You Can’t Take It With You

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 grandchildit 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 menuscrayons 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.

Mom and Dad’s Cardinal phonograph, circa 1920.

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 documentationinsurance records, building receiptsrelated 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.

Stock certificate from 1935 for 250 shares of stock in Lakeland Gold Limited, owned by my great-grandmother, Anna (née Meier) Boehringer.

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:

Small change purse containing pocket watches and rings belonging to my great-grandfather, John Boehringer. I checked with my Aunt Carol, who’s pretty sure that the rings are costume jewelry, since Nana Boehringer’s real engagement and wedding bands were stolen in a burglary in the 1950s.
Undated photograph of my great-grandmother, Veronica (née Grzesiak) Zazycki and her daughter, Antonette (née Zazycki) Topolski.
I’m pretty sure this is a photo of my grandmother’s brother, Roman Zazycki (1902-1926). Uncle Roman was the twin brother of Uncle Bolesław (“Ben”) Zazycki, but he died young, after injuring his leg in a factory accident and subsequently developing tuberculosis in the bone of that same leg. I’d never seen a photo of him before, but from this photo, I’d say that he and Uncle Ben were identical twins, rather than fraternal!
Undated photo (circa 1950s) of my mother, her cousin Fred Zazycki, and Uncle J (the “horse”).
Oldest known photo of my great-great-grandmother, Mary Elizabeth (née Wagner) Roberts, circa 1880s. This photo wasn’t in my parents’ things, but was given to me by my Aunt Carol while we were in town. This version was downloaded from MyHeritage after being uploaded there for enhancement and cleanup.

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

23 thoughts on “You Can’t Take It With You

  1. Hi Julie, I can’t help but write how your narrative of such a challenging task has showered me with memories, of my youth/later life with Elaine/Harry, family gatherings, illness and death, life and joy, the peculiar and perplexing experiences of the human condition. One such example: the picture of Roman (who not only looks like Uncle Ben, but also a mirrored image of Ben’s son Donald). Roman died while being an inpatient in the Niagara County TB Sanitorium in Lockport. Years later your Grandfather, John, also was a patient in the same hospital, but was successfully treated and returned home to your grandmother and mother. Many years later, a third generation, yours truly, an 18-year-old, after completing my freshman year at Canisius College, spent 6 months in that same hospital, after lung surgery due to TB infection.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, memories and feelings in such a loving way.

    Sincerely with much love, Uncle Fred

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Uncle Fred, thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing your memories. I had no idea that you had TB as a young man! As I start scanning these photos and documents, I hope to upload them to Google Drive or Dropbox, to a shareable folder with a private link where extended family members like you can access them, once I give you the link. That way, the entire extended family can enjoy these photos, rather than having them sit in a box gathering dust. You’ve been on my mind quite a bit in these past few weeks, and I hope you’re well! Much love to you, always.

      Like

  2. Wonderful!! There’s so much in every line you wrote about your experience that others can relate to when trying to figure out what to keep and what goes in the final cleaning out of a home of parents. Like you say, a treasure trove of items they used, saved, that were important. I had ‘fun’ trying to save precious things (letters, small ‘stuff’ tucked in fancy boxes from chocolates) while boxes and everything else was flying in my parents basement. One can learn so much when you take the time to look through each piece. Thank you for highlighting the precious stuff. Now on to make sense of them and share their story.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a truly lovely remembrance. Maria, you took such care to not only sift through the precious artifacts, but tell us about your process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. An emotion-filled task that many of us have or will have to go through at some point. Thank you for writing about it in a sensitive and touching manner. In my own mother’s case, I was left with suitcases full of patterns. She was an expert seamstress and saved every pattern she ever purchased from the late 1930s to the Halloween costumes she made for my kids, filed away in old suitcases stored in the attic. Ever practical, when they downsized from their house to a two-bedroom apartment, she made use of many of the oldest ones, by using the tissue paper as packing material for the move!. Sill, there were a probably close to 100 left when I did the final task. For some I found a home, but many found their way into recycling. Fashions (literally) change and home-made clothing is probably a thing of the past.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I can relate to your discovery of the sewing patterns! My grandmother was a seamstress, like her mother, and she sewed a lot of my clothes and pajamas when I was growing up. I found quite a few boxes of her sewing patterns, along with the sewing machine, which my mother was really hoping I would keep. (Sorry, Mom!) Besides the sewing stuff, my mother used to crochet and do needlework, so there were plenty of boxes of crochet patterns and yarn, which she hoped would go my niece in England. Unfortunately, the pandemic didn’t help our situation in terms of family being able to come and collect things in a timely manner. I brought back some of the boxes of needlework kits when I moved Mom into assisted living, and I have an unfinished cross stitch picture that she was still working on the week that she died. Maybe one day I’ll get around to finishing it for her. Thanks for sharing your experiences with this same process. I love your Mom’s creativity in using suitcases to store things, and using sewing patterns as packing material!

      Like

  5. Forgot to add: I love the expression on your GGGm’s face! It shows some personality compared to most of the photos we see from that era, when most people don’t crack a smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love reading your emails Julie, unfortunately my mom died when I was 12 and my dad remarried then died 6 years later and his second wife beat out Cinderella’s stepmother in the wicked classification. She kept anything with meaning ( dad was political and had received a Christmas card hand signed by “Jack and Jackie”) and tossed anything else. That is probably what inspired me to be somewhat of a pack rat. During quarantine I started going through our basement. I made boxes for my 4 kids with photos, school papers (some from preK 40years old), report cards etc and gave to them, figuring they could toss what they want. We tossed,recycled and donated but still have so much to do, but I thought when our time comes my kids will just rent a dumpster and toss everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry about your step-mother getting rid of so much family history! It’s so hard to know what to keep and what to toss as the years go by. I definitely erred on the side of keeping everything as my kids grew up, and one of my to-do list projects is to go through the boxes of school-days memorabilia in our attic and create one box for each of my four kids, like you did, since currently the stuff is all organized by year, rather than by child.

