Cousin reconnected.
December 26, 2007 10:05 PM   Subscribe

Forgotten relations have parachuted into my life...Can I make them useful?

A few months ago, my mother's sister's husband rang me up. I hadn't seen him since my dad's funeral in 1992. He said he wanted to get in touch, and I was interested -- why not, I figured. Both my parents are dead and I have no family, other than an uncle on the east coast I rarely see (although I do have wonderful in-laws). And since my parents have been gone, I've been longing for someone to talk to about them.

Anyway, how to condense this? So my uncle by marriage is 87 and still charming. He took me to lunch a few times, spared no expense, and seemed fun and interested in my life and chatty. I was slightly disappointed that he didn't have much information about my mother. I don't know why I crave it so much, but it seems to me that my mother suffered a lot in her marriage to my dad, and that I was kept out of a lot of what was going on. In a way I've been dreading knowing more, but having this person around who was a link to old times and early memories and a possible source of interesting stories really excited me.

So my uncle has been wonderful, but he doesn't really care to talk about my folks. Enter his daughter, my cousin Gail. She started emailing me with an obsessive interest--at first. She was apologetic, almost humble, and said she felt bad that she deserted me at the time of my parents' deaths. It was okay, I said -- it's never too late to reach out, etc. But I was curious about why she wanted to get in touch again. We never really knew each other at all, what with a 20-year age difference and being in different cities. I knew that she and my uncle had had some dispute with my father just before he died, and I don't think they ever made it up with him before he passed on. I imagine a lot of what's behind their urge to connect with me is guilt-driven. But I'm not sure.

So I meet up with Gail (this is the first time I've seen her in about 30 years) and her father, my uncle, and gail's husband, and my uncle's wife, and my husband, and we have brunch in a weird, dark restaurant, and we promise to stay in touch, and since then I haven't heard from my uncle at all.

I'm wondering what I said or did, but the contact has stopped. I could call him, and I might... but I'm not sure I want to. He tells the same stories over and over, and has the wrong kind of approach to my mother: "She was a beautiful woman! Her figure was perfect!" Kind of pervy and not really what I'm after.

Gail has cancer, it turns out, and now I'm on her cancer email group list. I guess I'm flattered. I'm learning all about her illness, but I still don't really know her. She keeps saying she's going to invite us to visit her (she lives a few hundred miles away), but hasn't actually offered a specific date. She's cooled off quite a bit since meeting me and my husband. But I'm still on the damned email list.

I'm left with the feeling that I didn't measure up somehow, in a contest I never knew I was enrolled in. It's like, Hey, hi, I'm in your life now! Oh, hey, bye, I'm busy now, I'm not in your life anymore! My thought over this is just one gigantic WTF.

The only way Gail could be important to me, other than taking the time to get to know me, which she's obviously both too busy and too sick to do, would be to tell me what she remembers of my mother, her aunt. I feel like writing to her and saying, Gail, frankly I'm mainly interested in you because you're my last living link to my mother. You've hinted there's more to my mother's life than I was ever aware of, and you've suggested that you'd be willing to share that with me. I would appreciate it if you'd write down everything you can remember about her."

I don't want to imply that I have no other use for Gail, but she really milks her illness to an offensive extent. She seems to be expecting a certain reaction or involvement from me that I simply can't muster. I've never been seriously ill myself and I don't know what it's like, but I think it's rude that she only wanted to make contact with me in order to have another mourner at her funeral. I just need to know the things I need to know. If she wanted to put in some time to get to know me, or even just to exchange a few emails about something other than her doctor visits and her medications, I'd be willing. But I'm obviously not important enough to her to be worth that effort.

I apologize for the open-ended quality of the question, but please let me know your impressions and how you think I should approach talking to Gail about the only thing about her that means anything to me: her connection to my deceased mother.
posted by frosty_hut to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Rather than that you didn't measure up, my first (and admittedly simplistic) interpretation is that Gail's diagnosis is causing her to make amends in her life, including to you. Her lack of subsequent follow up is due to her busyness with her disease. I don't know how to fit your uncle into this equation, but could Gail have convinced him to reach out to you first, to smooth her way? It sounds like a complicated situation, with more to it than meets either our or your eyes. Have you considered asking them directly?
posted by lassie at 10:32 PM on December 26, 2007


I'm sorry that I didn't answer your most direct question -- I suppose that I'd try to first figure out where I stand with these relatives before I decide whether they're trustworthy sources of information about my mother. If I do trust them, then I would ask them to share with me their memories of her, specifying that I don't really want to know her vital statistics, but more what she was like as a person, in her marriage.
posted by lassie at 10:37 PM on December 26, 2007


I don't know how you feel about massaging the truth, but can you write her and say that you are considering compiling a written memoir of your mother, and would like her to contribute her memories? When my husband's mother died, all the relatives wrote down their favorite memories and stories and bound them in a book. Whether you actually want to compile the book is up to you, but I think it's a not-uncommon practice, and it sounds legit, so your cousin might be willing to help you out and write down a few things, assuming she's not too sick.

