A blender from the 1960s, a restored 1936 piano. What I learned from clearing out my childhood home

Feb 29, 2024, 7:36 AM

Anne D'Innocenzio shows a portrait of herself, right, with her sister, Donna Burke, left, and mothe...

Anne D'Innocenzio shows a portrait of herself, right, with her sister, Donna Burke, left, and mother, Marie D'Innocenzio, as she sits on a sofa from her childhood home, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in New York. D'Innocenzio said, "After Mom's passing, my sister and I quickly made a plan to honor her wishes: what to keep, which items to give to relatives and friends, which basic items to donate — and what to just discard." (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s been eight months since I closed the door for the last time to my childhood home in suburban New Jersey and said goodbye to more than a half century of memories.

I sometimes still struggle to let it go.

Mom passed away in February 2023 after a brief battle with cancer. My sister and I didn’t want to sell the family house right away, but we soon realized we couldn’t maintain it in the fastidious manner Mom had since she and Dad purchased it back in 1962. But more importantly, without Mom, our home had become just a house.

Losing Mom, my best friend, was hard enough. Dismantling my childhood home only magnified her loss — and made me ponder my own legacy. Mom’s house had been the center of gatherings for relatives and friends who enjoyed her Italian cooking of manicottis, chicken cutlets and baked goods and then convened around her restored 1936 baby grand piano singing showtunes — sometimes off key.

So how do you clear out a childhood home to prep for a sale while honoring Mom’s passion for all things cultural and love of family?

My parents weren’t hoarders, and every year, she made my sister and me clear out more items from the attic. But Mom still had lots of mementos, mostly neatly boxed in the attic. They covered the gamut from her college notebooks to outfits from our childhood. There were several hundred record albums and 80 labeled boxes of carousels filled with 5,000 slides.

Over the years, Mom had repeatedly warned us not to throw things out or just give everything away after she passed. It’s NOT stuff, she would say. She wanted us to treat her home with respect.

After Mom’s passing, my sister and I quickly made a plan to honor her wishes, sorting out which items to keep, which to give to relatives and friends, which to donate — and which to just discard.

In my early stage of grief, everything was a keepsake, including my late father’s thick engineering books and all the scribbled handwritten notes left around the house by Mom. I pored through everything. But I quickly recognized I had to focus on keeping her most beloved belongings, while providing a home for other items that reflected her spirit. I live in an apartment in Manhattan, so I needed to cull.

Mom loved her home. After Dad passed in 2002, she decided to hang on to the house that had become a repository of little treasures she collected over the years, or that were from her own childhood. There was artwork from our time living abroad in Italy and the Netherlands, and our childhood bedroom set — still in pristine condition. There were lots of books. And her kitchen was filled with a mix of fancy cookware and old items that dated back decades: an 80-year-old flour sifter from mom’s mother-in-law’s kitchen, a working blender from the 1960s and an old food scale from the 1940s.

Mom wanted us to have an estate sale for some of the items we didn’t want, but an estate rep came to our house and told us what we already knew — younger generations don’t like “brown furniture,” like wooden china cabinets and old stuff.

So we learned to be creative.

My parents’ dining room set went to our friend’s relatives in the country of Georgia. The new owners of Mom’s house wanted some items. My sister and I took many pieces of furniture and rugs along with kitchenware. We figured we could make room by giving away items from our homes that didn’t mean as much.

We also did some repurposing. My sister took the old wooden sleds and refashioned them as holiday decor. I have plans to convert the wooden high chair where I kept my childhood dolls into a plant stand.

The most challenging and emotional task: figuring out what to do with the piano I played since I was 7. Piano playing was a tradition that Mom passed down from her family.

Some charities were only interested in pianos less than 20 years old. I panicked. It broke my heart to give it up, but I already had a piano I inherited from my uncle.

Then, a stroke of luck. Mom’s piano tuner, who came to the house to appraise it for donation, expressed an interest in buying it and then reselling it to a musician. I think Mom orchestrated that deal from heaven. Still, watching that piano roll out of the house was a gut punch.

It’s now a year after my Mom’s passing, and I successfully unloaded 75 boxes of her items into my apartment. Meanwhile, I got rid of lots of my own stuff that I didn’t care about. I gave away my couch so I could have Mom’s. I swapped some of my art for Mom’s. My sister made a trip from Boston to help me rearrange my apartment to make room for some of Mom’s pieces. And I successfully organized and edited thousands of slides.

My kitchen? It’s now stocked with Mom’s items, including the old blender and sifter — along with my own accessories.

Clearing out Mom’s house helped me fully appreciate her passion for a life full of family, art, books and travel. She taught us the value of buying and taking care of high-quality things — and preserving family history.

As I walk around my apartment, which now features my parents’ belongings with my own, I often become teary-eyed. I don’t have children, so after my passing, will others take the time to meticulously go through my belongings as I did at Mom’s house? Or will they just throw them out?

I try not to think about it. Instead, I play a Broadway tune on my piano and then go to my kitchen to whip up another Italian meal — manicottis — for some friends. I pull out the old blender to make tomato sauce. I’m comforted by the whir of the machine, knowing Mom would be proud.

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A blender from the 1960s, a restored 1936 piano. What I learned from clearing out my childhood home