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Woman want her parents’ belongings: ‘It’s my family’s heritage’

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The hands of the grandfather clock remain stopped at 7:40 p.m., the exact minute Albert V. Stress of Watertown died of cancer at the age of 86 on March, 11, 1990.

The clock’s hands were set by his son 22 years ago in loving memory of him, while the rest of the furnishings in his home at 259 Seymour St. have remained untouched — and the house itself unlived in — all that time as well.

Today the house is owned by the city of Watertown because a daughter, Rhoda-Jo Stress, stopped paying property taxes. And now her sister, Barbara S. Stress-Claytor, is trying to persuade city leaders to allow her to remove all the personal belongings and furniture before the city sells the house at auction.

The hang-up is legal: the city needs to have a court agree that she has the right to the property inside. Otherwise the city could be sued by another family member if a dispute arises.

“It’s my family’s heritage,” she said.

Miss Stress failed to pay taxes on the house for the past three years and the city took over the property in June. Last month, Ms. Stress-Claytor borrowed the money to drive 2,000 miles from her home in New Mexico, but when she got to Watertown, City Hall told her she could not go inside the small two-story house to get the remaining possessions.

There are conflicting stories about why she thought she could retrieve the family’s belongings if she just simply came to Watertown. Ms. Stress-Claytor insisted that Comptroller James E. Mills told her there would be no problem.

Mr. Mills maintained he never said that.

He is adamant that he advised her she had to file papers in Surrogate Court; she would have to get a judge to set up a small claims estate in her parents’ name and authorize that she was the rightful owner to the belongings. Her mother, Nina, died in 1979 at the age of 69.

After the dispute went on for the past few weeks, she called City Manager Sharon A. Addison about what was happening to see if it could finally be straightened out. On Tuesday, she met with Ms. Addison, City Attorney James A. Burrows and Elliot B. Nelson, assistant to the city manager, to try to resolve the issue.

“All we know is that we have her on the right track,” Ms. Addison said.

The city officials advised her to file her request with the court clerk. If all goes well, she could receive permission from the courts to go into the house by the end of the week or early next week and will finally be able to take the belongings.

“It was the first time I was told to go to the courts,” she said.

Calling it “a simple process,” Mr. Burrows said the city’s hands are tied until she does so. Worried about a lawsuit from other family members, Mr. Burrows said city officials could not legally allow her access to the belongings — which include that grandfather clock, family photos and Bible, and her father’s favorite chair, a beige recliner where he read at night.

It’s an unusual situation, Mr. Mills said.

“The city has never gone through anything like this,” he said.

But the whole episode has angered Ms. Stress-Claytor, who insists the items should go to her, her children and the children of her late brother, Victor A., who died in 1998.

It’s not clear why her sister, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., allowed it to get to this situation and didn’t pay the taxes. Ms. Stress-Claytor said she has tried unsuccessfully numerous times — through phone messages, letters and emails — to get in touch with her throughout the ordeal. Her sister never responded, she said.

“I would have paid the back taxes and moved back here,” she said, while taking a peek inside the house that belonged to the family for 58 years.

Some unused tablecloths sit folded on the dining room table. A note pad, containing family names and friends in her father’s handwriting, also can be seen. A decorated Christmas tree with a train set and village underneath dominates an adjoining room.

It’s also unclear why the family never tried to get the belongings back before the city took over ownership in June, although Ms. Stress-Claytor said her family is “dysfunctional.”

The entire neighborhood also supports her, said Penny A. Bates, whose family brought Mr. Stress dinner and visited him on a nightly basis while he lived alone for years.

“We believe all of it rightfully belongs to her,” Ms. Bates said.

It will end up costing Ms. Stress-Claytor $3,700 to move everything back to her home in a moving pod, but she said she will be relieved when all of it is in her possession.

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