Help me sort out what I should say to my aunt -- family drama.
February 22, 2013 7:35 PM   Subscribe

Background: When my father learned I was gay, he disowned me. Think radical old-world "you are dead to me." This was many years ago -- well over a decade. He was very serious and cut off all contact with me. Made it clear I was out of the will and all of that -- very dramatic. I did try to initiate contact a few times many years ago, but was rebuffed. This is not what my question is about though -- I am at peace with this. I know I am a worthwhile and lovable person and I have many people in my life who care about me/love me. I had therapy when all this happened and I really feel I dealt with the emotions then. I know I am lovable and valuable person. Also, my relatives on my late Mother's side -- who are also quite old-world -- surprised me with their acceptance...

My question is about my aunt -- my father's sister. She was not exactly super warm when she found out I was gay -- "I love you anyway" type thing. She lives very far away -- many hours by plane -- and so we used to email once in while -- pleasantries and such. But for a long time she did not know I was gay. We just emailed Christmas wishes and that type of thing. After the situation with my father, I decided not to continue to tell that side of the family. And since this aunt lived very far away it never really came up in our once in a while emails.

How she found out I was gay: about five years ago, she -- in a nutshell -- emailed me and chastised me for not talking to my father. (It was quite sudden, I assumed she knew we were not talking.) She said I should forgive him -- he's my father and so on. What? Forgive him? Well, my father told her I was not talking to him (and not vice versa) because I was angry that he remarried etc. - I was not/am not. He lied saying it was my doing that we were estranged. He would not tell anyone I am gay I guess...the "shame" of it. Indeed I was very, very nice to his wife when we met -- before the disowning debacle.

I told her that he was, in fact, not talking to me. I explained that I am gay, he disowned me -- the whole story. And that I would love it if we had a relationship (not so true now) but it's his decision not mine. After that there was radio silence for quite a while - many months -- maybe a year. That hurt, but I moved past it.

When she did email me back she basically said: your father is your father and he feels the way he feels. Along those lines. Well, I am not sure what I thought then -- it was a long time ago -- but I recall that I was kind of thinking that she could have said more than "I love you anyway." It was not very a very supportive message and I was hoping she'd say my father was wrong or something. Nope. Both of them are in their mid to late 60s. She just said that even if my father and I were not in touch she wanted to keep in touch with me.

Then she disappeared -- no emails -- she was not in touch. I guess it's been 3 or 4 years. Mind you, I did not email her either, but I was unhappy about that contact and I didn't feel like emailing her...I was upset. I guess I felt like she took my father's side. Well, that's not quite what I mean -- but I did not feel supported by her. She and my father are very close. We were very close when I was a child/teen too. I do love my aunt.

And so out of the blue she emails me this week to wish me a happy birthday. Just a short note..."we have not talked in a while, hope you are well" type thing -- not much content. Short, friendly it hasn't been a very long time!

Now I am fretting about what to do -- if or how to respond. I am not typically a fretter, but this threw me for a loop.

There is a reason for this thrown for a loop feeling beyond the existing family dynamic --

My father had very, very serious surgery (a life or death matter) six months ago after and no one told me. Not even her. I found out by a non-family member in a very coincidental way. No one on my late mother's side knew about this either. (They don't care for my father as they love me and hate the way he's treated me.)

My father, nor my aunt know that I know about the surgery. His not telling me felt like a very, very clear signal he wanted nothing to do with me -- not even in the face of death.

My aunt's not telling me makes me feel complex emotions that I am finding it hard to sort out -- that she obeyed his wishes perhaps? That she agreed I should not be told since I was gay and did not deserve to know he was unwell? Was she going to tell me if he died? I don't know -- the feelings are complex.

So now she's emailed me this short little warm little email and I don't know how handle it. I feel -- I think -- angry -- or maybe I feel sad?

I don't want to just be all warm and chit chatty. I think I want to tell her she need not wish me happy birthday if she thinks I don't need to know my father almost died.