I don't know what to tell you about the cancer emails. I know it can be a terrible, exhausting struggle, and maybe she's just too involved in the grind of chemo and trying to keep her life together to reach out more to you. It might not be an intentional slight, just bad timing--she gets to know you as she gets sicker with the cancer.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 10:41 PM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


please let me know your impressions and how you think I should approach talking to Gail about the only thing about her that means anything to me: her connection to my deceased mother

I think your approach may come across as seeming a bit selfish. Generally, if you want someone to open up to you with respect to their memories, you'll need to invest some time in showing you can listen compassionately and sincerely. That would by all means include trying to understand Gail's perspective on her illness. For example.
posted by YamwotIam at 10:43 PM on December 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


Don't try to be sneaky or subtle about this. She's family and it's perfectly normal to talk with her, so long as you're willing to hold a real conversation, which means talking about all the things she might want to talk about also.

Thing is, cancer is a big deal. You say she hasn't visited, and I'm not surprised. Cancer can probably due that to someone's social calendar. It also tends to hone the mind: if you're on chemo and feel like crap, you're probably going to bring it up in conversation a lot. Why not pay her a visit? She can probably only blab on and on about her boring, boring cancer for so long before you can turn to her and say, "So Gail, what do you remember about my mother?" These sorts of conversations are normal with family, so you don't have to get too self-conscious about pumping her or data.

However, I don't see how her wanting to get another friend/acquaintance in her time of illness is any more exploitative than you wanting to find a "historian" of your mother's lilfe. Relatives telling you about their aches, pains, and ailments is so old it's a cliche.

It sounds like there are "family skills" that you don't have because you've had little family and tended not to interact with them. Unless you're older or married very, very young for example, it's supremely weird that you haven't seen these people in 30 years, because you are married. They should have been at your wedding (or at least, I can't imagine having a wedding without inviting any remaining relatives I had).

The only way Gail could be important to me, other than taking the time to get to know me, which she's obviously both too busy and too sick to do

What if you took the time to get to know her? Then maybe she might become important to you. Then maybe you would care enough about her to really, really hope she doesn't die before you get a chance to talk to her about your mother.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:56 PM on December 26, 2007


Did you really want to connect to these people or did you just want them to provide you with a connection to your mom? Honestly, it sounds as though these people were simply a means to an end for you.

Your uncle takes you to lunch and is interested in you. He doesn't want to meet you so that you can listen to him reminisce about his deceased sibling; he wants to be part of your life today. Gail is trying to reach out, but fumbling. She's including you in the most personal, important thing in her life right now. If you want off of her email list, then you can tell her that.

Consider this sentence, "I just need to know the things I need to know." Do you care about Gail or your uncle at all? It sounds as though you really have no interest in these people other than as sources of information (and perhaps lunch and weekend hosts). In fact, reread the second to last paragraph of your question. I think your answers are right there.

I'm sorry for the loss of your parents and I'm sorry to hear that it still troubles you deeply.
posted by 26.2 at 11:44 PM on December 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


I'd say your uncle got in touch with you because he is about to lose his daughter, and he is thinking you might be able to help fill the gigantic hole this is going to leave in his life and in his heart. The terrible thing is, this may be entirely unconscious on his part and bringing it up could make it useless to him as a defense and leave him in a kind of despair.

She got in touch with you, on the other hand, because he has been talking you up to her as he goes about the process of attempting to transfer his affections to you, and has made her jealous (and probably hurt her deeply, by the way), and she needed to check out the competition and see what the hell is going on there.

The kindest thing you can do, in my opinion, is to tell her something to the effect that he found you because he loves her so much that the prospect of losing her is completely devastating to him, and he has reached out in desperation to you as an inadequate substitute. It may even be true, but it is certainly something I believe she needs to hear.

If you decide to play along and humor an old man a little, you could possibly find out about your mother by getting him to reminisce about his wife, and steering the conversation around to their relationship with his in-laws, and thereby get revelatory glimpses of your mother in the context of her birth family that I cannot see how you could get in any other way at this point in time.
posted by jamjam at 12:10 AM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


You're thinking about these people only in the sense of how they can be useful to you. You appear to have no affection for them whatsoever, and you're asking us how to manipulate them into getting what you want.

