All That You Can’t Leave Behind

My parents did something over Labor Day weekend that they haven’t done in more than 40 years.

They stayed home.

Because they didn’t have anywhere to go.

You see, for just about as long as I can remember, most of our holidays and vacations were spent in Standish, Michigan, at my aunt’s lakefront house, that eventually became my mom and dad’s after my aunt passed away in 1991.  But the care and maintenance – and the expense – became too much for my parents to handle so they put it on the market.  There was little interest until mid-June when the real estate agent called to say she had a buyer.

I stood in my parents’ kitchen, dumbfounded, as they told me the news.  They had tried to sell the place for the better part of the last 10 years – it had been on and off the market all that time and there were never any serious inquiries, aside from the one person who wanted to rent it and not buy.  My folks said no to that deal.  But suddenly there was a buyer – the price was agreed upon and in a few weeks’ time it would no longer be ours.  And a chapter in my life would close.

The house in Standish, which no longer belongs to family.

The house in Standish, which no longer belongs to family.

In the late 1960’s, my aunts Frances, Bertha and Virginia, along with my uncles Steve and Frank – all of my mom’s siblings, with the exception of my Uncle Eddie, who visited several times – bought property on Beachwood Drive on Saginaw Bay.  They built cottages.  They planted gardens.  They bought boats.  I remember the first time my parents took my sister and me there – we stayed in my Aunt Frances’ cottage, which was not finished.  There was only particle board on the floor and it was not yet hooked up for electricity or water.  We sat around in the evening by candlelight.  My parents were worried that us kids would be afraid, but we thought it was cool!  We were a little disappointed when the cottage had electricity the next time we visited.

Standish eventually became the default destination for family weekends and vacations.  In the summer months, every weekend was spent there – my dad would come home from work on Friday, we’d pile into the car and make the 3-hour drive north.  Dinner would be burgers at Bob’s bar and restaurant on White’s Beach Road.  My dad, aunts and uncles would go fishing on Saturday and on Saturday evening we’d have a fish fry.  They always caught perch, and at that time the fishing was abundant – sometimes they’d come back with over 400 fish!  There’d be plenty to eat, and the rest would be frozen for future meals.

Eventually, most of my mom’s family – and one of my dad’s brothers – had houses on Beachwood Drive.  Starting at the corner of Beachwood and Surfwood, the order of houses was:  Uncle Steve and Aunt Hilda; Grace (Mom’s niece) and Harry; Uncle Frank; Aunt Bertha; Aunt Frances; Aunt Virginia and Uncle Johnny.  And across the street from Uncle Steve, my dad’s brother Wally and my Aunt Sally had a house.  Every visit was like a mini family reunion.

While most built modest, two-bedroom homes on their lots, my Aunt Bertha had other ideas.  Hers wasn’t some modest cottage – it was a house!  A single woman who never married and didn’t have children, she built a two-story, four-bedroom chalet-style home, with the idea that anyone who wanted to visit would always have a place to stay.  When my sister and I had our high school graduation parties, there were 10 people who stayed in Aunt Bertha’s house alone.  And it wasn’t even finished at the time!   This is the home that my parents inherited when Aunt Bertha died in 1991.  My dad not only finished it, he made it into a house that looked like it belonged in any upscale neighborhood.

There are so many memories from the times I spent in Standish – my dad taking my sister and me ice skating on the frozen lake.  Spending the day fishing on the boat.  Swimming in the lake with my cousins.  Meeting my Polish cousins for the first time.  Shopping in Standish.  Learning to crochet.  Playing on the sand piles.  Roasting marshmallows on cattail sticks over dying barbecue coals.  Walking to Bob’s store to get penny candy.  Using the floor of Aunt Bertha’s unfinished house as a stage.  Giant family picnics in the driveway.  My Uncle Eddie and Aunt Rose’s 50th wedding anniversary party.  My Aunt Frances’ 75th birthday party.  Walking in the woods at the end of the street.  Catching frogs, minnows, tadpoles and other assorted critters.  The “pricker plants” that hid in the grass.  Leeches.  Crafting with lake mud.  The long dock.  Our boat that my sister dubbed “Melonie” because of its orange sherbet-colored hull.  Fish flies.  Bringing friends.  There are so many more, but the common thread that weaves through them and binds them all together is family.

My parents were the last ones from the family to own a house on Beechwood Drive.  The first ones to sell were Grace and Harry.  They bought a home on a lake so they didn’t need a vacation cottage on a lake.  Then my Uncle Frank died, rather unexpectedly, one month after he retired at the age of 62, and his widow sold the home.  Nothing changed for many years – even my parents inheriting my Aunt Bertha’s house was just transferring ownership within the family.  Eventually, though, everyone else moved for various reasons, mostly due to it not being safe for them to live on their own because of their ages.  And my parents were left holding the family standard, an island of the Bakanowicz/Smosarski family in a sea of strangers.

I remember the first time I went to Standish after my two aunts, Frances and Virginia, sold their homes.  It was strange, knowing how many times I just walked in and out of those cottages completely unannounced and without reservation, and now I could not because they did not belong to my family anymore.  It seemed foreign to me that I was not able to do that.

So that day, the day we got the news of the offer on the house, I contacted my friend Lori and asked her if she was doing anything that weekend.  It had been a few years since I was there but I had to go to Standish, to see the house for one last time.   When we arrived it was raining that annoying drippy summer rain, and oh it was humid.  Undeterred, I walked around the property in the rain.  I took pictures.  I stood on the shore and looked out at the water, which, unlike when I was a child, is about 300 yards from shore.  I looked down at the remnants of the concrete seawall we built in the 1970’s to keep the water from taking over our yard.  Lori and I walked across the still-rickety little footbridge over the ditch to go to Bob’s for hamburgers. I spent the night in the huge master bedroom looking out over the bay, in one of the two twin-sized canopy beds Aunt Bertha bought for my sister and me.

The next day I went around and collected some mementos I wanted to keep – Mom and Dad were going to have an estate sale to get rid of whatever we didn’t want to keep.  I carefully packed the breakables and stashed everything in my trunk, then went back in, going room to room, trying to imprint everything I could on to my memory.  It didn’t feel real, that I would never be there again.  I didn’t feel emotional or sad, and that kind of surprised me a bit.  After all, this place had been such a huge part of my childhood.

Finally, Lori and I got into the car, pulled out of the driveway and headed toward the corner of Beachwood and Surfwood, and as I turned on to Surfwood I glanced in my rearview mirror at my Uncle Steve’s house and watched it get smaller and smaller, knowing I would not come that way again.

A couple of days later my parents went to the house and brought some things home that they wanted to keep, including my grandmother’s chair (which I wanted but would not fit in my car), and a bunch of my dad’s tools.  They gave the keys to the real estate agent.  And that was it.  And life goes on.

Of course I wish the house could have stayed in the family, and maybe if circumstances were different it could have.  But my folks are in their late 80’s and it was getting increasingly difficult to maintain two homes.  As my mother said, going to Standish began to feel more like a chore than a vacation.  So it was time.

The house is gone.  The ugly gold crushed velvet sofa is gone.  The cupid lamp with the dangling crystals and the lady lamp are gone.  The cute little vanity chair is gone.  The canopy beds are gone.  My grandmother’s Formica dinette set is gone.  The dishes, sheets, blankets, tables, lamps, pots and pans, knickknacks, towels…they all belong to someone else now.  But my memories belong to me, and those can never be sold.

*All That You Can’t Leave Behind” is the title of a 2000 album by U2.  I borrowed it for the title of this post. 


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