Real State

She Bought the House Her Mother Cleaned for 43 Years

Out of all the houses her mother cleaned while she was growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., Nichol Naranjo fell in love with the one her mother cleaned on Fridays — a midcentury home built around an interior courtyard and decorated with European antiques.

Ms. Naranjo would sit under a Thomasville desk in the library and imagine herself running a business, while her mother, Margaret Gaxiola, dusted the desk and polished it with lemon oil. She marveled at the spacious rooms, the fireplace mantel, the views out onto the courtyard with its abundant flowers and water fountain. “I could see her wandering room to room, just dreaming about everything in here,” Ms. Gaxiola said.

Ms. Gaxiola said “here,” because in November 2020, her daughter bought the house that she had cleaned for 43 years — an unusual yet natural outcome of the closeness that formed between a housekeeper’s family and the former owner of the house, Pamela Key-Linden, who died in 2018.

“I think I always knew I would end up here one day. It feels right,” said Ms. Naranjo, now married and 44.

The house is in Ridgecrest, an affluent neighborhood with tree-lined streets and lush landscaping. In the eyes of a little girl, the house was a mansion surrounded by other mansions. They weren’t really mansions; they were just graceful houses in a nice neighborhood.

But the Gaxiola family lived about 20 minutes away in Los Duranes, a lower-income neighborhood bisected by Interstate 40 and known for its close-knit community and semirural feel, with dirt lanes, small gardens and goats and chickens in the yards. Their house was new but modest — 960-square-feet and one bathroom for a household of four.

In 1976, Ms. Gaxiola was working in a florist shop. She was 29 and married with three young children. She needed some extra money when a friend told her about a part-time job doing some light housekeeping on one of her days off.

That first visit to Ridgecrest, Ms. Gaxiola was struck by the beauty of the neighborhood, and of Ms. Key-Linden’s stylishly decorated, 3,000-square-foot house.

As Ms. Key-Linden showed Ms. Gaxiola around the house, she talked in a thick Southern accent that was hard to understand, which put Ms. Gaxiola on edge. Both women were reserved around each other to start.

Ms. Gaxiola’s family continued to grow and on days when she cleaned, she brought along her youngest daughters, Monica and Nichol, who was born in 1978. The girls mostly watched TV, though Nichol, who was more active, was given small tasks by her mother to keep her busy, like emptying all the wastebaskets and replacing the liners. Ms. Gaxiola’s husband was also hired by Ms. Key-Linden to paint the house.

Monica Garcia, now 48 and married, remembered looking forward to visits to Ms. Key-Linden’s house, where she would look at all the whimsical knickknacks placed about. “Even though she had grand and beautiful things, you would find a Peter Rabbit ceramic tucked into a shelf, or a miniature tea set,” Ms. Garcia said. “My love for unicorns began by seeing them at Pam’s.”

Visiting the house every week became, for Ms. Naranjo, a glimpse into a world of plenty. “Pam had cable television. Pam had brand-name cereal. Her pantry,” Ms. Naranjo said, “looked like a gold mine.”

Ms. Key-Linden had grown up in Louisville, Ky., the only child of a successful businessman and a homemaker. As a young woman, she had lived with her first husband, an Air Force pilot, in England, where she bought and renovated a historic cottage. She remained a lifelong Anglophile, said Tom Duhon, who became friends with Ms. Key-Linden when he was studying architecture at the University of New Mexico in the early 1970s and she was working at Sears. Later, Ms. Key -Linden owned a fabric shop, Beehive Fabrics.

Ms. Key-Linden took yearly trips to England, staying in a cottage in a small village, Mr. Duhon said. Back in Albuquerque, she created an English-style garden with roses and wisteria, and filled the rooms of her house with antiques, oil paintings and other traditional furnishings bought on her travels.

“Her house was pristine,” Mr. Duhon said. “Shelves with lots of treasures. Finely picked treasures. All had a meaning. All had a purpose.”

When she first began cleaning the sprawling house, Ms. Gaxiola was often alone. “Most times,” Ms. Gaxiola said, “Pam would leave to have tea with her friends so I would have the house to myself.”

After a few years, Ms. Gaxiola said, she and Ms. Key-Linden started to let their guards down and share a little bit about their lives. Ms. Key-Linden, who was married to the pilot but had no children, expressed her warmth not with words but with gestures, Ms. Gaxiola said. She kept the girls’ favorite canned soda, Big Red, in the house. For Christmas, she would have gifts wrapped up with ribbons and arranged beautifully for each member of the Gaxiola family.

One day, Ms. Gaxiola mentioned that winter was coming and she needed to buy her son, Gabriel, a coat. The next week, she said, Ms. Key-Linden presented her with a coat for Gabriel from Sears.

Ms. Gaxiola was touched by the gift.

There was more kindness, like when Ms. Gaxiola and her husband built their house, around 1980, and they could not afford to complete the kitchen with new cabinets. Ms. Key-Linden was renovating her kitchen at the time, and offered to give them her old cabinets. “Those cabinets are still in my mom’s house today,” Ms. Naranjo said.

That wasn’t the only emblem of Ridgecrest in their home.

“We had this crystal swan, a large, decorative piece that Pam brought back from England for my mom,” Ms. Naranjo said. “We were taught to revere this swan. It was priceless in our eyes because we didn’t have a lot.”

