me, two boxes, with a few meaningful pieces from each grade, was enough. And lots of pictures and videos.

My mom has recently been passing along mementos from my high school and college years to me and it is always fun to remember old times and events that seemed like a lifetime ago, when I was almost a different person. Some things I keep and some I throw away.

I was telling my archivist client about a program from a college honor society that I was inducted to in the 1990's and how I read it and then threw it away. It has absolutely no bearing on my life as an adult and I know I was in it. She was horrified.

"CHERYL! How could you do that??"

"It was easy. I remember it and it wasn't that big of a deal and so I tossed it."

"But how do you KNOW you did it? You just threw out the PROOF."

"I KNOW because I was THERE and experienced it. I don't need proof."

And this little exchange opened my eyes to how she thinks about these programs and documents- they are her proof. Like a museum curator pulling together multiple sources for a gallery exhibit, with notes and dates and sources and evidence, she is curating and archiving her family story. If you don't keep the proof, you're not putting together a full picture of what happened. It's amazing and frankly I am impressed by her dilligence and effort.

A few months ago, on a forum for professional organizers I belong to, an organizer asked if there was anyone who could help a client of hers curate an exhibit for the public of the client's life story. It was such a strange request to me then but now I understand better: that is what my client is trying to do. She is (privately) curating a full, accurate exhibit of the wonderful life she and her husband are creating for their children.

I am so grateful for this client and how she has opened her home, story and heart to me and has patiently explained what's important to her. She has given me so much to think about and learn. Another reason why I am so happy to be in this field and helping people get organized!

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