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Family gift delivered upon burned bridge

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I just received a package that’s likely to be a Christmas gift from my brother and sister-in-law. They have been harshly critical of me over the past two years when I was doing the lion’s share of long-distance care for Mom. Very little assistance from them, but scathing insults and criticism.

I don’t want their gift and don’t plan to send them one. Should I put it back in the mail marked “Return to sender”? I don’t really feel like pretending to be friendly. – Bridge Burned

What would it take for any friendliness from you to be genuine?

“Bridge Burned” suggests there’s nothing they could do or say to repair the damage. If that’s true, then please tell them exactly so – after opening the package to see its message.

A refused package blinds you both: You can’t see what they’ve sent or why, and they can’t see what you mean by your refusal. Receiving their message and giving an unequivocal response is preferable to siccing silence on them, such a blunt and cowardly instrument.

That’s just the best way to handle a worst-case outcome, though – and ideally you’ll look for a best-case alternative here.

What your brother and sister-in-law did was terrible, I won’t argue otherwise. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to dump all the work on someone else and then judge that work to be lacking.

But what if they eventually came around to seeing that themselves? What if they took full responsibility, and admitted … say, allowing their fears to affect their judgment? Fear could certainly explain both their not getting as involved as your mother needed them to be, and their meddling in her care. What if they admitted fully to taking their stress out on you? What if they offered amends?

That’s a best-case scenario that isn’t beyond imagination. You know this couple, of course, where I can’t, and maybe between them they haven’t apologized for anything in their lives. Maybe it’ll be a routine gift (which you can then donate).

But assuming for the sake of argument they have some capacity to own up to their frailties: This is your brother. He holds your memories in his, and vice versa. You both deserve for him to have a chance to make this right, and if an attempt is in the package, you don’t write “return to sender” on that.

Hello, Carolyn: Every year my (single) mother visits for two weeks around Christmas. Ho ho ho, right? No no no.

My wife, normally a caring, kind and respectful woman, turns cold, rude and disrespectful. She hardly talks to my mother or even looks her in the eye.

My mom is a simple woman whose conversations are surface-level. My wife likes more sophisticated worldviews, and she can’t bring herself to treat my mother – who adores our two young girls and showers them with attention – with a minimum level of courtesy. Soon the girls will start to notice how chilly their mother is toward their grandmother, who has not done anything to deserve this. It’s really just a personality clash.

In fact, my wife says my mother’s personality reminds her of things she doesn’t like about me.

Do you have any guidance? The three of us are all Americans but my wife and I live in Africa. Mom only makes one visit a year. – Family Christmas Freeze-Out

Non-constructively, what I’d really like is to tell your wife to grow the blank up.

I say this as an introvert and therefore charter member of the Do Not Visit Me for More Than 48 Hours club.

Being on a different continent from one’s grandchildren warrants an exception to short-visit rules. Guests need the same boundaries as always – as in, don’t be overbearing if you enjoy seeing your grandkids – but violations require more diplomacy, not less. Frustrations with mere quirks go on a two-week full-suppression plan. You want to scream? OK. Scream on Day 15.

You wrote to me, not your wife, so I’m advising the wrong person, but you can play messenger. You can assure your wife that you get it, your mom isn’t her favorite source of witty dialogue and high-protein insight. But she’s also your mom and these kids’ grandma and she’s hauling herself halfway across the world, so you ask your wife please to muster a cease-snob for two stinkin’ weeks. Because that’s what kind people do.

If your wife isn’t fully kind – as her swipe at your unlikable traits would suggest – then this needs a follow-up answer on compassionate resistance.

If she’s kind but your mom just unravels her best intentions, then this is a fine time to look at Plans B. Such as, your wife takes a three-day field trip midway through your mom’s visit? Or she uses this stretch to visit her family stateside? Or – ?

Meaning: Ask her to do what she can to make nice. And if that fails, stop asking her to do what she can’t.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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