The yard sale that Annette Wasno attended in her Beltsville neighborhood in September was like most yard sales. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Some collectible plates, some Christmas lights, some tools and computer parts, some clothes.
Then Annette's eyes fell on a slim, red Leatherette book, its border picked out in gold.
"I realized it was something personal in nature," she said.
The frontispiece read: "In Memoriam." It was the funeral book for a man named Clair Eugene Gaylord, who was born, according to the information typed on the next page, on April 26, 1901, in North Collins, N.Y., and who died Dec. 3, 1974, in Tucson.
The book included the name of the woman who played the organ at Hamburg (N.Y.) Presbyterian Church (Mrs. Jean Tisa) and descriptions of the various floral offerings (white mums, poms, red carnations). At the back were signatures of the mourners who attended.
But that wasn't all. Carefully folded up inside the book were two copies of Clair Gaylord's death certificate. (He died when his vehicle "plunged into a canyon.") There was a letter written in 1920 from an employee of the New York Telephone Co. recommending Clair be admitted to Ohio State University. There were photos of some event at Western Electric Co.'s Tonawanda Plant in New York, a customs declaration form for Joel Gaylord (a son) and a newspaper clipping about Diane Gaylord Ogasawara (a daughter).
There was more besides: letters and legal papers. The man running the yard sale wasn't sure how he'd ended up with the familial time capsule. He told Annette he got stuff from all over. Though this intimate snapshot was of total strangers, Annette added it to the pile of tchotchkes she bought for about 10 bucks.
"I would like for this to get back to someone in the family," she told me this week as we sat in her kitchen, the Gaylord legacy spread out on the table before us. "I'm assuming someone in the family would want this."
Annette assumes this because it's the sort of thing she would appreciate stumbling over. About five years ago, she started getting into genealogy. Using the skills she'd honed researching her family, Annette started digging into this one.
She checked online phone directories. Nothing. She Googled the family names and found only a couple of references. She searched real estate transactions and got a few more hits. She accessed online genealogy resources that include census records and ferreted out some additional clues.
All the while, the Gaylord family was growing in Annette's imagination. "When you see all these things, you can start to piece together a story of a life," she said.
And what story does this tell?
That Clair might have had a complicated childhood. (He was living with his parents in one census report, living with an aunt and uncle in the next.)
That education was important to the family. (Besides Clair's recommendation letter to Ohio State, there are two letters informing daughter Diane that she would receive scholarships to Elmira College.)
That, as in many families, secrets were kept. (A 1957 letter from an aunt tells Clair to withdraw $350 from her checking account but not to tell his brother Dudley. The envelope is marked, "Important Keep This." Someone did.)
That Diane was probably the most responsible member of the family. (A lawyer, she was entrusted with handling her late father's estate. And in a 1974 clipping from the Buffalo Courier-Express, she is described as an advocate for the poor and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. "Mrs. Ogasawara," the article noted, "feels that women should have the option of both family and career and in this area, she speaks as a mother as well as a career woman." A mother. Does her now-grown child want this?)
Annette knows that Diane lived on C Street SE in the late '70s and owned a house in the Wheaton-Silver Spring area until last year. After that, the trail goes cold. Annette admits that even if there were still family members in the Washington area, they might not want the book and its contents.
"And I keep thinking, too, what if it were me?" Annette asked. "What if I were Diane and there's this person out there who keeps plugging my name into a search engine? I'd get a little creeped out."
It made me think of all the things sitting in my attic: report cards, art projects, ticket stubs, class photos, letters to Santa, letters from camp, science fair ribbons. Will my children's children care? When you and I are dead and buried, can our lives be reconstructed from a baby tooth and a high school yearbook, a love letter and a tax return?
Annette has the same thoughts: "A hundred years from now, someone might find it interesting. Or people might think it's trash. It depends on who finds it."
As our conversation wound down, Annette had another question: "The other thing I think about, too, is how many of these letters would have been saved if they had been sent by e-mail?"
That's what we'll explore in tomorrow's column.
My e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. My address: The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.