As the years passed, and Ms. Gaxiola and Ms. Key-Linden went through painful divorces and lost loved ones, they supported each other emotionally, and the families grew closer.

The Gaxiolas attended Ms. Key-Linden’s 50th birthday party and her wedding to her second husband. Ms. Key-Linden sent the children cards on special occasions and holidays, and brought them little gifts from her trips abroad. When Ms. Garcia became pregnant with her daughter, Aleessa, in 1995, Ms. Key-Linden hosted the baby shower at her house. She was there, too, at the funeral when Gabriel died in 2017.

By then, Ms. Gaxiola had been cleaning Ms. Key-Linden’s house for more than four decades, and had become a regular housekeeper. “We went into many homes because of my mom’s cleaning,” Ms. Naranjo said. “I was able to observe different lifestyles and personalities. No one was like Pam. Pam became like family.”

After Ms. Key-Linden died, Ms. Gaxiola continued to clean the house until Ms. Key-Linden’s second husband, Richard Linden, died the following year. Then she turned over her keys.

“That was heartbreaking, and I thought, ‘That was half of my life, too,” Ms. Gaxiola said. “I was saying goodbye. This was not a house to clean. It was a second home to come and enjoy.”

For Ms. Naranjo, Ms. Key-Linden’s house had been her dream home for as long as she could remember. Its setting and furnishings informed her child’s sense of what adult success and good taste looked like.

“It gave her a vision for her future,” Ms. Gaxiola said.

When Nichol married her high-school sweetheart, Dominic Naranjo, in 1996, and bought her first home, she carried the influence of Ms. Key-Linden into her adult life. Her family — she has three daughters — threw an annual Christmas Eve party, inspired by the fête that Ms. Key-Linden staged each year.

Ms. Naranjo decorated with traditional elements like a faux fireplace mantel and oil portraits bought from vintage stores, showcasing her décor on Instagram and being featured on design sites. She, too, became a sender of thoughtful cards and notes like Ms. Key-Linden. She longed for a courtyard rose garden.

In fact, wherever Ms. Naranjo lived in Albuquerque, Ridgecrest remained the ultimate neighborhood in her eyes, the place she visualized herself. And not just any address there.

“Pam would call us: ‘Hey, this house near me is going up for sale,’” Ms. Naranjo said. “We would look at it, but it wasn’t right. I would say, ‘But Pam, it’s not your house.’”

After Ms. Key-Linden’s husband died, Ms. Gaxiola learned that the executors of the estate, which included Mr. Duhon, planned to put the home on the market. She told her daughter, and Ms. Naranjo and her husband, who works in cybersecurity, immediately wanted to buy the house.

But first, Ms. Naranjo called her sister. “She asked me, ‘Sis, because you are older than me, are you interested in buying Pam’s house?’” Ms. Garcia recalled. “I said, ‘No, but if you are doing it, it would be beautiful. It would honor not only Pam but my mom.”

Ms. Naranjo contacted the executors and said she wanted to purchase the house and everything in it. Due to the pandemic, the process stretched on for close to a year. Some of the home’s contents were donated or sold to others in the meantime.

When she finally closed on the house and moved in, Ms. Naranjo was overcome by the memories and lengths of her personal journey. Her father had painted those walls. Her mother had cleaned those rooms. She herself had emptied the wastebaskets as a little girl. She and her husband paid nearly $472,000 for the house.

“My whole family’s fingerprint is on this home,” Ms. Naranjo said. “It was so emotional.”

For Ms. Gaxiola, coming to the house in Ridgecrest in this new way has been a happy turn. “Now, I’m coming as a guest,” she said, and added with a laugh, “Sometimes I still want to get up and pick up something or put something away. I have to hold myself back.”

At first, Ms. Naranjo was paralyzed about making any design decisions. She was finally living in Pam’s house. But that was the problem — in her mind, it was Pam’s house.

Her initial instinct was to treat it as a shrine, down to keeping the paint colors on the walls.

Slowly, Ms. Naranjo started to visualize her own touch on the house. “I realized that much of my desire to keep the house the same was to not disappoint anyone in Pam’s life,” she said, adding that when she realized no one cared, “it was freeing. That released me to just go for it.”

Mr. Duhon has stayed in touch with Ms. Naranjo and visited her since she bought Ms. Key-Linden’s house. He sees similarities between the two women in their shared desire for a beautiful home and their vision to carry it out, even if the results are different.

“It’s very different than what Pam did, which is perfectly fine,” Mr. Duhon said. “It was always grand in Pam’s style, and it’s a grand home for Dominic and Nichol.”

Ms. Naranjo has ripped out the wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the house to expose the original hardwood floors, and she and her husband intend to change the Spanish tile roof to something more like cedar shake. Ms. Naranjo’s style is more youthful and D.I.Y.; in her previous home, she hung a boat-shaped chandelier in the dining room, a piece she has brought with her. She is making the home her own.

But there are a few paintings that were in the home when Ms. Key-Linden lived there. There’s a chair in the dining room and a sink in the powder room that Ms. Key-Linden brought over from England.

In the primary bedroom, Ms. Naranjo has the vintage Thomasville desk that belonged to Ms. Key-Linden’s parents, the one she used to sit under.

“We’ve seen some hard times in our life. This was always a place to come and catch our breath,” she said. “And to dream.”

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