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How to be the bigger person when your relatives are jerks

Wednesday, May 12 2004
Dear Social Grace,

My husband and I have been married for 13 years. He has two married, adult children from his first marriage. The relationship between his children and me is less than amicable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have no relationship with them. (I wasn't invited to either wedding!) It is important to note that I live in Jerusalem and my husband's children live in Boston and New York.

His son is having his first child soon. My question is: Am I obligated to send a baby gift and congratulatory wishes to his son and daughter-in-law? And let me ask another, "bigger picture" question: What kind of grandmother am I supposed to be to this child? I have seen the mother-to-be only twice in four years. Though I live in Israel, I will be in the Boston area, where they live, for a month this summer. Should I invite them over to my home? If I'm invited (not likely), shall I go to their home? What if my husband wants to visit them with our 9-year-old son, and I am not invited?

In a Quandary in Israel

Dear Distant Madam,

"Obligated" is a rather strong word to use when referring to giving someone a present. But in your place, I would probably send a token gift, and I'd definitely send a note of congratulations, simply as a show of friendly family good will. Of course, you and your husband may (and perhaps should) give such a gift together.

As to your "bigger picture" question, you'll have to let the child's parents determine, to a certain extent, what your relationship with the child will be. In terms of etiquette, the right thing for you to do is to demonstrate that you are receptive to a warm relationship. It's up to them to make the relationship more than that -- if that's what you want.

I don't know the particulars of your family relationships, but I suggest that you be patient with any apparent chilliness or awkwardness. That said, if I were spending time in a city that contained relatives, I would invite them to visit with me, even if it were on "neutral" territory. (Lunch in a restaurant is a safe bet.) If that invitation were declined, though, I wouldn't press the matter.

When you are invited to spend time with your husband's son and daughter-in-law, you may accept or decline with regrets (you could then suggest that neutral lunch). Now, a civil person really should find a way to be at least minimally courteous to a loved one's spouse. But if your husband is invited to a social occasion and you are not, just send your warm regards with him. Being the bigger person isn't always easy, yet courtesy sometimes demands it.

Dear Social Grace,

I was wondering if you could tell me if I am being too formal or still an East Coaster after all these years on the West Coast. Recently, I have gotten secondhand invitations for parties from people -- secondhand in that the inviters were verbally passing along party info to me and saying I ought to go.

In the first case, the hostess and I are merely cordial; I'm not quite sure what her reaction would have been had I shown up on her doorstep. In the second case, this was through e-mail, so I never got direct confirmation the host would be expecting another person. If these were college parties, that's one thing, but the rules for the adult world are a little different, however informal things may be.

Anyways, I got accused of being neurotic and lacking in self-esteem for not showing up on someone's doorstep unannounced. Well, you can see how I am interpreting things. Am I being overly analytical?

Thank you,
Mr. Popular

Dear Mr. Popular,

Unless I was quite sure that a party was a "come one, come all" affair, I, too, would hesitate to attend if I hadn't been invited. This behavior does not indicate low self-esteem -- in fact, it says that I'm far too fabulous a creature to let myself be the cause of another person's distress. And when nine people show up at a dinner party for eight, "distress" is only a euphemism for what a host might actually feel. To many modern folks, this concern for another person's feelings may indeed look "neurotic." But I commend you for recognizing that even friendly social situations sometimes require thoughtful analysis.

If you find yourself in such a situation again, you might ask the person extending the "secondhand" invitation to make sure the host is prepared to entertain another guest. A good host might then get in touch with you himself, or you can trust the other guest to let you know what's going on. A final note, partygoers: It's best to check with hosts and hostesses before you issue any secondhand invitations.

Dear Social Grace,

I believe that you're supposed to tilt the soup bowl away from you and spoon from one's body outward, but I can't recall if that is accurate. That may be splitting hairs anyway, but sometimes the finer points are the most interesting points. (I've always wondered why someone didn't invent a bowl with a slanted interior surface so that the last drops of soup pool together on one side.)


Dear Erik,

There goes your million-dollar idea. I expect that tableware companies will soon be redesigning their summer lines.

As for your question, you heard right: One spoons soup away from oneself (making splatters less likely). One may tilt a low soup dish away from oneself in order to make the last drops accessible. Soup cups, in which consommés are often served, may be picked up and drunk from -- after any solid items (vegetables, croutons) have been spooned out and eaten. And I'll share an idea of my own: Many soup cups used to have handles, a style that has mysteriously fallen out of fashion. I'd love to see soup-cup handles return to the table.

About The Author

Social Grace


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