I don’t get too much into the Christmas thing; never really have. But, I do wish most folks a ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s just a tradition for most of us born and raised in Christian-based societies. There is one tradition, though, that I think about often. My father’s family used to gather every Christmas Eve at his mother’s house. It’s a common Hispanic ritual. They gather late on Christmas Eve, eat tamales and other conventional Mexican foods, and then go to midnight mass at a local Catholic church. Most of us in the family, however, didn’t partake of midnight mass. We’d usually eaten and drank too much by then.
My father’s family last converged on my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve 2000; she died the following February at age 97. And, that was it. No one got together anymore. Not for Thanksgiving, not for Christmas, not for Easter. In fact, the few times we gathered were for funerals. Two of my father’s older siblings passed away in 2004. But, by then, things had started to descend into disharmony.
More than a year after my grandmother died, I invited a friend to move in with me. He needed a place to live, and I was working temporary jobs. Both our bills had been mounting, and we decided to split expenses. Ultimately, the only good thing that came out of that deal was my dog. It had been Tom’s*, but when we parted ways in January 2003, he decided to leave the new puppy with me. Tom also left me with a warning: be prepared for my dad’s family to quarrel over my grandmother’s estate. He knew from first-hand experience. When his paternal grandfather died in the late 1970’s, his father’s family became embroiled in a bitter feud over property near their East Texas homes; property that had been in the clan for generations. Some wanted to sell, while others wanted to hold onto it. To the latter group, it was too valuable; they couldn’t see putting a price on it. It was like a family heirloom.
My parents had always advised me against loaning money to friends and relatives; saying it was the quickest way to lose both. But, I don’t think even they anticipated the battle that would brew over my grandmother’s estate. When my maternal grandfather died in 1983, his will was settled peacefully; my mother and her three siblings each got something from what was left of the estate, and that was it. No fighting, no hatefulness. They carried on and maintained their loving relationships.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks practically killed off what was left of the economic boon of the late 1990s. The housing market wasn’t spared. Home values dropped precipitously, and my Aunt Andrea* – who was executrix of my grandmother’s estate – couldn’t find a buyer for the house. It was an oddly-designed home with no attached garage. The land on which it sat in North Dallas, one and a half acres, should have been more valuable than the actual structure. Two realtors tried and failed to sell it. I think they overpriced it. A close friend who owns and operates a real estate firm confirmed that to me, when he compared similar-sized houses in the same neighborhood.
But then, Andrea made an egregious move; one that would send the entire family into turmoil. She decided to lease it to a cousin of mine, Jaime*, and his wife, Linda*. They were on the verge of losing their own $400,000 suburban Dallas home at the start of 2002 and faced possible homelessness. I guess they didn’t think that two small children, a pair of luxury SUVs and a country club membership would have a negative impact on their financial well-being. Without consulting with the family, Andrea let Jaime and Linda move into my grandmother’s house in the spring of 2002.
She said she had to find a way to offset the property taxes. “Who else is going to pay for that?” she asked my father. He couldn’t answer, but this didn’t feel right to him. He was close to Jaime, his nephew; he had helped raised him and his older brother. They were his brother’s sons; it was a bond that couldn’t be broken. Blood and family are so strong, my father had always said. He didn’t realize how badly greed could destroy that.
Andrea didn’t seem to keep good financial records; odd for a woman who had successfully maintained her own beauty salon for years. The contract or lease she signed with Jaime and Linda was for them to pay $900 a month for a year. I thought, “Nine hundred dollars a month buys a three-bedroom apartment in my neighborhood!” No one ever saw this “lease.” But, before then, Andrea had revealed something personal – and curious – to my mother: “I can’t let go of the house.”
My mother reminded Andrea that the house didn’t belong to her alone; it belonged to the family. But, my mother decided to stay out of it; she was an in-law and didn’t feel she should get too involved, even though she and Andrea were close friends. I wish Linda had taken that same attitude.
At some point, that one-year lease metamorphosed into two years. When my father’s older sister died in May 2004, Jaime and Linda were expecting their third child. Supposedly, it was an unplanned event; an “accident,” Andrea told my dad.
“Pinché accident!” my dad grumbled. It was no accident Jaime’s thing fell out of his pants and into his wife.
When Jaime’s father died in October 2004, the family dynamics had become strained. It had been more than two years since Jaime and Linda had moved into my grandmother’s house. Linda wasn’t working, but they’d redecorated managed to find the money to redecorate the place. More importantly, there was no accounting of the “lease” payments they were supposed to be making.
