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Peace Talks

Trying to pay Bubby's bills, I ignited a civil war



t was quite by accident that I noticed the bank statement on my parents’ kitchen table that morning. I had dropped by to say hello and pick up a few things, and my mother insisted, as usual, that I sit down for a coffee. When I sat down at the table, my eyes fell on the paper from the bank that said something about a home-equity loan.

“What’s this loan for?” I asked my mother.

She stirred my coffee and handed it to me. “It’s to pay for Bubby’s aides, Meir,” she said.

My widowed, octogenarian grandmother had been in the hospital for the past three years. Mentally and physically incapacitated, she was hooked up to all sorts of machines and required round-the-clock care.

“You’re paying out of pocket for the aides?” I asked, puzzled.

She sat down at the table across from me. “No and yes,” she said. “When we created the trust for Bubby so that she’d be eligible for Medicaid, her house was divided among eight owners — Bubby and her seven children. The money I borrowed to pay for my share of the aide will eventually come off my share of the house, so I’m not really paying for it. The interest on the loan I’m paying out of pocket, but the way I see it, if I have money for a cleaning lady, then I can pay the interest on the loan for Bubby’s aides.”

I knew that the cost of Bubby’s aides was divided among my mother and four of her siblings. Two of the siblings, Uncle Hersh and Aunt Bruchi, felt that the aide was a waste of money. Bubby wasn’t lucid anyway, they argued, so what difference did it make who was taking care of her?

“I don’t get it,” I told my mother. “Bubby’s house is sitting empty. Why should you be borrowing money and paying interest to finance her private care when you could rent out the house and pay for it that way? It’s prime real estate!”

My mother toyed absently with some crumbs on the table. “I thought of that,” she replied, “but the house is in no state to be rented out. It’s full of junk, and I don’t have the time or energy to sift through all of it and start finding a tenant.”

I work as a property manager, so the thought of getting Bubby’s house in shape and dealing with a tenant was not particularly intimidating to me. As I sipped the last drops of my coffee, a plan started to hatch in my head.

“You know what, Ma?” I said. “I’m going to try to take care of renting out Bubby’s house. Can you give me the key?”

Her eyes widened in grateful surprise. “That’s very kind of you,” she said. “But you don’t need a key. The lock on the front door is broken.”

A couple of days later, I dropped in on Bubby’s empty house. The front door was held shut with a rope, and Bubby’s cookbook was still sitting on the kitchen table, covered with dust. The backyard was full of garbage; apparently the neighbors viewed the empty property as the perfect spot for their trash.

After seeing the sorry state of the house, I personally called up each of my uncles and aunts and asked them if they minded if I arranged for Bubby’s house to be rented out, and if they wanted anything from the house. Each of them, in turn, said yeah, go ahead and rent it out, and nah, there was nothing in that old house that interested them.

I arranged for a Got Junk truck to come down to Bubby’s house, and my wife, Hadassah, and I spent an entire day sorting through all the junk in the house. I personally went through every paper to make sure there were no important documents left. After that, all that was necessary was a top-to-bottom house cleaning, and then the house was ready to be rented out.

By that time, I even had a tenant ready to move in: a single mother with a few children. Hadassah knew this woman well, and she vouched for her reliability. We signed a legal rental contract and arranged for the tenant to move in the following Monday. But then there was a kink in the plan.

One of my aunts was so grateful to me for having cleared out the house and arranged for the tenant that she sent an email to all her siblings thanking Meir and Hadassah for their efforts to get the house cleaned up and rented out.

Suddenly, several of the people who had told me, on the phone, that they couldn’t care less what happened with the house, began having second thoughts. Kind as it was of my aunt to thank me publicly, the net result was that it created mass hysteria.

Email is a great way to get involved without actually doing anything, and the “Reply All” button is a surefire recipe for stirring people into a frenzy. In a matter of hours, my inbox was flooded with dozens of back-and-forth emails, with various uncles and aunts weighing in on the subject of Bubby’s house.

Since I was the one taking responsibility for getting Bubby’s house rented out, I was the one who had to sift through each email and issue a reply that offered the necessary reassurance. “No, Uncle Hersh,” I wrote, “renting out the house will not affect Bubby’s Medicaid eligibility.”

“Why?” he wrote back.

“Because ownership of seven-eighths of the house was transferred to the children so that Bubby could get onto Medicaid in the first place,” I explained. “Now, seven-eighths of the rental income will technically belong to the children, and the portion that belongs to Bubby is too negligible to affect her Medicaid status.”

At this point, another uncle chimed in. “I’m nervous about putting a tenant in the house,” he wrote. “I once had a tenant in my basement who refused to leave, and I had no way of evicting him. How do we know that your tenant won’t make us similar problems?”

This was just the beginning.

At around midnight that night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard the phone ring. I decided to ignore it, but Hadassah was afraid that maybe someone was calling with something urgent, so she got up to answer it. By the time she got to the phone, the call had gone to voicemail.

Turns out, it was Aunt Bruchi. “There’s no tenant moving in on Monday,” she said in an authoritative voice. “I’m not sure whether this whole rental thing is a good idea at all. I need time to look into it. Please don’t do anything until further notice.” End of message.

Aunt Bruchi probably didn’t realize how late it was when she left that message, but her midnight phone call, coming on the heels of an exhaustive seven-way email exchange with her and her siblings, was very unnerving to me.

