"What are we going to do about Mom's house?" I asked my older sister as we wrote out thank-you notes to people who donated to our beloved late mother's favorite charity, a shelter for recovering addicts.
"Don't worry. We'll figure it out," Sis replied.
"It will be a nightmare going through all that stuff, getting it ready to sell," I said.
"Let's wait until after the holidays," she said, delaying the dreaded task.
After our mother passed away at 95, I was not looking forward to cleaning out our childhood home in Paterson, New Jersey. My mother had arrived here as a 20-year-old bride and spent her entire adult life living in the three-family Victorian residence that my paternal grandparents had built in 1903. My father was a native of Paterson and my parents were the last old timers in this decaying inner city neighborhood. Independent until the end, Mom refused to move even after Dad passed away in 1999. We worried about her safety. Drug dealers hid in the alley next door where we used to play hide-and-seek.
Her saving grace was a wonderful tenant, Olga, an Ecuadorian immigrant who resided on the third floor for over two decades. Mom lived on the second floor and, despite two knee replacements, still managed to get up and down the steps. She said it was good exercise.
Like my mother, Olga was a petite woman, all of 5 feet tall. They both had long black hair. Never married and very pious, Olga reminded me of a nun. She had to be around 50.
We found a picture of Mom and Olga in front of my mother's Christmas tree with Olga's arm around her. Olga used to do favors for my mother, taking her to the store when Mom's car was in the repair shop, things like that. They went to church together. My mother told her to call her "Agnes," but she insisted upon "Mrs. Walter." She was proper and religious, like my Mom. Olga was driving to the hospital at the Jersey Shore to visit my mother when she passed away.
Over two decades ago, my elderly parents were alone in this big house after earlier occupants died or fled to suburbia. When I was growing up, my godparents lived on the first floor and various relatives lived on the third floor. We were one big Catholic family.
My parents never liked being landlords and were reluctant to find new tenants at this point in time until a priest from their church mentioned Olga, a newcomer in the country. She was working and attending college and needed a place to live.
They hit it off immediately and rented her the third floor. It was a good move for everyone. My parents got extra income each month and someone was around during the summer when they went to the Jersey Shore. After my Dad died, it was just two women in the house.
About five years ago, Olga asked my mother if she would consider renting the empty first-floor apartment. Olga wanted to sponsor her sister and brother-in-law and bring them from Ecuador. Mom agreed.
Bella and Jorge became tenants in the house too; it felt safer to us with a man on the premises. Bella was eager to learn English and Mom tutored her using books my sister had from her career as a reading teacher. My mother, who'd come here from Ireland as a child, was glad to help the new arrivals adjust.
Now Olga wanted to buy the house. She had a degree in accounting and ran a bilingual tax prep business from her floor. But we had no idea of her finances. After the funeral, Olga made an offer to my sister, the executor. The amount was way below what the appraiser had quoted. My sister tossed out possibilities—perhaps Olga could get a mortgage or borrow money from a sibling. We gave her time because she had become an extended family member. Two months later, she came back with a better offer, still lower than market value, but we accepted.
As my two siblings and I sat at the kitchen table on a lunch break, looking at photo albums, we called Olga and asked her to come downstairs to discuss the sale and what she needed to have ready for the attorney. The last time I saw her was at the funeral services.
She gave us all hugs and joined us at the table. I was the misfit middle child who was gay, single and lived in Manhattan. My sister and brother were married with children and lived in suburban New Jersey.
"When I did not know if I was to get the house, I was so upset," Olga said. "I could not sleep. I thought maybe I have to go back to my home country. I am so happy you are selling to me. God bless you. But it will always be your house."
"No," my sister said. "After you buy it, it will be yours."
Still, I liked the idea we would always be welcome to come back and visit. It seemed symbolic that the place where my Irish immigrant mother came as a newlywed was being sold to another immigrant. We offered Olga the opportunity for homeownership, the American dream.
She told us she planned to rent out the second floor to another relative, like when I grew up there and everybody knew each other. Olga told us to take our time cleaning out the house. We were excavating a century of family life. We piled boxes on the floor in front of the elegant wooden mantlepieces in the living and dining rooms, where we opened Christmas presents. We hauled out dozens of big bags filled with cards, school papers, magazines and books. We donated cartons of stuff to the veterans.
Olga said we could leave whatever furniture we didn't want. We told her to take all the clothes from my mother's closets, since they were the same size. Olga was honored we gave her the statues of Jesus and Mary for her church, including a three-foot icon of the Virgin. We were relieved at her enthusiasm, as we had no idea what to do with these figures.
I was sad as we cleaned out the rooms, closets and drawers but it was a blessing to know our ancestral home was going to Olga, who loved it as much as my mother did.