Three years ago my son “Jon” got married to a wonderful woman, “Beth,” and last year Beth and Jon had twin boys. I am a totally besotted grandma. Even though I know the odds are against it, I look at my grandchildren and am totally convinced that the reason I think they are the greatest, most fascinating babies in the world is because they actually are. Being with my son’s family and spoiling the boys are far and away my favorite activities.
Life in our extended family is basically quite good. Beth seems fond of my husband and me, and is becoming best friends with our daughter. Beth’s brother is also getting close to all of us. And all of us, including Beth’s folks, live less than an hour away from one another.
The problem—or, rather, the question, since I would be embarrassed to call such a minor blip in happy life and a good set of relationships a “problem”—is Beth’s parents, and especially her mother. We are Jewish and they are super-WASPs. They wear clothes with little anchors on them and so on, and she has one of those “Muffy”-type nicknames. But so far the religious/ethnic divide has not been an issue. They seemed to be fine with the kids’ ecumenical wedding, and I have never heard an anti-Semitic remark pass their lips (although the Irish have not fared so well). They even came to the twins’ bris. And we are all very pleasant and friendly to one another, exchanging photos and recipes and so on.
But Muffy is a relentless and vocal supporter both of Donald Trump as a leader, and of what I consider the Republican policy agenda’s worst elements. I suppose that her husband basically agrees with her, but he is too wise, or cowardly, or maybe uninterested, to talk politics with the rest of the family. Beth and her brother are both quite progressive—like everyone in my family—but Muffy seems willing to let the younger generation be. Not so with my husband and me, although she hardly ever talks to my husband so he is mostly off the hook.
Every time we get together Muffy presents me with new “evidence” of Trump’s greatness, or the mainstream press’s bias, or the general laziness and worthlessness of the less fortunate, or the nefariousness of anybody whose politics are to the left of Attilla the Hun, or—need I even say this?—the evil and corruption at the core of the murderous Hillary Clinton.
I do everything I can not to engage with her, but she keeps insisting that I at least give her ideas a chance, and is forever emailing me or even snail-mailing me long and totally repellent right-wing screeds. She even sends me books. She then confronts me in person or on the phone to ask whether I have read the things she sends, and gets very upset when I have not, which is just about all the time.
I have told her again and again that I do not think we will ever agree, but that I respect and admire her as a person, and can we just steer clear of politics and enjoy our children and grandchildren? But she refuses to listen, and keeps sending me stuff and telling me that she is sure I would “come around” if I would just open my mind. Then she keeps demanding that I read the trash she gives me. She seems to be getting increasingly annoyed with me, and I am worried that our joint family gatherings will grow strained, or even that she will start refusing to see us and put Beth and Jon in a terrible position. And what if I end up having less access to the babies?
I know that I will not “come around.” Her facts are not my facts. This is because they are not facts. And her values, at least in the political arena, seem about 100% dependent on whether they advance the interests of old white Christian money.
I know that she will never come around, either.
So what do I do?
—Quaking in Queens
It sounds as if your question is pragmatic rather than ethical. You do not seem to be asking whether you have any duty as a citizen or a co-grandma to try to change Muffy’s views, or at least bear witness against them; or, conversely, to try to see her point of view. I can sort of understand why you have thrown in the towel here as far as ethics is concerned. As the philosophers say, “ought implies can.” If you truly believe that there is no way anything either of you can say will make any difference, you have no duty to attempt the impossible. Before we move on, though, let me at least ask that, in the future, you stop now and then to reconsider your position. Muffy may prove to be more receptive, or at least easier to wear down over time, than you—with your grandmotherly interests at risk—currently believe. And the stakes—the costs of not opposing the Muffys of this benighted nation—may climb even higher. As I write this, we are all still trying to digest 45’s astonishing response to the white supremacists and NAZIs in Charlottesville.
Now let’s look at the practical question you actually asked me.
Do Jon and Beth know what’s going on? It would be great if they, and Beth in particular, understood how upsetting and annoying Muffy is being and volunteered to intercede for you. It sounds as if this is not happening, though, and I get the impression that you do not want to burden the children at a time when they are already coping with being new parents of twins. But it would not be much of a burden if you asked for a little advice. There must be some reason Muffy restrains herself around the younger generation. They might have some good ideas, and your asking them would be a gentle way of letting them know how Muffy is acting. It may be that Muffy is spoiling for a fight—why else is she being so relentless?—and that Beth will understand this and know how to handle in her in ways you could not. If Beth and Jon do decide to have a word with Muffy themselves, so much the better.
But it may be that, at least for now, all Beth and Jon care about is family peace. Or they may be completely sympathetic and willing to help, but have no idea what to do. If, for these or other reasons, the Muffy problem remains totally in your lap, and if your chief desire is to avoid a rift with Muffy and Mr. Muffy, you might try actually reading more of the stuff she sends you. The problem there, of course, is that not only would you have to run your eyes along many repellent pages of text, but you would also probably be expected to tell her what you thought of them, which might be even more fraught and stressful than arguing with her about your refusal to read them at all. On the other hand, I suppose it is remotely possible that, if you read a whole chunk of her Trumplit with some care and sent her a well thought-out response to it, while not budging an inch, you might finally convince her that, just like a tree that’s standing by the water, you shall not be moved. But I fear that your actually engaging with her about her right-wing screeds is more likely to escalate than resolve the situation.
