When Margaret A. Jendrejzak and her sister, Mary, were cleaning out their father’s home in the months following his death, the folded-up pieces of aluminum foil reminded them of his frugality. The jars of screws of his ability to repair anything. And the teacups of a tradition he followed for many years.
“Every fishing trip my father took to Canada, he brought my mother back a bone china teacup. She treasured them. It’s hard to get rid of something you know someone treasured so much,” Jendrejzak said.
Like so many baby boomers faced with the often-daunting task of clearing the family home, the sisters sorted through every drawer, cabinet, shelf, closet and storage space in the rooms, basement and garage of the Buffalo home where their parents had lived since 1961.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” Jendrejzak said.
Their father, Ted Jendrejzak, a Buffalo fireman for 35 years, died in 2011 – six weeks before his 92nd birthday.
Their mother, Rita, passed in 1999. After their mother’s death, “we left the house really intact for my father. The only thing we took care of when my mom passed away was her clothing and her jewelry,” Jendrejzak said.
At the time of their father’s death, it helped that his finances and important paperwork, including a will, were in order so the estate was easily settled and they could focus on clearing out and preparing the home to sell.
“My father was very organized. He had a file cabinet in his office, and it was probably the contents of maybe one half a drawer – all organized,” said Jendrejzak, a decorator and in-home consultant at Calico in Williamsville.
But that’s not always the case, as many boomers find out. Nor do surviving siblings get along as well as the Jendrejzak sisters did during the clearing-out process. Oftentimes, they don’t even live in town, as the Jendrejzaks do, which complicates things even more.
Michael Starks, who runs Star Estate Liquidators & Appraisers as well as Star Senior Relocation Services, has seen it all.
He offers the example of two siblings who are coexecutors – but not on the same page. “One just wants to get on with it, and the other one is emotionally involved with every single thing in every single drawer – and the house itself. They don’t want to sell anything or give anything up. I’ve gone into houses that have been there for two or three years after the parents have died … the longer they let it go, the harder it gets,” Starks said.
While this story offers ideas and resources for dealing with what might be a lifetime accumulation of “stuff,” experts stress the importance of drafting a will and getting financial, medical and legal information all in one place – as Ted Jendrejzak did – and discussing it with loved ones while you’re still able.
“So if something happens to you, somebody knows what you have, where it is, why you have it and what needs to be done with it,” said Marcy Katzman Lenard, a daily money manager and geriatric care manager who runs a local business called Super Daughter Services (www.superdaughtersservices.com).
Thankfully, that is what her father did as well.
“My father died last year and he was an extremely well-organized, extremely forward-thinking guy who planned for everything. My family was in the insurance business for 50 years, and my father had these very sophisticated insurance plans that he didn’t even understand himself when it came to the end,” Lenard recalled.
“It’s a good thing he brought me in early because at least I understood it, and I took it over. But many family members start looking through things, and they find stock certificates and insurance policies from 1940. People keep things they don’t need, first of all, and they lose things. If you don’t start to consolidate your stuff and create a plan for simplification, you’re leaving a mess,” Lenard said.
“Plus, as you get older, you can’t process as much information. If you keep your things complicated, there’s a greater chance that you’re going to lose your independence early because you start falling behind on your bills, things start to pile up. If it’s simpler, you can be responsible for it longer,” she added.
“I think it’s a good idea for people to be proactive because, number 1, it’s inevitable. None of us will be here forever,” said Linda A. Birkinbine, a certified professional organizer who owns Keep It Organized, LLC (www.keepitorganized.com).
It’s better for the person to be able to decide how their property will be divided up and disposed of – and to do so smartly and legally before a health crisis or something else comes up.
“Then it’s more of a pressing matter. You may not have time to research all the options,” Birkinbine said.
Planning ahead will make the paring down or clearing out somewhat easier when the time comes. And while the dealing-with-stuff task may still seem monumental, there are different ways to do it and many resources to help – whether you’re an empty nester preparing to downsize, a baby boomer clearing out a residence after the death of a parent or a homeowner just wishing to simplify.
The Jendrejzaks’ story
When the time came to clean out their childhood home, Margaret Jendrejzak and her sister knew many of their parents’ belongings had to go.
“We both had our own houses. My parents didn’t have antiques. They just had regular older people things, but they loved their things. My parents worked hard, but you can’t absorb everything into your house even though there might be things that have some sentimental value. But you don’t want to just put everything to the curb, either,” Jendrejzak said.
After selecting the items they wanted – some furniture, their mother’s teacups, their father’s fireman’s helmet – the sisters started planning for a garage/house sale for the remaining items.
“My sister is very pragmatic; I’m very emotional. We kept going through the house and putting things in boxes marked 'garage sale.’ This was never ending. We went every weekend, and she would go during the week a lot. Finally, one day out of the clear blue, my sister asked me, 'Is $400 going to change your life?’ ”
Margaret Jendrejzak answered no, unsure of what her sister was asking. “Then she said to me, ‘That’s probably what we’re going to get from a garage sale,’ ” Jendrejzak recalled.