What should I email my aunt back -- should I even email her back?

posted by Lescha to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Respond to your aunt, with an equally simple note of 'thanks for your good wishes.' It sounds like she's trying to reopen communication with you, but probably doesn't quite know how to do it --- go slow, be friendly and polite.

The thing is, you don't actually KNOW why she cut off contact years ago: you don't know if it was because your father ordered her to or because she herself had to learn to accept you. Give her the benefit of the doubt: as you say, she's elderly and conservative, and is trying to change her lifelong beliefs in your favor.
posted by easily confused at 7:44 PM on February 22, 2013 [12 favorites]

I would email back something like, 'Thank you. It's good to hear from you again. Its been so long, is there anything new with you? I hope you and my father are well. Best Wishes -Lescha"

Non-committal, gives her a chance to come clean, and nice and friendly so she feels bad if she doesn't.
posted by Garm at 7:46 PM on February 22, 2013 [16 favorites]

if I was in your situation, and didn't desire a continuing relationship with this woman, I would not e-mail her back.
posted by royalsong at 7:46 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Email her back a quick thank you. Then, drop it.

I'm entirely estranged from my family. Do you know what that means? That means it is like these people never existed. I mean, they exist, but only in the past.

In the past they were your family.

Today they're just people you don't know.

Email your aunt back a quick friendly thank you, the way you might to an old work buddy or the like who dropped you a line, and think no more of this.

Also. Therapy.
posted by jbenben at 7:48 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think you should email her. I think you should call her. And, of course, I'd feel similarly to you about this whole thing -- very weird and very wary. You obviously aren't too keen on getting set up to be rejected again and again. She's reaching out to you. However, now she knows. You know she knows. How much acceptance do you need from her? I think it might be worth calling her up and feeling things out (if it's important to you to have a connection with her). In the course of the conversation you can mention that you feel quite rejected by your father and it was his doing that caused the estrangement and you can't and won't change who you are so it's very tough to see a way around all this. See what she says. Keeping in mind that they were raised in the same household and by the same parents. She may have difficulties accepting you due to how she was raised.

My uncle is gay with a lifelong partner. My Dad, his older brother, not only could not accept this but got very angry when it was raised. I've often wondered just exactly went down in their family and I know his childhood wasn't easy. I somehow feel that my father felt guilty about his younger brother. But, of course, that was just a weird sense I got and was never able to broach the topic without him getting increasingly more angry and stressed out. While he would speak to his brother on the phone and write xmas cards, he was never able to really accept him. The only time we ever met/saw my uncle's partner was at his father's (my grandfather's) funeral. That should tell you something about what the family must have been like growing up. Never acceptance until the patriarch was dead. Anyway....

You need to decide what you want from your aunt. I've just recently reconnected with some family who were estranged due to entanglements in inheritance among the older generation. It pissed me off that the younger folks got caught in the crossfire and for awhile things have been really weird with bizarre games of telephone and people not talking to other people or spreading strange rumors and hearsay. It's been nice to just talk and put our voices and faces to people so that we can all remember that these aren't our problems.

So, if you want a relationship with your aunt, I think you should call her. Listen to her voice. Reconnect in a very basic way and see where it goes. If she tells you any kind of bullshit about "taking sides" or not being able to accept your "lifestyle" or crap like that, cut off contact. I have a feeling that she wants a relationship with you so take that for what it is -- positive.
posted by amanda at 7:51 PM on February 22, 2013

I'm estranged from my dad for totally different reasons, but like you, part of that estrangement has meant being cut off from his siblings and their kids. Thanks to social media some of those estranged relatives have popped back into my life in a distant way.

My approach is to let this happen. I am sort of keeping them at arms length because, perhaps like you, I felt like my aunts had an obligation as senior members of the family to make their own choice to keep in touch with me, and they failed initially. But in fairness, my aunts were the ones who eventually reached out to me, I didn't reach out to them. I feel like that has to count for something, so I'm slowly easing back into being in contact.