How about a counteroffensive? Suggest your own thoughtful, anti-Trump, or otherwise sane materials for her to read. This is another long shot. But if, after considering her character, you think it might work, you could start small—say, a collection of Paul Krugman’s articles. (She may already hate him, since he writes for the dreaded New York Times; but I like to think his being a Nobel Prize-winning economist would count for something, even with her.) If she actually reads them and wants to discuss them with you, it may make for a difficult afternoon, and you will probably get stuck reading about Hillary’s emails or The Deep State. But then you can escalate to book-length works. (Dark Money by Jan Mayer, perhaps. Or Red Notice, by Bill Bowder. I mention these because they are well worth reading—you sound like the sort of fair-minded person who would actually read a book yourself if you foisted it on Muffy—but any of your favorite sociopolitical or historical books will do.) My guess is that she probably won’t read these longer books, which will give you the perfect riposte when she asks you to read her stuff. And if she does actually get through them, then maybe some small part of her mind may open a crack and maybe, just maybe, you will have elevated the level of national discourse by a zillionth percent.
I hope that some of these ideas are helpful. But I suspect that, unless your kids come up with some great insider advice or effectively intercede for you, you will have your share of awkward, tiresome moments ahead of you with Muffy as the flip side of all those wonderful hours you have with your grandkids, feeding them their cereal and taking timeless videos and reading them their little board books. (May I suggest A is for Activist?) The good news, as I read your letter, is that I don’t see Beth and Jon ever turning against you. And I suspect that Muffy has the good sense not to give them any kind of ultimatum.
Good luck, and congratulations on the twins.
La Wally’s response:
I don’t see what Muffy can do if Beth lays down the law. Talk to Beth. At the end of the day, this Muffy woman supports Trump, so how can you talk to her?
Rachel, Maya, and I have been dear friends since third grade. When Rachel and her girlfriend, Sue, got married two years ago, Maya and I both gave readings at the ceremony.
Rachel and Maya never moved back after college, but I still live in my hometown. A few weeks ago I ran into Maya’s mother at the grocery store and the subject of Rachel came up. I asked her whether she’d heard that Rachel and Sue were about to have a baby. Maya’s mom said that she hadn’t and looked a bit confused. I told her when the baby was due, and that Rachel was the biological mother. We chatted for a little while longer about Maya’s mom’s favorite subject—how wonderful Maya and her brothers are, in every possible way—and said goodbye.
But about a week ago Maya called me and started chewing me out about having “outed” Rachel to her (Maya’s) mother. She told me that Rachel was really upset, and that I should call her and apologize.
I was flabbergasted. Isn’t getting married at an official, legal, public ceremony, and having a kid together, about as out as you can get? What should I do?
—Absolutely Astonished in Albany
Dear Triple A,
Maybe I am missing something. I can imagine circumstances where a couple could be totally, publicly, unquestionably out in one place or subculture and not in another, or where someone might want to hide their relationship from, say, an elderly unregenerate relative. But I don’t see why you would think this was one of those situations, unless you were told. Apparently you were not told, or you would not be “flabbergasted.”
The situation seems especially odd given that you, Maya, and Rachel are all such close friends. Wouldn’t one of them have clued you in at some point—especially during the wedding preparations—that Maya’s mom was supposed to be kept in the dark? All I can think of is that they somehow thought it would be obvious—say if Maya’s mom was a crusader in some anti-LGBTQ organization, or a devout member of a homophobic church. You do not give any indication that she is, though.
Unless I am indeed missing something, I think it was totally reasonable and natural for you to mention Rachel and Sue’s baby. Although it is almost never right to out someone, you had no reason to assume you were outing anybody, and every reason to assume you were just sharing good news. You did nothing wrong.
Of course, being in the right is not always the whole story where friendship is concerned. I would consider calling Rachel (or writing, if you prefer) to tell her that you are sorry she is hurt, but that you had no idea she was not out to everybody and would never, ever, do anything to hurt her. You might add that, as far as you could tell, Maya’s mom was much more interested in her own children than anybody else’s.
I find it hard to drum up any emotion at all about Maya, since all I know about her is that she called you and chewed you out. For all I know, Maya is the one who fomented all this by conveying her mom’s disapproval, or chagrin, or whatever to Rachel, and driving the exhausted new mother into an unhappy state. And of course Maya may be exaggerating or mischaracterizing Rachel’s or even Mom’s response.
Now that I think of it, why does it matter that Rachel and Sue are out to Maya’s mother? Do they ever see her? Can she harm them in any way?
Friendship is such hard work. I hope that this all blows over and that everyone involved stops being hurt and gossipy and weird in the very near future.
La Wally’s response:
If Rachel is a very good friend, just apologize. Say: “I am sorry I upset you, but I had no idea.”
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at AskJune@Cleavermagazine.com. Find more columns by June in her attic.
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