They realized something else: Their father would not have liked strangers going through his house.
“He was a very private man, a humble man. He would not have liked it,” Jendrejzak said.
That’s when Plan B kicked in. “We talked to our friends who had kids who were starting out. We said, ‘Come over and fleece the entire house. Take what you want – no holds barred.’ We had already taken what we wanted. The kids did a good job. They took furniture that we did not want. They took kitchen things; a Pyrex measuring cup is a Pyrex measuring cup. It really worked out nicely,” she said.
The next step was to call charities to see if they could take various items. While many attempts were successful – Buffalo City Mission gratefully accepted their father’s clothing – others were not. Most declined encyclopedias. One told them that their mother’s sewing fabrics and threads would be sent overseas, not distributed locally. Another was a no-show three times.
“The biggest drawback is that so many places that we called will only take things from the first floor. I kept thinking how hard that would be for older people downsizing. If they don’t have family to help them, they’re in a pickle,” Jendrejzak said.
(Tip: In addition to making phone calls, those wanting to donate goods can first check the websites of the various charities for guidelines and lists of items an organization can – or can’t – accept.)
This was not the first time Jendrejzak emptied a house. She also stepped in to clear out the home of an aunt and uncle and that of a never-married friend of her mother’s – a woman who had lived in the same house for 78 of her 79 years. Among the items she found at her aunt’s house: A bag of coffee measuring scoops that came inside the cans of coffee she bought – not so surprising for people who lived through the Depression.
“I’ve heard stories from friends who tell me when they emptied their parents’ house, they found every Cool Whip container they ever had and boxes of buttons. Now you have people who don’t even know how to sew on a button,” she said.
• If your parents have a piece of furniture with good bones, consider upholstering it in a fresh new fabric.
• Consider repainting case goods in a new color to better suit your decor and tastes.
• Finally, “if you don’t have to clear your parents’ home right away, when you’re still getting over the shock or the sadness of their passing, put it off at least a couple of weeks. It’s just too hard to immediately go and do it. You pick up things and spend too much time crying, if you’re that kind of person,” Jendrejzak said.
The Ruslanders’ story
Harold and Lois Ruslander recently did what other people in their 70s may only dream about – or possibly dread. They downsized to smaller digs. After 22 years in a 3,000-square-foot ranch in Williamsville, its contents overflowing, the process was time-consuming and required a team of professionals and services to clear it out and sell it.
Yes, there was a lot of stuff.
“I can see why people reach a point where they say, ‘It’s monumental,’” said Lois Ruslander, who has one grown son who lives out of state.
The Ruslanders called in Linda A. Birkinbine to help with all the sorting, shredding, tossing, donating and recycling that had to be done. In addition, Strobel’s Antiques organized an estate sale.
Harold L. Ruslander, a father of three grown children, is a longtime collector – he even had some of his father’s collectibles – and Birkinbine helped the couple pass along items to proper new homes. It took some creative thinking and reaching out, but they ended with some clever solutions.
A collection of college banners went to a local bar and restaurant. Quarterly issues of his college fraternity magazine went to the fraternity’s national headquarters. Other items went to the local Naval Park Museum, including his uniform, and the Buffalo Historical Society.
Old catalogs or other memorabilia went to the places they originally came from – the Waldorf Astoria in New York and Camp Androscoggin in Maine, his boyhood summer camp. His Boy Scout uniform and badges were handed over to council historian Paul K. Freitag for the Greater Niagara Frontier Council Boy Scout Museum and are now on display in the scout office in Cheektowaga. Many items were donated to the Goodwill. Even household collections such as glassware were downsized.
“It’s freeing to get rid of stuff and to keep only the things that for whatever reason have meaning to you. It’s nice to have only the things you really use – one set of dishes, only so many wine glasses,” Lois Ruslander said.
“If you are not using something, it’s just taking up space,” she said.
Birkinbine shared the names of other helpful services offered by such businesses as Shred-it (to shred personal papers, etc.; visit www.shredit.com/en-us/buffalo-en for pricing information, or call 626-1209); Hazman, a household hazardous waste management company and drop-off center in Tonawanda (for proper disposal of paints, pesticides, appliances and more, that are then recycled, reused or put through a waste-to-energy process; see www.hzamanusa.com for pricing per pound or unit; or call 998-8073) and 1-800-Got-Junk (www.1800gotjunk.com).
The Ruslanders, who now live in a three-bedroom newly constructed apartment, are glad most of the downsizing is done. Family photographs and some other items they couldn’t get to before their move are now stored in a storage unit.
Having been faced with the task of clearing out her mother’s home following her move to a nursing home, Lois Ruslander knows how difficult it can be.
“When you are dealing with a parent’s life transition but also being faced with having to clear out their things, it’s a double whammy. It’s very painful,” she said.
Even her husband, the collector, is content with the outcome.
“I’m very happy,” he said.