I think my mom left behind about eighty thousand pages of these notes, and I can't seem to throw them away.

I think my mom left behind about eighty thousand pages of these notes, and I can’t seem to throw them away. (Author photo)

I just can’t seem to throw these papers away.

Shortly before my mother died last January, one of her last wishes was that I take special care of all her genealogy research. Will do, I promised. No worries.

So a couple of months ago, I began the systematic, weekend-sucking project of entering all that genealogical information into the modern wonder that is ancestry.com. It’s going to take ages, but I’ve made a lot of progress. So much so, in fact, that I can start throwing away many of my mom’s original handwritten notes, the content of which is now digitized, stored, and sharable for the world.

Except . . . that I just can’t do it.

Almost immediately after my mom’s death, I noticed a strange tendency on my part to want to cling to every scrap of paper she’d scribbled on. I am acutely aware that there won’t be any more such scribblings; the canon is closed.

She of all people would be surprised by this development because we often went back and forth about my “unsentimental” (her word) approach to the “clutter” (my word) in her house.

I am the consummate throw-it-out person; my ongoing war on clutter is the stuff of family legend. So it was always stressful to visit her house because the surfaces would be so jumbled with books and post-its and letters and coffee mugs and remotes for nonfunctional televisions and who knows what else (twelve Altoids tins? Seriously, Mom?)—so chaotic, at every turn, that there was no place to sit down to have a measly bowl of cereal.

Mom is having the last laugh now, surely, at my total inability to chuck her notes even when they’ve been made redundant by technology. Printed census records? Sure, out they go. A scannable facsimile of an ancestor’s Union discharge papers? It’s gone.

But Mom’s pages upon pages of tidy script on yellow legal pads are here to stay, at least for now. These notes were her last will and testament about the importance of family, the births and deaths she painstakingly recorded a simple reminder of the warp and woof of life.

Just as these notes tied her to those who came before, so too they bind me to her, and I cannot let go of that connection.

However, the Altoids tins are history.

Categories: Beliefs, Culture


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Jana Riess

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of "The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less . . . Now with 68% More Humor!" and "Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor." She has a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University.


  1. The other day I received a handwritten note from my dad, its been years since I’ve seen his scrawl, between online and cell communication we don’t write to each other much, when they do send a letter it’s in my moms hand. My dad is very much alive a healthy, but the note on paper felt like an artifact. I didn’t want to let go. I still have the note and hopefully many more years with him. I imagine when he’s gone I will grab every note and journal he has written in.

    I totally understand.

  2. aleathia nicholson

    Join the crowd. I no longer care that I’ve long been accused of thinking that if it’s handwritten, there’s something almost sacred about it. Well, it is of a sacred nature due to the impermanency of the digital age attitude of “trash it with one click of the thingamabob.” When I’m gone, “they”…whom-some-ever they turn out to be…can come in and discard and obliterate everything they see….I’ll be dead and gone,,,,like I’ll care anymore. BUT…..until that time, leave me be with all the hand drafts I’m keeping…OK, have it your way…hoarding.

  3. Rachel Marie Stone

    One of my friends told me that she couldn’t erase her daughter’s toy blackboard for years because her mother had written on it, or played tic-tac-toe on it with her granddaughter.

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