I imagine they've sensed that; having zero interest in someone shows. You may be able to get what you want out of them by just asking, but you also might not. That profound disinterest on your part is likely to be the most powerful of all possible turnoffs.
posted by Malor at 12:12 AM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


...it's supremely weird that you haven't seen these people in 30 years, because you are married. They should have been at your wedding (or at least, I can't imagine having a wedding without inviting any remaining relatives I had).

No, it is not even close to supremely weird, and how exactly do easy casual judgments like these help answer this question? Families fall out all the time, and it's clear there is some intense and not-pretty history here.

Frosty_hut, you sound cold, but understandably so. This is what unhealed intergenerational rifts often produce -- relations who are little more than strangers. Yet because they are family, it's easy to have greater hopes and expectations of them. It's a strange line to ride.

I think the more dispassionate you are right now, the better. When there's bad blood like this -- especially anything that might reflect badly on these people -- you have to accept that you may never know the truth, or at best you may learn a very prejudiced version of it. You probably know that intellectually, but it's a whole other challenge to get your heart to know it. Tread very carefully here, as carefully as you need.

Try writing Gail a brief note using some of the language you've already used here, but also acknowledging her current situation. Really try to see her as a stranger, a very ill one who is coping gracefully or not with a frightening disease. You would probably have more sympathy for her then. Let that basic sympathy guide what you write, something along the lines of, "Gail, thank you for keeping me up to date on what's happening to you. This is such a difficult time for you and I appreciate you letting me know what's going on. I'm sorry you've been struggling with your illness, especially just as we were starting to get to know each other again. You're my last living link to my mother. In the past you've hinted there's more to my mother's life than I was ever aware of, and you've suggested that you'd be willing to share that with me. If you could make time to write down everything you can remember about her, or tape yourself talking about her, it would mean everything to me. If that's not possible, if you have any old pictures of her, copies would make me very happy. I still miss her so much and any help you can give me will be appreciated more than I could possibly say."

Then do everything in your power to let it go. If you get nothing in reply, you get nothing. If you get something self-serving or inaccurate, there still may be something of value there. If nothing else, you may get a picture or two -- at the very least, you will have tried. Strive to think of anything that results from this exchange as an unexpected bonus. I do hope you get some of the answers you are looking for. Best of luck.
posted by melissa may at 12:15 AM on December 27, 2007


I understand that the purpose of being alive is to help other people. What I don't get is what all the other people are for.
posted by flabdablet at 1:04 AM on December 27, 2007


No, it is not even close to supremely weird, and how exactly do easy casual judgments like these help answer this question? Families fall out all the time, and it's clear there is some intense and not-pretty history here.

Okay, so it is supremely weird for me: important events (like weddings and funerals) always mean meeting up with distant relatives, so it seems strange to me that she never invited anyone in her family to her wedding or managed to see any of them in 30 years. Perhaps "weird" was a loaded term. The point is, frosty clearly isn't familiar with family interactions. That's unfortunate because family interactions generally take more work than interactions with normal folk, and she is going to have to learn about this a little later in life. But I think itl'll be worth it.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:36 AM on December 27, 2007


Forgotten relations have parachuted into my life...Can I make them useful?

Only if you are able to distract these relations from the fact that you essentially only see them as a means to an end, and manage to feign some kind of interest in their own lives.

Your own complaints about them boil down to complaining that their actions seem to come across to YOU as, "We've reconnected with a forgotten relation....How can we make her useful?" Except the uncle, at least, seems to have a genuine fondness for you and interest in your life.
posted by availablelight at 1:44 AM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't think that Gail reached out to you to have one more mourner at her funeral. There are a few life events that just take over your every thought and conversation...weddings, for example, or pregnancy, or serious illness. When my friends got engaged we talked about their weddings almost exclusively up until the big day. I think this is similar. This is the biggest thing going on in Gail's life right now, and I think it's not unnatural that she wants to share it.

If I were you I'd call her up and get to know her by listening to her about her illness. Once you have a rapport, you could ask about your mother.
posted by christinetheslp at 6:18 AM on December 27, 2007


I was really surprised when I read the part where you feel judged or as if you'd failed. Your relatives are flakes. This is not your fault. Who knows? From their point of view maybe they took the big step in reaching out to you and are waiting for you to make the next move.

quick edit:

Gail, frankly I'm mainly interested in you because you're my last living link to my mother. You've hinted there's more to my mother's life than I was ever aware of, and you've suggested that you'd be willing to share that with me. I would appreciate it if you'd write down everything you can remember about her."

Send that.
posted by scarabic at 8:51 AM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't know how you feel about massaging the truth, but can you write her and say that you are considering compiling a written memoir of your mother, and would like her to contribute her memories?