My mother – who had retired the year before – even offered to help Andrea get her papers in order. “I have more time now,” my mother told her. Andrea initially accepted, but said nothing about it afterwards. Soon, though, Andrea would be forced to get that paperwork together.
The proverbial battle lines Tom had warned me about started to materialize in the fall of 2004. My father’s younger brother, Robert*, had had enough. Jaime and Linda weren’t renters; they were squatters. At some point that same year, they actually sought to buy the house, but their credit wouldn’t permit a loan. Then, they came up with the audacious idea of splitting the property, and they’d purchase that portion of the land on which the house sat.
“Can’t do that,” my real estate friend said. I suspected as much.
Robert and his son decided to sue Andrea to have her removed as executrix. Robert wasn’t trying to take over the estate; he just wanted the property sold, and the proceeds divided evenly among the appropriate survivors. Then, we learned that Andrea had included a clause in my grandmother’s will forbidding anyone in the family from filing suit against her.
“Can’t do that,” another friend told me. I knew that, too!
Things were getting stranger. One of the witnesses to the original will was a young woman Andrea had hired to help care for my grandmother; a woman who was an illegal Mexican immigrant and who we suspect had stolen some jewelry from my grandmother. She was long gone by the time my grandmother died. The attorney who had drafted the original will, an old family friend, knew that girl was an illegal. Robert, my mother told me, had never really liked that attorney friend; despite that the friend and my father had known each other since grade school. They were long-time friends from the old East Dallas neighborhood where they all grew up, when Hispanics had to stick together to survive. The crisis over the will had started to batter that history.
One afternoon my dad spoke with Andrea on the phone; trying to serve as ambassador between her and Robert. “Just sell the house and give your brothers and sisters a dollar!” my dad heard Andrea’s son blurt out in the background. Andrea didn’t think my father had heard that. The battle lines were now walls.
Finally, in February 2005, we went to court. Robert, Jr.*, flew back to Dallas for the hearing. He was there with his sister and a realtor friend of hers who had been the first to try to sell the house. As I walked into the courthouse, I saw Andrea sitting on a bench, alongside another cousin. I said hi to both.
“Robert’s over there,” Andrea said, waving a hand ahead of her, as if swatting a gnat. That cousin, who I’d once considered a sister – as kids, people sometimes thought we were twins – practically scowled at me.
“Alright,” I merely said.
“There’s been a new development,” Robert, Jr., told me. Andrea had resigned her position as executrix the night before. The court now would appoint an interim executor and give Jaime and Linda enough time to look for a new house before moving out.
The estate was finally settled in 2006. The court-appointed executor had sold the house (appropriately enough) to a Mexican family for well under the expected price. When my father got his copy of the attorney’s expenses, he noticed there were a number of charges for conference calls with Linda. She had contacted the attorney almost weekly; perhaps, I thought, asking where was the money. Money that would go to her mother-in-law; not to Jaime, certainly not to Linda. But, Jaime’s mother had decided to split her share of the money between him and his two siblings. She didn’t need it, she later told my dad; she had enough of her own. Moreover, Linda told Andrea the money wasn’t enough.
“That’s none of her goddamned business!” my father replied, when Andrea revealed that tidbit to him one day. “And, you can tell her I said that, too!” Linda was invited to call my dad, if she felt compelled to discuss the matter, he told Andrea. She never did.
Worse, as far as my father was concerned, was a statement Jaime had made in the legal documentation; something that had jumped out at him like a bad dream. Jaime and Linda claimed they had to spend money to make the house “livable;” from their perspective, it had been in deplorable condition, and the money that should have been used to pay off the taxes instead went to the redecorating. It was an insult; a slap against my paternal grandfather who had built the house in the late 1950s.
On the Saturday after my grandmother died, my father sat in a chair near the patio door in the den of that house.
“What’s wrong?” I asked rhetorically.
“Oh, nothing.” We men always say that, even if there is something wrong. “Just thinking,” he finally said. “All the birthdays, all the Christmases…” His voice trailed off, as his gaze remained on the patio area; clear on that bright cool February day.
Years ago, way back when, my cousins and I were always laughing during those holiday gatherings. Even when we matured and went to work, when some married and had kids of their own, everyone gravitated back to my grandmother’s house where food exploded onto the dining room table in a gastronomical symphony, where everybody had a story and a camera, and a heavily-decorated Christmas tree stood unimposing against the large window in the living room overlooking a major thoroughfare. I always wondered if people passing by slowed to peer through that window, with the drapes pulled back, and wished they could join us. Now, with everyone either older and leading their own lives or deceased, I occasionally peruse those old pictures and find myself wanting to jump back through that window. Way back when.