During my first visit to my father’s house after his death, I reviewed all the papers in his office. There were at least six file drawers, plus a two-shelf cupboard, plus two plastic boxes under a desk—all crammed full of neatly labeled folders, and all the folders were stuffed with papers.
I packed about six inches worth of the most important papers to take with me back to Kansas City—information I thought most critical for estate administration. I moved about three boxes worth of files to my sister’s house, where she could send me things if I needed them.
The rest, I decided, could wait—and I would throw out most of it, I was certain.
A couple of months later I made another visit. The purpose of this trip was to empty the house of anything the family might want, prior to an estate sale.
As part of our project, my siblings and I tackled our father’s garage. Suspended on shelves over the cars were about twenty more boxes—all crammed full. Old tax returns and brokerage statements. Pictures . . . and more pictures. And a large plastic box containing clippings and correspondence and pictures about my dad’s career—his “brag” file, as it turned out.
We should all have brag files. We should all keep mementos that bring to mind what we have accomplished in life, that help us reflect on the value we have created in this world, and that show us in the light we want to be remembered.
After we cleaned out the garage, I took over 100 pounds of paper to OfficeMax to be shredded. But the box of Dad’s work papers I moved to my sister’s house. On my next trip, I went through the box.
As I read what Dad had kept from a career that spanned from 1955 until about 2003, I found my father in ways I hadn’t known him before. I’d known of his activities, even of some of the milestones in his career. But I had not known how others viewed him, nor how he viewed himself. This file revealed some of these things about my father.
My father was a fellow in the American Nuclear Society. For people who work in the nuclear industry, that’s a big deal. I knew he’d received this honor, but seeing all the articles about him at the time brought it home to me. And I saw photos for the first time of my father with nuclear industry colleagues from countries around the world.
I also found pictures of him with his classmates at the Harvard Business School Executive MBA program he attended—something he was very proud of. He’d attained technical knowledge with his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, but he relished acquiring the broader business background as well.
As he approached retirement, my father was a loaned executive from Battelle Pacific-Northwest Laboratories to what is now Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington. He built the science department at Heritage, where most of the students are first-generation college attendees from Native American and Hispanic families in the area. I learned how these students and his faculty felt about him.
None of these accomplishments relate to memories I have of my father, but they are facets of him that I am glad to have found. They enrich my understanding of the man I knew. They teach me that we are all more than even those closest to us can understand or appreciate.
I, too, have kept “brag” files. Many of my documents ended up in boxes I stashed in our basement. My husband decided several years ago he didn’t want this stuff in the house, so he moved them to a storage unit. Over the years, we ended up with about thirty boxes in that storage unit. Old tax returns and brokerage statements. Pictures . . . and more pictures. And several boxes containing files from my career.
The cost of this storage unit increased far faster than inflation. The space suffered water damage a couple years ago. My husband has another enclosed facility now where he keeps his boat; that place has shelving that could hold some extra boxes. And so it became time to deal with the contents of the old storage unit.
A couple of weeks ago, I screwed up my courage to examine what we had. (It took courage because I was sure there’d be spiders amongst the files.) I found that because of the water damage, most of the papers were useless. We took the bulk of the thirty boxes to an industrial shredding facility, where, for $32.50, all our records were securely destroyed. For that price, it was easier to shred everything than determine what was confidential and what was not.
In a matter of hours, a lifetime was gone, including many of my career files, which had been on the bottom of the stacks and suffered the most damage.
A lifetime, gone. And I have been mourning it. Not because this stuff was intrinsically valuable, but because the loss felt like a loss of self. The value was in what I remembered about the creation and receipt of the documents. The value was in the glimpses into myself and others which they revealed. The value was in the tangible proof that I and my work meant something to others.
I brought four of the boxes home. One has some framed pictures, a few of which may be salvageable. One has old computer stuff that couldn’t be shredded, most of which will probably go in the trash or to a local recycling facility. And two boxes contain some old work and personal correspondence, which I will review, hoping to glean a few pieces to retain.
For example, the sole remaining copies of my law review note, as well as copies of U.S. Supreme Court briefs I wrote. And the letter my sister wrote me when she was in middle school, which she signed “R___ the Great”. And other letters from my mother, who left no brag file other than the family she raised.
Yes, I’ll go through these boxes hoping to salvage at least a few reminders of my life.
So keep your brag files. Keep them safe. They probably mean something to you, and maybe they’ll mean something to your loved ones in the future.
What do you wish you had retained that got thrown out?