I had a hard time falling asleep after that. Why was I doing this, anyway? I wasn’t making any money on the rental; I was only doing it to help pay for Bubby’s aides and take some of the burden off my mother and her siblings. I wasn’t asking for recognition or accolades, but I wasn’t interested in all this aggravation, either.

When I checked my email the next morning, my inbox was again flooded with inquiries. Is it legal to rent out the property? How does the rental affect the home-insurance policy? Do I have to report the rental income to the IRS if I’m a one-eighth owner of the house?

As a property manager, I knew the answers, because I encounter these issues all the time. Just to put everyone at ease, however, I spoke to a Medicaid lawyer and an accountant, and I prepared a three-page document that answered all these questions and more. Yes, renting out the house was legal. The home-insurance policy on the rental would be slightly more expensive than an owner-occupied house, but far cheaper than the premium for a vacant house. No, the uncles and aunts did not have to report the rental income to the IRS, because a separate tax return would be filed for the house and the rent would be offset by the losses and depreciation of the property over the years.

After I sent out this document, there was a fresh flurry of emails. “We should really divide the property in two and put two tenants in the house,” one aunt wrote. “But do we need commercial zoning for that?”

“I once had a tenant who fell down the steps and sued me,” another aunt wrote. “How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?”

How did I get myself into this? I wondered.

Eventually, someone suggested that the issue of whether to rent out Bubby’s house be put to a vote. The results were hardly a surprise: five in favor, two against. The two against were — drumroll, please — Uncle Hersh and Aunt Bruchi, the two siblings who had nothing to lose by saying no. They were not paying for the aide, and from their perspective, renting out the house posed an unnecessary risk to their yerushah.

Now that we had a decisive majority, I felt ready to go ahead with the rental, Aunt Bruchi’s midnight vacillations notwithstanding.

But then I kept getting emails from Uncle Hersh, who apparently hadn’t read, or hadn’t absorbed, what I had written in the document where I summarized my research. No matter how many times I answered his questions, he kept rehashing them and inventing new ones. And his insistence on addressing every question to the entire group meant that every one of his siblings had the opportunity to give an opinion each step of the way.

At one point, when I thought — naively — that I had laid all of Uncle Hersh’s concerns to rest, I wrote to him and the group that I was ready to go ahead with the rental.

Aunt Bruchi’s response came fast and furious. “If you go through with the rental, I’m going to sue you in court,” she wrote.

At this point, my mother decided that enough was enough. “You shouldn’t have to be handling my siblings,” she told me. “I’ll deal with them. Write to them that you’re no longer going to be involved in this discussion, and they should address all their inquiries to me. After that you can ignore them.”

I don’t know what happened between my mother and her siblings after that, because I configured my email account to divert all mail messages with the words “Bubby’s house” in the subject line to go directly to my spam folder.

In the end, the decision was made not to rent out the house. In an email that didn’t go to my spam folder, my mother wrote, addressing her siblings and me:

It’s important to maintain shalom, for many reasons. First of all, we are role models for the children. Second, shalom is a vessel for brachah, good health, and simchah. Third, we owe it to our parents to keep the peace in the family. You can add more reasons.

Shalom is not just a truce, a vacuum. It has to be more — a positive force, a vehicle for achdus. In these times, we need all the zechusim we can get.

It was painful to see all my hard work going down the drain, and highly uncomfortable to have to cancel the rental contract with the tenant that I arranged. All along, however, my mother kept encouraging me by telling me that the opportunity to do a great mitzvah — paying for Bubby’s aide — comes with an equal and corresponding opportunity for serious aveiros, in this case machlokes and lashon hara.

“You did what you could do,” my mother said. “You got your zechus in Shamayim, and my father’s neshamah is grateful to you. The greatest kavod to Bubby — even more important than paying for the aide — is to keep shalom in the family.

“You’ll see,” she added, “your efforts will not go to waste.”

Bubby’s house stayed vacant, much to my disappointment.

Then, one morning, my parents woke up and found that that their basement was flooded. A pipe had burst, and the house suffered severe structural damage. Thankfully, the damage was covered by their insurance. But my parents had to move out of their home immediately, for at least six months, and where were they supposed to go on such short notice?

The answer was obvious: to Bubby’s house, of course. The junk was gone, the property was clean, the lock on the door was fixed, and the house was ready for occupancy.

In the end, my efforts did not go to waste. But the fact that my parents had a house ready and waiting for them in their time of need was just the icing on the cake. The real reward, for me, was something else entirely.

Uncle Hersh and Aunt Bruchi, for whatever reason, were not interested in financing their mother’s care, nor were they interested in taking the burden off their siblings who had committed to doing so. That may have been unfair, or unreasonable, or even downright callous, but my mother had understood something that I had not, which was that no matter how strongly we would fight them, they were not going to change. My mother recognized that even if she was a hundred percent right, she would not gain anything by standing her ground and insisting that Bubby’s house be rented out. She could not win this battle unless she was willing to fight her siblings to the bitter end — and that would have been a pyrrhic victory, one that would have turned us into one of those families that is broken apart over an elderly parent’s care and estate.

Thanks to my mother, our family has remained at peace. And it’s not an uneasy peace, where my mother is grumbling about her delinquent siblings and resentful of the disproportionate share of the burden she’s carrying — it’s a genuine peace, where she has chosen to cherish her opportunity to honor her mother while respecting the choices some of her siblings have made, even if she disagrees with them.

That lesson — that it’s not worth fighting when the fight itself will overshadow any possible gain — made all my efforts to rent out Bubby’s house worthwhile.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 838)

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