      My husband was definitely in favor of just renting a dumpster rather than doing all the intensive sorting we did at my parents’ house, but I knew they had too much precious family history in there. So I put him in charge of selling Dad’s truck, getting the garage in order for the estate sale, updating the smoke detectors, fixing the leaky kitchen faucet, disposing of all the hazardous waste in the garage, etc. He had more than enough to do during the week, even though he wasn’t involved in the sorting. Maybe when the time comes, your kids will be able to play to their strengths, and those who are interested in sorting through stuff can do that, while those who lack the patience for that job can help in other ways. Best wishes. 🙂

      Like

  7. Always enjoy reading your posts. Closing down a home is difficult and emotionally loaded. Hope one of your children or other relative eventually takes over your family treasures.

    Chris Bennett

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reminds me of when my mother downsized from the house (of almost 40 years) to an apartment and I got a lot of stuff, then she downsized from the apartment to a much smaller apartment in a continuing care residence and I got even more stuff. I finally sorted through the stuff and organized it into Hollinger boxes. (Decisions about what to keep and what to toss – I did toss the roll of toilet paper from her 1953 trip to Europe as a college student but kept quite a bit of other items from that trip.)
    Next step is to continue working on the database so I know where to find the mementos that I have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to Google “Hollinger boxes,” Elizabeth! I made my first purchase of archival-quality photo storage sleeves this past winter, when I started to scan my first box of old family photos, and I’ll probably have many more purchases like that in my future. The database sounds like a wonderful idea for keeping track of everything!

      Like

  9. Julie,
    Dad (your Uncle Fred) forwarded this to me. What a loving tribute to your family! Growing up, I didn’t know much of the Zazycki family history, only through stories Dad told (and, of course, I remember Uncle Joe!). Dad has been so happy with what you have learned through genealogy about the family and always shares with me.

    I understand being the keeper of memories. My mother died four years ago, and not only am I storing many of her sentimental items, I now have boxes containing articles belonging to her siblings (including my uncle’s wedding ring) and parents (including my grandma’s purse fully intact when she died). And…so many albums containing photos of long-dead ancestors and their friends. Will my kids understand how precious these are?

    The last time I saw your mom, it was at your grandparent’s house. Johnny played the piano. Helen’s kitchen was spotless. Your mother was so lively and laughing. Many years ago, but still there in memory.

    Best, Therese Tillett (Tesa Zazycki)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Therese, thank you for your note. It brought tears to my eyes to read your remembrance of my Mom, laughing and lively. That’s how I llike to remember her, too.
      I think it’s an important role to play, being the keeper of memories for your family. I’ve always been so curious about the most distant generations of ancestors in our family, but now that my Mom is gone, I’m feeling the need to document and preserve her stories, and stories of the people I knew personally. Perhaps together, we can ensure that our children’s generation knows at least a little bit about the Zazycki family that we both love.

      Like

  10. Julie- great blog post. It is a big responsibility when you are the family historian, especially when it comes to what to keep and what to let go of.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is an incredible post! I happened across it by following a link where it said “more on WordPress” at the end of another blog post I was reading. I am currently in the process of clearing out my parents’ house, which is the house they bought when I was 8 years old. (I’m now 62). They were married in 1954 and like your parents, had saved everything. Neatly marked in boxes, just like yours, and stacked and stuffed into every available bit of storage space in the house. I am pretty much the “family historian” so I can relate to you on that part, too. Going through all the things they had saved has been overwhelming but also amazing in its own way. For example, I enjoyed finding the cancelled check for the $50 down payment to the hospital, written in 1958 on the day I was born, and countless other items they had saved. Like you, I have things from my grandparents on both sides of the family as well, because those items had ended up at my parents’ house. Our mom passed away last year, and our dad in 2012. I have been the main one working on the house, partly due to being the only sibling that’s retired. I forwarded your post to my sister who replied that I could have written it myself, our stories are so similar! Thank you for sharing your story. It’s nice to know others can relate to our “situation”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I think it’s a common situation for many of us, for better or for worse. I’m glad my parents erred on the side of saving things, rather than tossing precious family photos and documents into a landfill. Nonetheless, I hope that my gift to my children will be getting it sorted, saving the important documents and photos and pitching some of the stuff that’s interesting, but not really worth saving for the next hundred years. Good luck with your project! It sounds like we really are in the same boat. Maybe give us periodic updates on your progress in your blog. We can motivate each other! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey that’s a good idea. So far I haven’t posted about it because we don’t want to advertise that the house is unoccupied, (it’s in a town about 68 miles from me) although the neighbors take care of the yard and are constantly watchful when I’m not there. But I have been posting about some of the family history I’ve found there. 😀 I definitely agree that we can motivate each other! I feel the same way as you about the sorting and saving what’s important. Also I’ve been trying to scan everything I can so I can make flash drives for my siblings and cousins. What’s funny is I even have canceled checks from 1926 that my grandpa had saved, and now they’re practically historical documents! 😂😂

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.