Maybe you should actually do this anyway. Could be good for you.

Get a camcorder and interview Gail on tape. If she is freaking out about her mortality then it will be a good opportunity for her to go on the record and contribute something. It will also give you a good vehicle for pinning her down and setting the subject of the conversation. You'll have an excuse to ask her point blank any question you want, without appearing rude.

I would suggest you open with a few questions about her and what she's going through. This will soften her and get her to relax and open up to the interview.

Devious, perhaps, but there ya go.
posted by scarabic at 8:59 AM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I think asking someone to write things down is a losing proposition. Most people are too lazy or self-conscious about their writing to even start. And most of those who will start are such horrible writers it's not worth the exercise. If Gail is good in text, then ask her for some written memoirs. If she's more of a talker, I think the video interview could work well.
posted by scarabic at 9:01 AM on December 27, 2007


I'm left with the feeling that I didn't measure up somehow, in a contest I never knew I was enrolled in.

I could call him, and I might... but I'm not sure I want to. He tells the same stories over and over, and has the wrong kind of approach to my mother:

The only way Gail could be important to me, other than taking the time to get to know me, which she's obviously both too busy and too sick to do, would be to tell me what she remembers of my mother,

Who is measuring up who, in this case? If your uncle or Gail felt like you were only interested in what they had to say about your mother, I'm not surprised they are not really contacting you all that much. Of course, I am reading a bit into this, but that is certainly the impression that you have left with me: that your only motivation in knowing these people is what they can do for you. You might want to examine your interactions with them to see if there's any way they may have gotten the same impression, in which case it's perfectly natural for them to remain aloof.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:14 AM on December 27, 2007


Thanks so much for these thoughtful responses, I appreciate it.

In my own defense, I'm angry that Gail and her father were absent during my parents' illnesses and afterward. I could have used some support. I was twenty when my mother died, and 30 when my father died. Our family is not large, and I was alone in the hospital when dad passed away. I was alone that night when I went home, and alone for weeks afterward. I feel they should have made some contact. So I imagine that the lingering anger over this -- which wasn't on the front burner until the two of them contacted me -- is what is driving my manipulative approach.

Why do they get to make all the rules? They can leave my life when it's convenient for them, or it's too painful, but I have no say? Then, when THEY need support, it's hi, how are you, please help me through my cancer?

I'm pissed off. If I seem cold and manipulative, it's because I've been manipulated. That's the point I'm trying to make here. I don't really know these people, yet they expect me to jump up and down with gratitude that they've deigned to acknowledge my existence.

I appreciate your taking the time to help sort this out with me. I'm not a monster, honestly.
posted by frosty_hut at 4:07 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


frosty_hut, you certainly don't sound like a monster. I sincerely wish you well in finding the answers you're looking for. It doesn't sound like easy days for anybody.
posted by YamwotIam at 5:23 PM on December 27, 2007


I was twenty when my mother died, and 30 when my father died. Our family is not large, and I was alone in the hospital when dad passed away. I was alone that night when I went home, and alone for weeks afterward. I feel they should have made some contact.

Ouch. You have good cause. Like I said, your relatives are flakes.

Why do they get to make all the rules? They can leave my life when it's convenient for them, or it's too painful, but I have no say?

But I'm surprised at how much power you give them. Are you taking the initiative here? It sounds like there's a possibility you're hanging back, letting them make the moves, and then complaining if you don't like those moves. Are you actively seeking them out to the degree you desire their attention / involvement?

I know flakes can sometimes set the agenda. You call and call, they never answer. Then they call you, and what are you supposed to do? Ignore them out of spite? This can be frustrating, I understand. But be clear about what's happening. You have as much power as they do. Maybe you need to find creative ways of getting their attention. Show up at their door.

I am a flake and this works on me.
posted by scarabic at 10:13 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I don't think you're a monster. I doubt that anyone does.

It sounds as though you're very angry about something that happened a long time ago. That anger is tied into your bereavement for your parents which makes it very hard to fully understand and reconcile.

You have some choices to make. If you feel that your family slighted you when you lost your parents, then what do you gain out of repeating that behavior? You can stay angry, but you'll lose any chance you have with your relatives. You can let go of your anger for your own emotional health and decide that your relatives are a waste of your time anyway.

Just a thought, but are you angry at Gail for rejoining your life just in time to die? Do you feel that she's abandoning you again? I don't know the answers for you. From reading your question, it seems like you have a lot of emotional stuff swirling in this one area. If you feel it would benefit you, you might want to have a few sessions with a grief counselor to help you work through this specific issue.

Good luck finding the answers that can give you peace.
posted by 26.2 at 10:58 PM on December 27, 2007


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