The Vine: January 22, 2014
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
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.
Tags: etiquette the fam