Yesterday was a bittersweet day for me. We closed the sale of my parents’ home, the home they custom-built in 2004 with an in-law apartment for my Grandma, Helen Zielinski, so she could live with them after Grandpa died. There were a lot of memories in that home, although (mercifully) not so many as there would have been had they lived there all their married lives. Nonetheless, cleaning it out prior to the sale was an enormous task, and one that fell entirely to my husband and me, since my mother passed away last October, my Dad was unable to participate due to his own health concerns, and my only sibling was unable to travel due to the pandemic. Since Mom and Dad’s home was located in Western New York, it was a solid 440 miles away from where I live in Massachusetts, necessitating a dedicated trip and a week of vacation days to go back and deal with the clean-out. Fortunately, my husband still has family in that area as well, so my sisters-in-love, Kristi and Kerri, generously made time to help with the sorting, shredding, donating, unpacking, and repacking that go with the job.
If you’ve ever cleaned out a house before, you know how overwhelming the task can seem. Mom and Dad had a very large basement that was packed with furniture, antiques, holiday decorations, unused home furnishings, and family treasures, all carefully organized in plastic storage bins and cardboard boxes. Mom had all of the boxes neatly labelled regarding their contents, but she and Dad saved everything. Pretty much every greeting card ever received, every report card, college notebook, every drawing made by a grandchild—it was all down in that basement, in rows of boxes stacked along the walls around the perimeter of the basement. It reminded me of that final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. And it wasn’t just Mom and Dad’s stuff. There were things in that basement from my grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as my Mom’s maternal uncle, Joseph “J” Zazycki, whom she cared for in his final years. Grandma and Grandpa Zielinski’s entire bedroom set was there, with bed, mattress and both dressers, along with Grandma’s sewing machine, which I have vivid memories of watching her use when I was a child. There were the paintings that used to hang in their living room, the glider that once stood in front of their garage, the photo album that Grandma made with all the photos from her honeymoon, and the lamps that I remembered from the spare bedroom where my sister and I shared a bed during sleepovers at Grammy and Grandpa’s house. There was the old greeting card box that Grandma repurposed for storing crayons so my sister and I could color pictures when we came to visit. Grandma was from the generation that wasted nothing, so the box included some of the free crayons given out by restaurants so small diners could color their paper menus—crayons that were not discarded after the meal, but carefully and lovingly preserved by Grandma. The smell from that box of crayons immediately took me back to Grandma’s kitchen table circa 1973. Love, care, and memories were packed into every box and every corner.
It wasn’t just the basement that needed going through. Although I’d moved some of their furniture and belongings out of the house when I moved Mom and Dad into an assisted living apartment near me, there were living areas that remained untouched, including Dad’s office. My mother was a first-rate bibliophile, and she had at least a thousand books, many of which were beautifully bound, gilt-edged, hardcover editions of literary classics that were precious to her, still filling the shelves on either side of the fireplace. I wish I could have kept all of it, but where? My own attic and basement are already full from the accumulation of treasures that accompanies years of raising children, and we don’t have as much storage space as my parents did. What does one do with all this stuff? As the old saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I had to get in touch with my inner Marie Kondo and make some hard choices.
Some things ended up being easier to let go of than others, like the school desks. My mother had gone to elementary school at Our Lady of Częstochowa in North Tonawanda, New York, and at some point in the 1970s when the school was modernizing, they sold off the old-fashioned student desks. My parents decided to purchase two pairs of the desks, and Dad painstakingly refinished the wood, painted the metal legs, and mounted them on wood runners, after which my parents displayed them in the family room of our home in Cincinnati when I was growing up. My sister and I used to sit at them and play “school” when we were little, but I can’t see where they’d fit into my home today. Similarly, my Great-Grandpa John Boehringer’s fishing tackle box didn’t even make the “donate” pile, as it was all full of rusted fishing hooks and lures that seemed like a bad case of tetanus waiting to happen.
As a family historian, I hoped to balance the need for getting the job done quickly and efficiently, with the need for careful preservation of the family history. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in that regard, and I may live to regret some of the things that were donated, discarded, or sold at the estate sale. I prioritized saving photographs and any documents with historical value, although I decided to let go some of the newspapers they saved over the years, such as the last issue of Buffalo’s newspaper, the Courier-Express that was printed in 1982. (Probably half the population of Buffalo has a copy in their basement.) I saved the oak porch swing that Dad made that used to hang in front of the rose trellis at their house on Patton Place, but I said goodbye to the old Cardinal phonograph that my parents bought when we lived in Cincinnati.
Our old Fisher-Price toys had to go, as did the cedar chest, but I saved the afghans made by my Mom and by Nana Boehringer, my mother’s journals, and my Dad’s flight log books from when he obtained his commercial pilot’s license in 1971. Many of the documents from my Dad’s youth, such as his old report cards, were charred by the house fire that largely destroyed my paternal grandparents’ home in 1978 while they were vacationing in Florida, and I discovered all the documentation—insurance records, building receipts—related to rebuilding that house after the fire, which had been carefully saved by my grandfather.
As I sifted through the ephemera of half a dozen lifetimes, I was struck not only by what people chose to save, but also by how these things were saved. The heart-shaped wreath of roses that adorned her father’s casket was preserved by my mother with such care that not a petal was lost. All of her school report cards were organized into neat little packets. Uncle J’s wallet, address book, check registers, and vital records were all boxed together with his collection of family photos. My Dad, on the other hand, had a whole pile of letters and postcards from family, stashed in the bottom of his duffel bag from Vietnam, buried underneath his boots and flight suit. His Air Force dress uniform, on the other hand, was hung neatly in a wardrobe box, with all of his medals and ribbons still attached to the coat. My paternal grandfather’s wallet was intact, with all his credit cards, driver’s license, and precisely $37 in cash, exactly as he left it when he passed away in 1996. The money is worth less now than it was then, thanks to inflation, and one wonders why it was never removed. The wallet was tucked safely within a steel lockbox that previously belonged to his father-in-law (Grandpa John Boehringer), which also contained stock certificates from the 1930s from companies which no longer exist, and property tax receipts dating back to the 1950s for my grandparents’ home on Grand Island.
Such careful preservation serves as a silent testimony to each person’s values and circumstances. We come to know and understand our loved ones better through the cherished things they left behind.
Here are a few additional photos of some of my favorite finds:
It’s going to take me quite a while to sort through all the boxes of photos, papers and sentimental artifacts which I brought home from New York. Nothing is promised, but I hope to live long enough to organize the photos and documents in such a way that my kids will have a cohesive family history collection to preserve and pass on, or to dispose of as they see fit. Although family history is my passion, I don’t know if any of my kids will eventually take up the torch, and I know first-hand how material goods can quickly become burdensome if they were precious only to someone else. In the end, our greatest legacy is the love we show to our families, and the memories we make with them. The “stuff” is secondary; yet within those collections, there are stories waiting to be told.
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 2021