The End Game

A widow just wanted her home. But that was asking too much.

Strangers are inside Rose Sanjakian's A-frame house in West University, touching her belongings. They paw through boxes of scarves and hankies, examine the purses strewn across the bed and scavenge within the closets. Always a lady, Sanjakian owned more than two dozen pairs of prim white gloves, now available at the low price of $2 each.

The house is packed with items. There's an old Victrola, two television sets and a dressmaker's dummy. Painted china lines the cupboards, piles up in the drawers and covers the table. A stack of Better Homes & Gardens from the 1970s is wedged between an endless supply of tchotchkes and knickknacks on the floor.

The strangers are mostly unimpressed. "Where's the good stuff?" one man asks plaintively. Another eyes the house. "It's really very solidly built," she says.

Rose Berberian wanted to keep her elderly godmother at home.
Daniel Kramer
Rose Berberian wanted to keep her elderly godmother at home.

Nearly 40 years after Sanjakian and her husband bought it, the house is for sale. So is the vanity set with its hand-painted pink roses, the big bottle of Jean Naté bath splash, the box of Depends. Sanjakian kept things obsessively, hoarding them until they filled every room. But she no longer lives here, and soon, none of this will be hers. First the estate sale, then the house sale; her life is winding down just like that old Victrola.

The final chapter of Rose Sanjakian's life started with her husband's death nearly three years ago. A Turkish-born Armenian, Sanjakian told people she'd grown up in an Istanbul orphanage and come to the United States as a 12-year-old bride. No one knows if that's precisely true or exactly how old she is: Various forms of ID put her age anywhere from 69 to 97.

Once she was in America, her first husband died, and so did a stepdaughter. Sanjakian was living in Michigan when she met Mike Sanjakian, another Armenian. They came to Texas together.

Hawking raffle tickets, Sanjakian organized the effort to purchase land for Houston's St. Kevork Armenian Church. "She was a social butterfly," says Rose Berberian, her goddaughter. "They were always having parties in their home."

The couple had plenty of godchildren, but no children of their own. And Rose Sanjakian left the church in a huff, Berberian says. When 98-year-old Mike died in August 2001, she was alone.

"He had taken care of everything," Berberian says. "She had no clue."

The home, already one of the oldest on a gentrifying block of Belmont Street, suddenly seemed to sag. The City of West University sent Sanjakian a letter ordering her to repair the ramshackle garage. (She responded by calling the city's code-enforcement officer and shrieking into his voice mail.) She couldn't remember to pay her bills, and she began to pester her neighbors. Her gas had been shut off, she told them. Could she use theirs? She'd shuffle over to Randalls and struggle with paying by check; sometimes she'd sign her name, then ask a stranger to fill in the rest.

Last September, an anonymous letter arrived at Harris County Probate Court. "She stops total strangers, walking by her house, to attend to small chores such as changing a light bulb, fixing a light socket, looking for batteries, chasing her pet parakeet, or taking her to the bank," the letter says. "Yet she will not allow people of authority access to her home, depending on the time of day. Her garage roof collapsed on top of her car, several years ago, yet she continues to go into the garage to wash clothes, ignoring all warnings pertaining to safety."

A court investigator confirmed the information, and a physician concluded that Sanjakian suffered from "mild dementia" and paranoia. Her home was dirty, her clothes torn and her judgment impaired, he wrote. Appointed by the court, attorney Suzanne Kornblit found that Sanjakian had no relatives, but had two friends willing to serve as her guardian: her goddaughter, Berberian, and a neighbor, Jackie Green.

Both say they wanted to keep Sanjakian out of a nursing home. "She wanted to die in that house," says Green, a special education teacher. "She told me she'd promised her husband not to trust anybody, because they'd get her out of the house."

It meant even more to Berberian. Half Armenian, she holds that community's belief that it should take care of its own. "Since she didn't have any grandchildren of her own, I thought she could live with me," she says.

But Berberian was working as a purchasing manager and finishing courses for her MBA; she hardly had enough time to take on the administrative responsibilities, much less care for Sanjakian full time. She thought she could hire nurses.

Probate Judge Mike Wood wanted something more concrete. He rejected pleas from Berberian and her parents and appointed Green as the guardian.

To Berberian, it seemed dreadfully unfair. She'd known Sanjakian all her life. "I'm the closest thing she has to family -- and they give it to a stranger? A neighbor!" She tearfully blames herself for not acting sooner and not applying for guardianship herself before a neighbor got involved.

Green says she didn't even want the guardianship. She applied only because she worried Berberian was too "flaky" and she didn't want to have her neighbor's affairs managed by an impersonal lawyer. Wood's decision surprised her, she claims, and the Berberians' anger scared her. "I'm like, 'Oh, great, not only do I have to do this, but I have to deal with these mad people who didn't.' "

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