After the passing of her grandmother, Courtney Lauck was called to manage her family’s Upper East Side estate. While searching through the large halls of the thirteen room apartment, Courtney not only found historical documents, art, and books—but a deeper tie to her family’s history, awakening a unique sense of purpose.
Of Things That Went Untold
Guest Written by Courtney Lauck
When I first came to the apartment, shadows of life still lingered within its dim hallways. It still felt like a home. A multitude of family photos littered the rooms and the fridge was still stocked with jam and ginger ale. My grandmother’s clothing still inhabited the drawers. Her 5 ½ size shoes neatly lined the closet floor. File cabinets and broken lamps flooded the back rooms, as did the remains of vacuum cleaners and fax machines that expired during service and never made it out to the back stairwell. The living rooms echoed of old world decadence, yet paintings and statues and shelves of books clogged every stretch of wall. Of course, this is what I always loved about the apartment. Every object harbored a story, some fantastical and some only significant within the context of the family members that had possessed them. Now, the place survives only as the graceful ruins of what it once was. Everything has been packed up and moved away, save the hard cover books and auction-worthy antiques and trinkets impersonal enough to leave the imaginations of potential buyers unstirred. Now, I am the only intimate presence left haunting its halls.
But my time at E 72nd Street was not all a ghost story, though everything that occurred there fades now into a recent past. Within its walls, months must be counted as decades. For time may have kept up its appearances here, but it lost its power over this place. Its functionality deteriorated along with that of the water pipes and the circuitry.
My grandparents bought the apartment at 72nd and Lexington in 1956 and my grandmother was pregnant with my mother at the time. It has thus been in the family for a total of fifty-seven years. My grandmother passed away last August. She was my last living grandparent and the one I loved and knew the most. I was newly graduated and driving from Texas to Portland, Oregon to try to create a life for myself there. But when she passed, no one else in the family was as loosely tied to their present situations as I. So it came about that I would go and spend the next six months living rent-free in Manhattan, submerged within the 13-room, full floor apartment along with all of its eccentricities and secrets.
It seems that when a person passes away, there is a multitude of information that is dragged back up to the surface, the more intimate knowledge, the letters, the reminiscences shared now that he or she is gone. It becomes the time for things that went untold. The apartment was, in essence, a symbol of our family itself. The interiors were vast and colonial, eclectically organized yet appreciated as elegant by its guests. It masked, however, a pirate’s hoard of family history. Within every drawer, cabinet, desk and chest hid thousands of documents: photos, journals, personal letters, financial statements, and wills. The content of these records would carry even more magnitude.
At the outset of my journey, my mother told me that she believed my stay was going to feel like a constant treasure hunt. At the time she said this, she knew more of our ancestors’ backgrounds than I, but even she could never have anticipated the historical weight of what I would uncover. Buried deep within the closet of my grandfather’s study, I unearthed correspondences between my relatives and prominent American figures, such as presidents Taft and Pierce. Stacks of unlabeled manila folders housed letters on White House stationary from Eleanor Roosevelt, paired with photographs of my grandmother at age five grinning in front of the White House steps dated not long after FDR’s inauguration. And the once obscure saga of our family continued to unveil itself backward, infiltrating the lives of some of the past’s most intriguing characters and our country’s most momentous periods.
If someone had stumbled into a Parisian bar in the 1920s and happened upon a meeting of the renowned circle of expatriate artists, one would have found my great-great-uncle sitting in the chair next to Hemingway. I read A Moveable Feast in college without even knowing that my relative had earned his own chapter entitled “Evan Shipman at the Lilas.” If his writing had been more critically appreciated at the time, he might have made an appearance in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Earlier, in the late 1800’s, my great-great-grandparents Louis and Ellen Shipman (a playwright and one of the first female landscape architects) proved quite the bohemians, moving to New Hampshire and becoming founders of Cornish’s artist colony along with other distinguished artists, such as the painter Maxfield Parrish and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. I traced further back along the family tree to find that Ellen Shipman’s grandfather captained the ship that was first fired upon by the Confederates to initiate the Civil War.
Sometimes during the midnight hours, I’d end up sitting in the dining room sipping a thirty year old scotch (another treasure I’d found below the kitchen sink) eyed by Ellen Shipman’s portrait from the far wall and engulfed in the narratives of relatives past. I imagined how my life would be seen in hindsight and the manner in which it would reveal its parts to my children and their children. Would it too go unnoticed until it was discovered in dust along the bookshelves or in the attics of houses in which I will come to live? The outcome can only be revealed within the scope of time, which can be traveled backward but never forward.
My branch of the tree is still in the infancy of its seasons. Yet, I do know that my present self has never been more intimately realized than now. When we uncover truths about our relatives, we undoubtedly uncover truths about ourselves. We each carry the weight of millenniums of being. Most of the time we just fail to remember. That buried knowledge always resides somewhere within us, but when it reemerges, it awakens in us the insight of how and why we came to be ourselves.
Courtney Lauck is a New York based writer and poet, currently residing in Manhattan’s West Village. To be put in contact with her please email email@example.com