I won't talk about my dad with them at this time, although maybe that's a possibility down the road, but I am enjoying talking with them about who I am now, and who they are now, and we can maybe get into details of the years we missed with each other soon, and then from there who knows. I'm trying to be open to it.

In my case, I have children of my own, and they are old enough that they are beginning to be curious about this blank corner of my life. I don't want that to persist. But I think that even if the kids weren't a forcing function, I would probably still want to edge back into my family tree and be a part of the lives of my relatives.
posted by padraigin at 8:02 PM on February 22, 2013

I would write back a thank you, but I don't know that I would be as friendly as Garm's suggested message is. I guess it seems like a good idea to me to just keep a little contact with that side of the family so that you can get a bit of news every once in a while. And you don't know what's been going on with her and your father; for all you know, she may have gone to bat for you with your father after doing some soul-searching of her own. I think I would be hesitant to just cut off all communication there, all possibility of a relationship, when you don't know what's been happening. But that's just me. More importantly, what do YOU want to do? Do you feel done with the lot of them?
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:21 PM on February 22, 2013

If you don't want to reconnect, no contact. If you want to reconnect, phone. E-mail is a pointless in-between.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:27 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry - this sounds crazy-making!

I wouldn't read too much into not hearing about your father's surgery. Even in families not as fractured as yours, people can get plain weird about serious illness and telling people/not telling people. I've heard way too much from some family members about minor stuff....and nothing about a life/death bypass surgery that I was really kind of aggravated about later. I wouldn't take not being told about your father's surgery as necessarily a rebuff.

You can, of course, say nothing in response to this email, and choose to have to contact with these family members. But that doesn't sound like what you want. Is it? There's some hope in you, I gather from the fact you wrote this Ask, to at least have some contact with your aunt.

I would suggest just a polite brief response to your aunt, then leave the ball in her court. Don't hope for much. If there's to be anything more, it's her job to build a bridge back to you -- you've put yourself out there enough.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:33 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd call her. You have nothing to lose, and potentially a couple things to gain: (1) in the best case, an actual warm exchange because she's actually ready to drop the bigot crap; (2) a response to the question of "why didn't you tell me about my father's surgery?"

If she's not ready to be "family" with you then you've lost nothing and gained clarity and freedom from her benighted side of the family. If she is ready to love you, great, even better.

Emailing is pointless though -- too much room for confusion and misreading.

Good luck. Sorry about your dad.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:42 PM on February 22, 2013

One thing to consider is that she's in rough spot - she's torn between her sibling and her niece. You may want to find out what your father requested before you judge her choice to not disclose your father condition. If you father asked that you not be informed or indicated that you were out of contact, she was in an position where there was no clear choice. You may not agree with the choice she made, but you can probably see it was a difficult

Email her to keep the lines of communication open. You can always decide to cut off contact in the future.
posted by 26.2 at 9:10 PM on February 22, 2013

I don't have an answer for your direct question- whether/how to email your aunt. I do note that, since your estrangement from your father, much of your story is about assumptions you are making about your relatives' feelings toward you and your sexual orientation. There's not a lot of evidence toward how they really feel along those lines.
You can spin this around in your head and here on the Green, but the only way to know is to ask those questions to them.
posted by TDIpod at 9:45 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you haven't read the oldie but goodie The Dance of Intimacy, I really recommend it. Lots of information on how to deal with difficult relationships while retaining your own comfort & dignity. My gut feeling is that your dad is not in good shape, health-wise, and your aunt is reaching out to you to re-establish contact because she wants to be able to pass on news to you if something happens in the near future.

My response would be an email that was short, pleasant, and vague, followed immediately by a shot of whisky. You can only do so much.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:58 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to second the recommendation to e-mail something polite and non-committal, IF you are interested in maintaining any kind of contact/knowledge about what is going on in the family.

You don't have to be too effusive and you don't have to extend the olive branch further than she has done. But, by opening the door a crack, you have a chance to see what really is on the other side. If you don't like it, you can close it again.
posted by rpfields at 1:48 AM on February 23, 2013

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