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Posted on Wed, Mar 28, 2012 : 6 a.m.

Sorting client's memorabilia is reminder that it's people who matter

By Judy DiForte


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Fess up, now. Where do you keep all your important family photos and letters? In neatly designed scrapbooks and photo albums? Or are they in more modest trappings... say, maybe like shoe boxes?

Don’t worry, I won’t wag my finger. Most of my memorabilia sits in plastic bins awaiting the day I’m inspired and energetic enough to sort and arrange it all in a manner befitting its importance.

I know. Professional organizer not so organized. Ironic? Yes. But shameful? Well, kinda...

JoAnn, another Betty at The Betty Brigade, and I work one day a week with a charming elderly gentleman, helping him organize his extensive memorabilia, so he can enjoy it in albums, scrapbooks and on DVDs, and ultimately, so his children and granchildren will one day have meaningful keepsakes of their family history.

Wednesdays at 1:30, we ring the bell and our client opens the door in jeans, flannel shirt and suspenders. His tiny white dog by his feet, he invites us, not just into his home, but into his life.

As we sort through the hundreds of slides, photos, letters and clippings, we meet our client’s relatives, colleagues and friends. Each photo, every carefully written journal entry, tells a story, and our client fills in the details.

We marvel at deguerrotypes from the 1800s. We reverently open and read the dancecards his mother saved from college “doings” a century ago. He shares with us his wedding, the births of his children, the houses they lived in, the trips they took, the many moves they made as our client’s prodigious career took them from one great University to another.

As we sort through these mementos, our client describes the special people in his life —secretaries, students, friends, children, patients, even a waitress at Belle's Diner. One letter brought a rare sadness to his face, and he spoke of a colleague who presented him with a poorly written manuscript for our client’s comments. It was a letter he had agonized over. An old photo of a dog brings the smile back. It’s Albert, a beloved bassett hound.

The professional awards are endless. "I don’t know what to do with them," he says, shaking his head, still astonished that ever received them in the first place. The biggest award comes this year — a lifetime achievement award from an illustrious professional group. But the award he’s proudest of in his long career is a "Boss of the Year" certificate presented to him two decades ago.

The scores of clippings about him and articles he penned, he saves out of duty for his children. But the ones he most wants to keep and re-read are the letters of recommendation and referral he has written for others.

Have you ever spent an afternoon looking through family photos that aren’t organized? It gives you a time-tripping kind of feeling. There’s our client as a newborn baby. There he’s in high school. Now he’s 5, playing in the snow. Now he’s at his retirement party. And here he sits at the dining table with us, smiling over memories.

It’s like Kurt Vonnegut’s character, Billy Pilgrim, becoming “unstuck in time,” one moment giving a speech as an old man, the next moment in Dresden Germany during the war.

If you do this long enough and often enough, it offers you a persepctive that life is a collection of moments. That one happened after another becomes irrelevant.

It’s a reminder that time is short and that the people we love are what matter. For JoAnn and me, browsing through this man’s history is a gift, because we have come to know him so well and to care about the people he loves — people we will never know.

Our client says we have helped him, and I’m glad. But he has done so much more for us. These Wednesday afternoons with him in his home, his little dog always by his side, have been among the most rewarding in my time at The Betty Brigade.

Judy DiForte is a professional organizer for the Betty Brigade, an Ann Arbor-based concierge company specializing in move coordination, organizing and event planning. Email her at, or leave a comment here.


Nancy Battye

Thu, Mar 29, 2012 : 6:10 p.m.

Interesting that I'm reading this today ~ I was just having the conversation with a loved one about what I would want to do with all of my personal journals over the years in the event that I pass before he does. I have stacks and stacks of journals kept in special boxes and baskets that I never go back and read and yet they mean so much to me. Other than himself and one close girlfriend there is no one else in my life I would trust enough to read them. My idea was to ask him if I don't accomplish it in this life time to hire a writer he trusts to read them all and write a book for my children and the world to learn from my life experience and to be inspired to greater things in their own life. It would be my message of love, my message of my own journey of self discovery into the person I've constantly grown and expanded into.

Judy DiForte

Thu, Mar 29, 2012 : 9:55 p.m.

That sounds like an amazing project. Have you considered sharing this project with your children now? This would allow you the enjoyment of discussing with them all of the places, people and events you describe in your journals. Also, you are here now to answer any of their questions. My mother didn't keep journals, but if she had, I would have loved to read through them with her, rather than waiting until after her death.


Wed, Mar 28, 2012 : 7:50 a.m.

Question: What is the best thing to do with boxes of photos and family records when you're the last living family member? Who should all this history be passed on to as it is history, and contains many interesting connections?

Judy DiForte

Thu, Mar 29, 2012 : 9:47 p.m.

Kathryn, That's a really good question, and I think Misti has a good recommendation. You might also consider a genealogical society. I can't help but ask, is it possible you have any living relatives in other countries? Distant cousins, maybe? A search for them might lead to some more interesting connections!


Wed, Mar 28, 2012 : 3:08 p.m.

Kathryn, you might start with the community historical society nearest to where your family records originated.