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The Vine: January 22, 2014

Submitted by on January 22, 2014 – 11:33 AM7 Comments


I just turned thirty. My uncle sends me a check in the mail on my birthday and Christmas, I promptly send him a thank-you note.

This is pretty much our only communication. When I send my thank-you note to him this time, I'd like to include a note along the lines of: since I'm now unmistakably a "real grownup" I'd love to keep hearing from you on my birthday and at Christmas, but there's no need to send a check.

If we had a closer relationship, I'd just say something like this in person. All of my other aunts and uncles have pretty much turned off the gift spigot unless there is a special occasion like my MBA graduation.

To complicate matters, the rest of my family is estranged from this uncle. There was some shady dealing around my grandparents' will. My father (this uncle's brother) died when I was a kid, we got excised from the grandparents' will by my uncle when my grandparents were not mentally able to conduct their own affairs. The reason he gave was that my father's will provided for us. That was pretty shitty, but I've decided that maintaining contact with one of the few people that knew my dad growing up is more important than taking a stand about the money. (I'm also not sure how to take that stand 15 years after the will situation — one of my sisters didn't invite him to her wedding, my other sister stopped writing thank you notes to cut off communication). The rest of my family has made the opposite decision.

One of the reasons I'd like to cut off the birthday money is because I don't want to feel beholden him in any way.

Your help is much appreciated! I enjoy the column.

I'll send a thank-you note, just don't send a gift

Dear Send,

Are you asking me how to cut off the gift checks, or whether you've done the right thing maintaining contact with your uncle?

You spend a fair bit of your letter rationalizing your decision not to cut him off the way everyone else did, and while I think your wanting to stay in touch with your father's remaining family is understandable, I also think you have to ask yourself whether the gift/thank-you-note "relationship" you have with him counts as "maintaining contact." Leaving aside the fact that, from my perspective, your uncle sends the money because he feels guilty about screwing you and your family of origin out of a share of your grandparents' estate (or thinks your accepting it means you accept him, or whatever feelings he has about that situation), if you still want to know the guy because he's a connection to your father, great, I get it — but how much of that is actually happening? How many stories about your pops do you know via Uncle? Do you feel like you still know your dad or have a relationship with him because you occasionally get a money envelope from Uncle?

Because if you do, even if it's sort of superstitious? Then it's worthwhile. This isn't a criticism of your handling of Uncle, now or in the past. But I think what you're really telling me is that you really don't want the occasion money because you too sense that it's coming from a beholden place, on Uncle's part for sending it primarily but maybe on yours for accepting it — but at the same time, you hesitate to tell him to stop, because what if that's the only way he knows how to communicate with you at all, and then even that stops?

And you don't mention how your mom and sisters feel about you still getting these checks, or whether they even know, and that's fraught…I just think you have to tell yourself the truth about what you really want, and don't want, from Uncle. You have to accept that it's some dark family ooze you're wading through with the bad blood and the money and whatnot. You have to consider speaking honestly to Uncle about what you really want his cards to contain, with the understanding that he may not be able to give it to you.

I mean, as far as the checks themselves go, just write the note you yourself suggested, and if he keeps sending them and you feel funny about it, give the money to charity or use it to bring your mom for a mani or something. As far as what the checks mean to you, you have to figure that out for yourself, but it's okay to feel conflicted about it, and it's okay to use them as a thread that ties you to your father, so if you're beating yourself up about that, don't…and if you're beating yourself up for maybe wanting to move past that, don't.

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  • Chrissimas says:

    I don't know if this is a good idea or not, but what about asking him to send a memory of your father (when they were kids, teens, whenever) with each birthday card instead of the money? Then you'd kind of be getting what you want out of the contact. I don't know if he'd do it – some people have a really hard time writing stuff like that down (I know I do), but maybe it's worth asking?

  • Mairead says:

    He's not sending you actual cash, right? Maybe it works differently where you are, but here if you don't use a cheque within a certain time limit it will expire. So maybe you can still send the 'nice to hear from you' note and simply ignore the money.

  • ferretrick says:

    It sounds like you are only getting back a tiny portion of what is rightfully yours. I'd keep accepting the money, keep writing the thank you notes, not feel beholden for that, and feel good about it.

    But if that's not for you, then I would just say something like, "Thank you so much, but it's really not necessary since I'm now an adult. I would so much rather hear from you instead." That puts the ball in his court if he wants to pick up the olive branch and try to have a real relationship, or keep it to biannual notes.

  • Debineezer says:

    Or just send the check on…you don't have to tell anyone.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Yeah, the money is kind of existential here–it has the meaning you assign it. Gifts don't make you beholden to the giver, or they're not gifts, they're strings. That's not an endorsement of selfishness or ingratitude, only a reflection that you can't make a person, monetarily or otherwise, transform into the person you want them to be, or forgive and forget if they don't.

    What meaning your uncle assigns the money is on him. You don't owe him continued contact because he sends the checks, nor can you pry a closer relationship/memories of your father out of him either by keeping the checks or requesting that they stop. Try to keep the money from hauling more then its fair share of the whole sticky family past and you will probably get a clearer understanding about what you actually want from this connection and if that desire has a feasible chance of coming to pass.

  • Maria says:

    So you have enough anger at him that you don't want to be beholden to him, but he is still a connection to your father who has passed. I get that. It's hard to lose these people, and still having elders feels like in some way you still have that connection.

    I think you could ask about a trip to see him so you can talk to him about your father. Sort of a "Roots" expedition. I think it will probably only take one trip to sort it all out. While you are there you can talk to him about the checks and say, thanks but let's change that going forward. Maybe he has photos to share. That would mean more to you (even if all you can do is scan them onto a thumb drive). All I have to say about this is, it may be that you can easily get your fill of his memories about your dad when you weren't even alive. They are your uncle's memories, not yours.

    One nice thing about reaching adulthood is that you get to decide how you want to live. Don't worry that it's an affront to your sibs and other family members if you contact your uncle. It's not your job to hold their grudge. Focus on what you want from the relationship, now while he's still alive and able to answer any questions.

    Finally, in my experience with older people, they have a set idea about how inheritance should work, namely so that the closest living relatives get the most money. They don't ever see it as a pot that should be divided equally–it's all about hierarchy. I'm certain that's a big part of why he did it this way. It's not entirely about the cash, it's about standing. Is it loving to the whole? Nope. Was it even what your grandparents would have wanted? We'll never know. I guess you have to decide what your own feelings about him are.

    Good luck!

  • Artemesia says:

    My father was done this way by his relatives too and his deceased mother's share of his grandparents' estate denied him. One of his uncles fought for his right to inherit and preserved his estate; it was really trivial money but it mattered to my father who was putting himself through college. People like your uncle are frankly scum — to steal from his dead brother's children — hard to see anything but total ugliness in that.

    I love the idea of asking him for memories of your father. It may give you some stories you don't know and should twist the knife every time you ask him.

    To accept money from this thief except your rightful share is just a way of reassuring him that not everyone things he did the wrong thing.

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