The Tree We Sit Under

Juan Fourneau

WHEN I WAS BORN IN Iowa in 1973, my parents were renters—and they didn’t become homeowners until eight years later. Looking back, I can see that it would have been hard for them to buy a house. When my dad started at the factory where he worked for more than 30 years, it didn’t pay the best.

But as Bandag, the retread company he worked for, began to prosper under its founder Roy James Carver, the workers formed a union. By the mid-1970s, they started receiving more generous wages, with decent pay increases each year, and soon it became one of the best jobs in town.

Like others who write for this website, I was a financial nerd as a kid. I paid attention to the news, and I remember the high inflation and terrible recession of the early 1980s. As I grew older, I learned who Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker was, and that he raised interest rates to painful heights to crush inflation.

I was also aware that my parents had bought their house on contract, meaning the seller financed their purchase. It wasn’t uncommon at the time. With interest rates so high, there was an incentive for sellers to provide financing. Meanwhile, buyers could sometimes get an interest rate that was a few percentage points lower than that offered by the bank, or the seller might require a smaller down payment.

When I bought my first house in 2001, I got a Department of Housing and Urban Development—or HUD—loan. As I recall, my HUD loan required just a 3% down payment because I was a first-time homebuyer. But when my parents bought their home in 1981, they were probably required to make a 20% down payment.

 How did my parents come up with the money? Even with towering interest rates, raising the cash for the down payment must have been Dad’s biggest obstacle to the American dream. When I asked him how he did it, his answer surprised me: He’d inherited a piece of property.

His widowed aunt Elena, who lived in the border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico, had owned a jewelry store with her late husband. The couple didn’t have children. They also owned a few commercial properties near the bustling town square where the jewelry business was located.

When my dad’s aunt died, Dad inherited one of her commercial properties. He sold the property, pocketing enough for the down payment. Without his aunt’s bequest, I wonder if my parents would have ever owned a home.

Why did Elena leave my father the property? The story goes back to my grandparents. My grandfather died young, leaving my grandmother Dora to raise two children as a single mother in 1950s Mexico—a hard life for sure. My father was just two years old at the time.

Working and taking care of two children proved too much for my grandmother. My father’s sister—my aunt—tells the story of being taken by my grandmother to live with a relative when she was a toddler. After several months, when my grandmother could afford to bring her back home, Dora made the two or so hour bus ride to pick up her daughter.

When my aunt answered the door, she didn’t recognize her mother. It broke my grandmother’s heart and brought her to tears. Dora took my aunt home and reunited her with my dad. My grandmother never had to separate them again.

My grandmother had a strong support system that helped her over the years. My dad’s aunt and uncle, whom I have no memory of, were among those who pitched in. It was this aunt, Elena, who left the commercial property to my father.

The home that my parents bought was no mansion. But it was in a middle-class neighborhood, surrounded by homeowners, not renters. We left behind the Mexican immigrant barrio in Iowa I’d known my entire childhood. I remember my mom’s friends coming to visit and telling her, in Spanish, how they dreamed of having a home like ours someday.

All this was possible because of my aunt’s bequest. When I hear the term “generational wealth” or hear Dave Ramsey speak of changing your family tree, I think of this story. Investments and legacies compound. My dad’s uncle and aunt planted a seed, and my family sat under the tree that bloomed in faraway Iowa.

For me, the story is humbling: My family got something many others didn’t. The majority of people I knew growing up never inherited a dime.

Yes, Dad got dealt a tough hand when his father died so young. But he also got some good cards: a strong healthy body, a love for reading that facilitated his ability to learn English, and coming of age in an era when he could leave home to make a better life for himself in the U.S. Another piece of good fortune: Dad’s mom was an American citizen, having been born on the Texas side of the Mexican border, and that allowed my dad to get his green card.

Dad maximized these ace cards, including his inheritance. He made good bets and thought long-term. His grandchildren are in a better spot for the decisions he made long before they were born. Still, credit also goes to the generosity of a widow in Mexico I never knew. Thank you, Tia Elena.

Juan Fourneau’s goal is to retire at age 55. When he isn’t at his manufacturing job, he enjoys reading and writing about personal finance, investing and other interests. Juan, who is married with two children, retired from the ring after wrestling on the independent circuit for more than 25 years. He wrestled as a Mexican Luchador under the name Latin Thunder. Follow Juan on Twitter @LatinThunder1, visit his website and check out his previous articles.

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