Contacted out of the blue by estranged elderly relative
February 9, 2019 12:59 PM   Subscribe

My grandmother was married to a man named "Paul" for 35 years. I grew up with him as my grandfather. After my grandmother died, the whole family's relationship with him deteriorated to the point of zero contact. After not speaking to Paul for over 10 years he found my email address and sent me a message this week. He is 85 years old now, and I'm not sure how to respond (lots of details below the fold).

Paul is a textbook narcissist/egomaniac and has always been a bit of a handful to deal with. Her entire life, my grandmother kept their financial accounts separate (she was fabulous with managing money and was quite well off and he was fabulous at spending it). Before she died, we did things like pick out which heirlooms and items of sentimental value we wanted and she explained who she wanted to get what from her estate. However, in her will she named Paul as actually getting everything.

He then preceded to completely ignore all of the things we had decided as a family - a deep violation of trust. Beyond cash disputes, he did things like "borrowing" some of my grandmother's jewelry for cleaning that was left to me and my cousin then selling or getting rid all of it. I have virtually nothing of my grandmother's now. I was the last person to stop speaking to him, as the result of him casually disposing of deeply sentimental items that my grandmother had very specifically said she wanted me to have.

I was about 22 the last time we had any contact. He had started a non-profit that produced pro-Israeli propaganda (he converted to Judaism) and he wanted to me to help make and distribute these eccentric films on YouTube.

This week I received an email from him on my school email, which I found unsettling because he must have been doing some snooping to find it. He is 85 years old now, lives very far away from me, and is currently re-married. I don't trust him and I don't particularly want to rekindle any type of relationship, though we had been very close when I was growing up. However, he does still have some irreplaceable sentimental items that I would very much like to get back, such as my grandmother's family Torah.

I'm tempted to respond to the email because at this point I feel like I have nothing to lose, I'm an independent person who lives 2,000 miles away and he's really old. The only reason I'm tempted to engage with him is to see if I can recover my stuff and I'm pretty sure he knows that. Should I just let it go and assume these items are lost or is it worth it to test the waters and respond?
posted by forkisbetter to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you could send him a reply in which you simply ask for him to send specific items which were promised to you and your family members to a specific address, perhaps a PO box in a town a couple over from the one you actually live in. If he's contacting you in good faith and wants to have a positive relationship on your terms, he probably won't fight that since it sounds pretty clear he's in the wrong. If he gives a reply that seems like he's gonna make you do work to get your stuff back, then just let it die at that point because he's just holding the stuff over your head and will never actually cough up the heirlooms. Probably it will be the latter, unfortunately, but it sounds like it's worth trying.

Don't test the waters, though. Just politely but clearly explain that there are several items which your grandmother promised to you and your family and that you were all very hurt when he kept them. Let him know that if he wants to continue talking with you, he will need to first return those items as a show of good faith. Be calm, but be firm, and don't budge at all. If he tries to make a game of it, just block him, the end.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:12 PM on February 9 [21 favorites]

It's probably very unlikely that you're going to see that stuff again but what did he say in the email? Did it sound anything like conciliatory or wanting to restart a relationship? Like were there any hooks in there you could grab onto?
posted by bleep at 1:13 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Actually I think this is really good advice:
Don't test the waters, though. Just politely but clearly explain that there are several items which your grandmother promised to you and your family and that you were all very hurt when he kept them. Let him know that if he wants to continue talking with you, he will need to first return those items as a show of good faith.

Make that paper trail and hope that his new wife does the right thing after he passes away.
posted by bleep at 1:24 PM on February 9 [14 favorites]

Do not engage. He literally stole from 22 year old you. Precious family heirlooms for money. It seems highly unlikely this man changed from 75 to 85. Please just pretend this never happened. I'm angry you didn't get the jewelry and Torah, but it can only get worse by contacting him.
posted by Kalmya at 1:41 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]

You have nothing to lose by stating clearly something like "it's wonderful to hear from you and I hope that this means you are going to send me items X and Y which as you know, Grandma wanted me to have. You can send them to Z address (PO box, care of a friend, whatever.) I hope you and Sheila are doing well and look forward to getting caught up." Either he will send it (great! you're done) or he won't (in which case, having a description and instructions for sending you the stuff, his wife just might send them to you when he dies.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:42 PM on February 9 [12 favorites]

Adding to fingersandtoes' suggestion, don't engage beyond letting him know you expect that he'll send you the items or compensation of equal value. And make sure the address is a PO box. Once you've done that, over and out.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:48 PM on February 9

If you know he has those items, does that mean he mentioned them in the email? If so, that might mean he’s willing to give them to you.

