The way I figure it, there were two main reasons I hadn't purged all the boxes and miscellaneous piles of our son's early school records, including notebooks, reports, sports ribbons, stacks of drawings, written accolades and a few official reprimands.

No. 1: I like to think I was too busy helping raise the children to sort through the detritus of the process in a timely fashion.

No. 2: Both our children were clearly so artistic that who knew how valuable their early works would later become. Then too, this firsthand evidence of growing hand-eye coordination and developing thought processes fascinated the art teacher in me. Art teachers revere this kind of stuff, though most don't have to save every morsel of evidence.

But at least I'd made one smart move - for the most part, our son's stuff was not co-mingled with our daughter's, so this was only one child's archive. And, lucky me, our girl child actually took an interest in going through her own stuff, after which she carried off a modest amount and tossed or recycled the rest. I'll never forget the statement that came out of her 20-something mouth when, during a visit home, she was going through her remaining stacks and sacks of notebooks, journals, letters, magazines, etc. She commented, "This is really fun to read and look at again, but I don't need to keep it all." Whoa! What a concept.

The stuff our son left behind had dropped completely off his radar, likely never to return. But, lucky me again, he and his sweetie came to spend a week with us for the recent holidays. For my Christmas present from him, I'd requested an afternoon of his time so we could go through his stuff together. I knew his attention span for this project would be limited, so I'd planned ahead, gathered up all I could find and then separated it into 4- or 5-inch high "10-minute piles." These I placed down the center of our ping pong table and asked him to sit at one end. One stack at a time, I moved along the conveyer belt toward him. Not too fast and not too slow. This was brilliant.

He'd take one pile, more or less whip through it, and then slide it over to me. The idea was he'd separate out anything he wanted to save, and then I got to double-check and make sure he hadn't missed anything precious to me, before I slid everything else into the recycling bin. The best parts came when he occasionally found something hilarious to him, which invariably touched off major hooting and cackling from both of us. We made steady progress, as the number of piles moving his way diminished, and he actually lasted through about 80 percent of it before he needed a break. That was OK, though; it was taking me a bit longer to keep up. Some of that was because, religious recycler that I am, I felt compelled to tear out all the pages of discarded spiral notebooks so the metal or plastic springs didn't foul up the recycling, and also (frugal me) to save whatever blank pages might be left in them.

Later the same day, I was still a little behind, but I managed to sweet talk my son into finishing the now far less daunting challenge. He accomplished his part, and even though at the end of the day I still had a sizeable stack in front of me, I got through it all the next afternoon. I figure it took my son about 2-3 hours total, and me, probably 5-7 hours, the difference being my time setting up and the mop-up afterward.

Sometimes it pays to procrastinate. If it hadn't taken so long to get to this, I wouldn't have gained some wonderful insights. For example, our son always used black and white media, pencil usually; not color like his sister and most children. Yes, he went through a superhero and weapons phase, but his drawing subjects continued to become more dimensional and mechanical, map-like, layered, with more and more complex designs and diagrams. Now guess what? He's an engineer. It's fun to witness in condensed time the blooming of an offspring's talent.

The biggest treasure I found was one he'd completely passed over. It was a spiral notebook he and Ms. Samuels from McDonald Elementary had passed back and forth over the course of a year. He must have had a weekly assignment to write something at home and turn it in to her. Somehow, each week, she found the time to write a short, personal letter back to him, noting his progress in school, asking him questions and keeping up with him about his pets, trips, vacations and adventures. His writing in this sweet journal perfectly captured his personality and budding sense of humor, along with his social development over a complete year in his young life. And I'd never even known it existed.

I placed the journal along with the other chosen keepers in one flat, medium-sized box after labeling it "Attention Solomon! Read this to your own 2nd or 3rd grader someday."


Jeanne Leffingwell is attempting to sort and streamline more than three generations of family photos and archives.

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