how I went through a mountain of photos and accidentally created the stories of our lives

July 06, 2022

I just finished the last and perhaps the most difficult and ambitious phase of my years-long declutter journey. I had albums, boxes and bags chock full of photos and family memorabilia. For years I've been waiting for the perfect time to go through them. When that perfect time never arrived, I just decided to do it anyway. Ignoring it made me feel anxious and overwhelmed and it was finally time to preserve the best and toss the rest--one photo at a time. Please read on to see what I did to tame our family memorabilia. 

Three problems screamed out to me:

1) Disorganized,

2) Not accessible,

3) And too much of it, this being the main problem.

I purchased these photo/memory boxes above from Target. Their large size meant that we could save photos of any size, including letters, documents, medals, etc. and neatly organize them. I vowed to keep only what would fit inside and if it didn't fit, it couldn't stay. In the end I would guess we got rid of 75%. That may seem harsh, but while sentimentality has its place in curating family mementos, practicality has to be a part of it too, so we did our best to save the best and toss the rest. 

Whenever I tackle a big job like this I allow myself a good long time to cross the finish line. I gave myself 6 weeks for this and I needed it! I broke it down to two categories:

1) The modern stuff: fifteen photo albums that chronicled our almost 50 years of married life. Also a few DVDs, CDs and thumb drives with photos and videos, plus yearbooks, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, baby books and vacation memorabilia. 

2) The old stuff: same as the above minus the modern technology, and most of it tragically disorganized belonging to relatives who died before I was born. This filled six large banker's type boxes that my mother had taken from her family home and stored  in my attic.

I decided to tackle the easy part first, our family albums, which had not been opened in years. I knew that we would enjoy the pictures much more if there were less of them and were easier to access

First I set up a command center. I took the albums out of their hiding place and for the next few weeks made my living room the work hub. You know I love my timers, so every day I set a timer for 10-60 minutes, whatever I thought I could handle. I pried each photo I wanted to save off its album page and  tossed the duplicates, blurry photos and the cumbersome albums into the trash. Saved photos were labeled on the back with the date, event and the people, I won't lie, this took time, and then I began to fill the boxes I had labeled in advance: vacations, holidays, friends, home and garden, etc.  As the weeks went on, I began to notice real progress; the seemingly mile-high stack of photo albums was finally down to the last one. My husband joined me on occasion and loved seeing our early pictures when we were young and gorgeous (his words)! I didn't worry about putting anything in chronological order and as long as they were in the correct box I was good. The pictures are just for our amusement and if you look through the vacations box, you might pick up a photo of a trip to England in 1975 and the very next photo could be from a waterski trip twenty years later.  

With that job done, next on the list was the dreaded banker's boxes. I waited until my brother could visit, the only other person who had any reasonable stake in it, and we went through them together. For the most part they were full of things from our mother's large family. Over the years I had taken a stab at them hoping to engage mother's help but she always put me off, hinting that I should go through them when she was gone, and that is just what happened.  It would now be up to my brother and me to decide what stays and what goes, what was important and what was not. Prior to us, no one had been up to the task, and we both agreed that a mountain of meaningless memorabilia mixed in with valuable family history was not something we wanted to leave behind. 

We worked over a ten day period and of course set a timer, never for more than an hour at a time. 

We made a box for our father's family and one for our shared childhood. Junk was tossed and saved photos and papers were placed in the labeled boxes. So far so good.

Lastly we created a box for our mother and a second box for our mother's extended family. Mother's box was easy--she had been a cheerleader and a beauty queen and was the youngest of seven children and the only daughter. She was a very spoiled gal and there were many fun pictures and mementos and we had a good old time filling that box.

As for the larger family box, we saved the following:

-All correspondence.

-A few pictures of our grandparents as a young couple and several more over the years to represent their lives together.

-One or two pictures each of the members of our grandparents' extended family.

-A curated selection of large family gatherings, picnics, birthday parties.

-Formal family portraits

-Photos prior to 1900.

-Early California, charming with orange groves, empty beaches and California missions before they had been restored.

-Family homes here in California and also in Tennessee, including our grandfather's family home in a pretty hollow on the western slope of the Appalachian Mountains near Knoxville, TN.

-Lastly and most importantly, any document pertaining to family history and lineage. We had to take care going through the boxes because our grandfather's family has been in America since the 1600s and we didn't want to accidentally throw out anything that might include family history. Our family tree, somewhat disjointed with accounts written in many hands, is early on filled with huntsmen and trappers, but would later boast one but maybe two (needs research) Revolutionary War veterans, plus Civil War veterans, a senator, a fire chief and a judge.We can also claim a distant relation to a US President and a full blooded Cherokee Indian as an ancestor. Both my brother and I were delighted to find we have a smidge of Native American DNA to prove it! Anything that pertained to our family history is now gathered in one place and it will be a future task of mine to study it and try to decipher fact from fiction.  It's been recommended that my boxes be firesafe and I'll have to think about that.

