Janet Foster can’t turn her back on the past.
Ardently interested in both antiques and genealogy, the 52-year-old Jersey Village resident spends her free time combing through Houston-area estate sales. In strangers’ homes—and dusty boxes filled with once-loved, but abandoned treasures—Foster has found her purpose: to unite orphaned, “homeless” items with their owners. Appropriately, she calls herself the Houston Homeless-Heirloom Lady on Facebook.
For the past five years, Foster has been rescuing faded photos, tattered letters, crumbling family Bibles and baby books that could have been lost forever. Using Facebook and Ancestry.com, she posts photos and tags surnames in hopes of returning mementos to families.
“It’s an obsession,” she laughs. “It’s insanity that I blame largely on my college history professor, who turned me on to genealogy. It’s addicting. If you love history, genealogy can swallow you whole.”
The thought of irreplaceable family photos ending up in a landfill upsets Foster. “This is just my neurotic inability to let things go. I can’t leave those things at an estate sale,” she says. “There has to be someone alive in the family who would love to have those heirlooms.”
Nevertheless, she’s not surprised keepsakes end up for sale. “When you lose a family member, there is just so much going on,” Foster says. “Preparing for an estate sale can be such an ordeal. Sometimes things just get lost in the shuffle.”
That’s exactly what happened to a set of Bibles Foster came across a few years ago. They had belonged to four generations of a family called the Boyds. Foster tracked down Jan Boyd Stephens in San Diego after posting photos of the Bibles to her Facebook page.
“It’s funny just how emotional you can get seeing the handwriting of someone you lost,” says Stephens. “Those Bibles had hand-written inscriptions and notes from my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, grandmother, a great-uncle, an aunt and uncle. There was a grocery list tucked into my great-uncle’s Bible, and I swear I could hear his voice just by looking at his handwriting.”
The family has shared the Bibles with the next generation. “My great-grandmother owned a boarding house in El Paso. Since we recovered these heirlooms, my mother has been sharing stories about her childhood there,” says Stephens. “I think it’s fabulous that Janet takes the time to do the research, and give these items back to families like mine.”
Foster also used Facebook to track down the original owners of a set of old baby books. “The grandson of the baby in the book pinged me back in the middle of the night from an offshore rig near Trinidad,” she recalls. “He was so excited that I had found something belonging to his father and uncle.”
Having achieved a few successes like these, Foster says she’s just getting started, although, she admits, there are challenges. “Some of the items are so fragile they need a climate-controlled space,” she says. “I’m rapidly running out of space. My spare bedroom is stacked with boxes and containers holding other people’s memories. I need to go through it, scan the pictures and catalogue everything.”
While other organizations offer more sophisticated services with subscription-based websites, Foster herself doesn’t charge. “I work part time and take care of my dad, but I hit an estate sale when I get a chance,” she says. “I don’t ask for anything. I just want these things to find their way home.”
When she’s able to return an item to its owner, Foster does what she calls a “little happy dance.” “Everyone I have sought out has been so grateful,” she says. “I know it means as much to them as it does to me.”
Connect with Foster and browse her collections of photos at Houston Homeless Heirloom Lady's Facebook page.