By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
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.' "
Green may be painting herself as more of a novice than she is. Her husband, Steve, is an estate attorney. And, as Green admits, she wrote the original letter to the court that started the process.
Judge Wood told the women that he thought Green would be better equipped to make the tough decision: to force Sanjakian into an assisted care facility. He even chose the place, Colonial Oaks at Braeswood. (Kornblit says the judge only suggested that facility; Green and Berberian say they believed Wood ordered it.)
Getting Sanjakian there wouldn't be easy. She had refused to come to the hearing and refused to give Berberian power of attorney -- had she done either, she might have been spared from Wood's decision. Now she was livid about being forced from her home. She told Green she wasn't leaving. If they came to get her, she vowed, she'd come out shooting.
When deputy constables arrived on December 30 to move her, Sanjakian bit them and pulled their hair. They had to use handcuffs to take her away.
Today, in Sanjakian's room at Colonial Oaks, an aide watches as she naps and entertains visitors. Her room is tidy, if impersonal. The framed black-and-white photos of Sanjakian and her late husband are the only real reminder of her earlier life.
When Berberian comes to visit, Sanjakian kisses her and proudly tells the assistant, "That's my goddaughter." A tiny woman with a long white braid and sunken cheeks, she looks nothing like the robust image framed on the wall. Her Turkish accent is thick; her voice, high and quavering.
She gets her hair washed every other day, which she loves. The staff is kind, she says.
But she wants to go home.
"That Jackie wants to sell my house," Sanjakian announces angrily. "She is a bad girl. If she comes in here, I will call the police."
Green knows her former neighbor blames her. Sanjakian refuses to see her, Green admits, and has told her to go to hell. "She says she's going to get out in a year and sue me," she says. "But the doctors say she doesn't have a year to live."
Unknown to Sanjakian, her things were sold last month: her dresses, her husband's ties, her perfume and china.
Everything that didn't sell was packed up and taken away, to be given to charity or rummaged at later sales. Nobody has need for her reams of colorful scarves, or records of Armenian hymns, or dozens of pairs of white gloves.
Her house will be sold soon, too, and likely demolished. The county values the lot at $500,000; the old house is more liability than asset in such a tony neighborhood.
She's a rich woman. Although she worried constantly about money, she had some $200,000 in the bank, according to court records. While Green and Berberian each suggest that money is the only thing the other cares about, neither will get any of Sanjakian's funds. There's enough to pay for her care at Colonial Oaks and attorney Kornblit, who has earned $8,200 to date and continues to handle the widow's legal affairs.
After she dies, whatever funds are left will be sent to an Armenian hospital in Istanbul. And that, at least, is what she wanted. Sanjakian was hardly organized, but she had her own unique filing system.
Just before the estate sale, Green found her will, tucked carefully into her box of Depends.