Even though it was mostly tedious everything was going well until the day I opened the box that contained my deceased uncle's belongings. By this time my brother had gone home and had given me liege to do what I felt was best with the rest. I knew this box would be sad. I had four uncles who died young, one in high school, one in college, and two in WWII. As I handled my oldest uncle's photos and read his letters, I could sense the heartache my grandmother would have felt as she packed up her son's belongings for the last time, a freshman at The University of Southern California at the time of his death. No wonder my mother would not go near these boxes, it would have been far too sad for her. Even though my mother was young when her brothers died, she had her memories, and the one I always found so heartbreaking was how she described her mother, crumbling and shattering, almost disappearing after each dreadful loss of a son, all four in the span of a mere decade. Could my grandmother ever imagine that these boxes of sad mementos and tragic stories would eventually come to her granddaughter whom she would never meet? It took me a full week to get through the box because I had to stop often and collect my wits and wipe my eyes. Growing up, I often gazed at my uncles photos resting on grandad's mantel and listened to countless stories of "the boys". Telling and retelling stories were comforting to my grandfather, my two remaining uncles and my mother. So for my uncles who remain perpetually young in my mind, I gave each a manilla envelope. Inside are their personal letters, awards, silly poems, photographs of capers at the malt shop, and newspaper clippings of fancy country dances and happy days. Their stories are preserved and neatly organized and I feel that by doing this I honored my grandmother and my darling grandad, and that was important to me.

As I wrapped up my project, I realized that I accidentally captured the stories of our lives; those of my husband and me and our shared lives together, my mother's and father's stories, and the stories belonging to those I never knew. My family history became alive and meaningful to me. These boxes hold treasures that are accessible to anyone who is interested. That may only be me, and that is fine, whatever happens to them after I die is none of my business. This I did for me.

As a side note, my brother owns NO PHOTOS. Over the years he has scanned everything he wants and stores it in the cloud. This visit, when he found something he wanted, he set it aside and scanned it later that night and, wham-bam, just like that he was done with it. 

Lastly, I apologize for making such a long post. I couldn't find a way to shorten it. If you've read this far, perhaps it's because you have a similar overflowing photo situation at your house. I hope my story encourages you to get to it. You can do it! I'd love to hear your declutter and organizing stories!

Shopping Links

I purchased these Target Paperboard Storage Boxes, set of 2

 But I LOVE these products from Amazon:

3 Pack Document Storage Boxes

15"x13" Linen Storage Box

I also found these from Joanne's.

12"x12" storage box from Park Lane

12"x12" three drawer photo box from Simple Life

Now for something entirely off topic, I'm leaving you with some pretty photos of flower arrangements I like to keep next to my sink.

shortbread with cosmos and dahlias

a large summer squash leaf, dill, dahlias, zinnias and pink cosmos

close up of foxglove and dahlia

shasta daisy, foxglove, dahlia, hydrangea, white cosmos and dill

yellow nasturtiums, shasta daisy, hydrangea, oregano, white cosmos and a tiny yellow lily

roses, shasta daisies, zinnias and a foxglove


roses, shasta daisy, hydrangea and an unknown green filler

roses, oregano and an unknown green that hangs over our fence.

roses and olive branches

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  1. You are amazing! I would be forever putting that task aside and then our children and grandchildren would be so angry with us. You are the only person I know that has all of that memorabilia and would take the time to organize it. Congratulations.
    The flower arrangements in your kitchen are lovely.

    1. Thank you Carole. Putting the task aside is something I did for years so I know what you're talking about! But honestly, I think you and Bill would have some fun doing it. xo

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. I am still going down this road. I have the boxes, letters (civil war) and tons of photos. I'm working on a family wall which is almost done. I still need to do a lot more in this area. Your timer trick is a great idea!

    1. Wow, Civil War letters! Those are a treasure! The first weeks I was going through the stuff I was feeling a little annoyed I have to admit, but as I went on my attitude changed and I started to feel it was an honor to go through the things other people valued enough to save. Overwhelmed perhaps, but honored still, and now it's over I'm so glad I got on with it and just did it! Good luck with your project.

  3. Love it!
    Thank you for sharing 🤗

  4. What a lovely post and tribute to your family. I was fascinated.

  5. Thanks for this one, Kristin. But, I must say, just reading about your excellent project makes me anxious about my huge stash of photos and other things. I'll reread your post when I'm feeling a bit calmer. (LOL)

  6. Thank you for the inspiration. I am facing the same challenge right now, cleaning out my parents’ house, and our house at the same time in preparation for downsizing, and am dreading facing the many albums and boxes. At least now I have some guidelines, and proof that it CAN be done!! Thank you!!!

    1. Oh my gosh, good luck! I'm glad I had the luxury of time and I hope you will too. That you are preparing for a downsize sounds like you have a bit of time. I know we are going to downsize in about 5ish years, that's why I've been doing all this prep in advance.

  7. We are doing same, Kristin, and often get sidetracked by unraveling photographic mysteries. Love the flowers and the vases. Dhalias are among my favorites. (I tend to like the big showy ones the best.). Chloe

    1. I love the "unraveling photographic mysteries". Haha, so true! I sure hope that one rainy day I'll want to start some research, but I have a feeling I'l rather be knitting. As for dahlias, I think I'm going to have some of the bigger ones pretty soon, but this year I'm loving the airy beauty of the cosmos.

  8. This was so touching. Thank you for sharing. We are dreading going through a large suitcase full of family photographs, and I'm certain we won't know who most of the people are. But if like you say, no one before me was "up to the task" of going through them, then that must mean they left it to me to do it my way. That does take a certain amount of courage, which you have given to me! Thank you.
    Best wishes, Janie


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