People change all the time, and even someone who did very shitty things isn’t necessarily a total monster. As he’s approaching his own death, it’s quite possible he wants to make things right. Since you were the last person to stop speaking to him, he might think you’re the most likely to let him make restitution.

Of course, there might be something in the actual content of his email that makes my conjectures unlikely.

But I would try to get my grandmother’s things if I were you. Worse case scenario, you’ve wasted some emotional energy. Best case, you regain some treasured items.
posted by FencingGal at 1:54 PM on February 9 [2 favorites]

Inheritances are funny things. Your grandmother had the opportunity to set out her wishes in a legal document before she died, and because she chose not to do so, Paul inherited those things. They legally belong to him, and so he may well feel that they morally belong to him also.

That doesn't mean that you need to respond to his contact or to change your feelings about your grandmother's things, but aside from asking (not demanding) if you could have the sentimental items in his position, you may want to think about whether you would be willing to buy them off him.
posted by plonkee at 2:23 PM on February 9 [11 favorites]

The items are almost certainly gone. I guess you have to decide if it is worth asking about them, if hearing that he sold them will cause you to reopen those old wounds and if it’s worth risking that in the small chance that there is a) anything left and b) he would give it back to you anyway. The odds of someone who lied and stole from you having a complete change of heart is slim at best.
posted by Jubey at 4:43 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I have a different point of view. I would treat those items as gone, andI wouldn’t respond. You have your grandmother’s memory and love. You don’t need to deal with this jerk again. I would use the time you’re putting into this to record some memories and just go on living your own excellent present life, not get sucked into this old territory.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:43 PM on February 9 [12 favorites]

If you saw the will and your grandmother left every thing to her husband then you should just forget about it. Legally he has no reason to provide those things considering whether or not he actually has them. If it were me I would not respond at all. Just let it be. You may open a can of worms worse than not getting those things. He comes out of the woodwork and contacts you. That is scary. Surely he knows how you feel about him in the past.
posted by JayRwv at 6:34 PM on February 9 [3 favorites]

I have a different point of view. I would treat those items as gone, and I wouldn’t respond.

Despite my advice above, I think this is a perfectly valid approach as well and in fact it's what I did when I was in a similar situation as you are.

I have a relative who my family does not speak to due to a pretty similar inheritance issue. The disowned relative found me on social media several years ago, messaging me to try to get back in touch. My response was to silently block them and tell no-one of the incident (until now). I was just thinking about that decision today, and reflecting that I still feel good about that choice, now that I'm years down the road. If you feel like the thing to do is just not respond, that's an OK choice to make.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:11 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]

The only reason I'm tempted to engage with him is to see if I can recover my stuff and I'm pretty sure he knows that.

It doesn't matter if he knows it. You know it, and you also know that the only way to get your stuff is to ingratiate yourself to a person you clearly hate and want nothing to do with.

Is that how your grandma would want you spending your mental and emotional energy?
posted by East14thTaco at 5:46 AM on February 10

From my experience of former step family getting in touch, if they really have good intentions they will be up front and explicit about such. There should be some language suggesting he wants to make some kind of amends. Otherwise-- or even if he's acting like he wants to make amends-- it's all too likely that he's just lonely or feeling maudlin or even looking for some new way to take advantage of you. Imagine the most frustrating outcome and then multiply it by about five; it could be just that bad. Do you want to take that gamble in order to have a chance at getting your stuff back? That's not a rhetorical question; it may well be that you do.

My dad's widow and the rest of her family broke with me and my siblings in a way that really stung, mostly to do with them wanting more of the estate. It's been a few years and now the main takeaway is that I'm really grateful to the actual family I have left and those other people can pretty much stay gone. So that's where I'm coming from. If it's a case where you have any positive feelings about someone who is estranged, especially someone that elderly, it might be a kindness to say so but if you don't, protecting yourself is the biggest priority in my opinion.
posted by BibiRose at 6:47 AM on February 10

What did he say in his email? Just general "I wanted to reach out to you for no particular reason after all of these years" pleasantries?

I'd probably say something like "It was a surprise to hear from you. I'm curious as to why you're reaching out to me. I hope that it is because you are willing to send me my grandmother's family Torah and other personal items."

It's okay to make this very transactional and not feel that you owe him anything further, even if he does hand over your things.
posted by desuetude at 1:52 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]

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