My sister Ivy is married to a CPA named Marvin. Because we’re in Wilmington and they were in South Jersey, my wife Florence and I saw a lot of them over the years. They were a lot of fun to be with, and we even took a couple of vacations with them.
When he was in his middle fifties, Marvin hit it big in a couple of M & A deals, and decided to sell his business and move to Florida “while we are still young enough to enjoy ourselves.” They bought a 3,000 square-foot condo in Boca and settled into the good life of sun, fun and little drinks with paper parasols sticking out of them.
Let me tell you, June, I think the Florida sunshine has bleached Marvin’s brain, and, to be honest, Ivy isn’t much better. Because they were pre-Golden Years, they instantly decided that they should serve on the condo board and bring some common sense and Jersey values to the septuagenarians, octogenarians, and even nonagenarians who were their fellow board members. After about eight months in Florida, Marvin was elected chairman of the board and Ivy was named recording secretary.
That was two-and-a half years ago, June, and in those 30 months, these two people have become the dullest pair in the Western Hemisphere. All they talk about is that damn condo, and the various crises that have come before the board.
First, there was their Solomon-like decision to give a whining tenant part-time (but not full-time) use of a handicapped parking space, because “he had good days and bad days.”
Then there was the lawsuit against the painter of the exteriors of several of the condo buildings. The green was too dark, the ochre was too light, and the pink building was supposed to be blue.
Then there was the special assessment for gondolas for the canal behind the condo. “That was a tough one,” Marvin noted. “We brought it home four to three, but it wasn’t easy.”
And finally, there was the poor guy they fined a thousand bucks because he had rented his condo for eighty-seven days, and the rule is a minimum of ninety.
June, I cannot bear to see these self-absorbed fools, and they insist on showing up every Thanksgiving. I tried to tell Ivy to go see our sister Hortense in West Virginia. I said she was terribly lonely and felt neglected. That did not work. Marvin and Ivy showed up on our doorstep the day before Thanksgiving, and stayed a full week to do some Christmas shopping.
I told Florence that we were going to spend Thanksgiving in a different foreign country for each of the next ten years, and that if these people showed up again, I would have to be put on suicide watch. She pointed that they were my relatives and my problem, and she was damned if she would let them drive her out of own home.
I thought of telling Marvin that the condo board would probably not survive if he left Florida again in a time of crisis, but that did not work. He calls in every day to the property manager and barks instructions. June, what am I to do? I don’t care if they have no lives, but I don’t want them to ruin mine.
Distraught in Delaware
Although I sympathize with your plight, and will do my humble best to give you some useful advice, I think we need to start by putting your Marvin-and-Ivy problem into perspective. Even if these condozillas manage to inflict themselves on you once a year, every year, for a whole week, this will hardly ruin your life. Assuming that you can keep yourself from worrying about the visits beforehand and fuming about them afterwards, and that you can limit your time together while Marvin and Ivy are actually in town, they will be ruining less than 1/52 of your life, which is really not so bad for a close blood relative and her spouse.
But let’s try to limit the damage even further and – although this may be a pipe dream given how determined Marvin and Ivy seem to be—let’s even toss around some ideas for avoiding future Thanksgiving visits entirely. I have to agree with Florence that your finding your own relatives so irritating is no reason why she should have to leave home during the Thanksgiving season. This greatly limits your options. But what about inviting so many of your wife’s relatives, or your joint out-of-town friends, to stay with you that there is simply no room for Marvin and Ivy? “Oh, by the way,” you could email them around Labor Day, “it looks like we are all full up this year for all the holidays. But Hortense [please tell me that you all call her ‘Holly’!] tells me she would love to have you.” If Marvin and Ivy decide to barge in anyway, inflatable beds in hand, you will at least have other people in the house to absorb and possibly even curb some of the condo talk. If Marvin and Ivy stay in a hotel, even better: your life will probably only be about .5% ruined, at least for that year.
Or perhaps you could get your wife to agree to leave town, at least some years, if instead of making a blanket pronouncement about the future you offered specific, thoughtful, and very attractive alternatives. Are there places she longs to visit that won’t totally break your family budget? Paris, Aruba, the Serengeti Plain, or just a romantic getaway to some B & B at Rehoboth? The place where you honeymooned? A cruise, maybe? (Actually, a cruise might be tricky, unless you know for sure that Marvin and Ivy hate cruises. You would have to tell them about it in advance—and what if they pressed for details and booked passage on the same cruise? Although I take your talk of suicide as comic hyperbole, I hate to think of you trapped on a ship with Ivy and Marvin as they detail the proposed condo policy on pet hedgehogs and ferrets, with nothing but a low railing between you and the wide, inviting, silent ocean.)
The only other stratagems I can think of for evading the Thanksgiving visit entirely are either successfully lying about (or contracting) a communicable disease; or actually telling Ivy and Marvin the truth. But the disease route is a bit extreme, and you seem to have ruled out explaining your real reasons for not wanting Ivy and Marvin around. Not that I fault you for this: given their insensitivity, the only way to drive your point home might well involve hurting them very deeply, and causing a permanent rupture, which I gather you want to avoid.
If all these ideas for keeping your loved ones away are unacceptable, or prove unsuccessful, there are several ways to limit the damage while Ivy and Marvin are staying with you. One, of course, is to minimize your time together. Schedule as many doctor’s appointments, work deadlines, one-person errands, and unavoidable competing social commitments as possible. Maybe this would be a good time to take a night class in Python, or start that course of physical therapy your orthopedist has been nagging you about. Send Marv and Iv off to art exhibits you’ve already seen and stores where they know you don’t shop. If, as you imply, they make your wife less crazy than they make you, perhaps you could induce Hortense to take them on a scenic day trip, or to some fabled distant mall. Offer her bribes and tradeoffs.
You could also shorten future visits by arranging to be away soon after Thanksgiving, perhaps on a business trip or a visit to one of your wife’s loved ones.
To fill the hours when you all have to be together, plan several events that rule out conversation, like plays, concerts, movies, and really loud sporting events. This tactic could kill three birds, actually: Marv and Iv would talk less during the event, you would get to do something you and Hortense actually enjoy, and you would all have something other than the condo board to talk about afterwards.
For the times when you have no choice but to converse, and the condo keeps rearing its ugly head, I suggest that you at least touch on what really bothers you. You might try something like: “Tell you what, Marvin. For the rest of the evening, I won’t talk about my job [or some other topic you can credibly say you often raise] and Hortense won’t talk about [some topic your wife, not you, has chosen in advance—otherwise you could really screw things up by offending her, too], if you and Ivy don’t talk about the condo.” Then ask him for news, or an opinion, you think he’d enjoy sharing.
Of course, Marvin and Ivy might take offense if your tone is not perfect. But if they do get a little upset, and call you on it, there are worse things than coming out and telling them that, although you know how devoted they are to their important condo board work, you sometimes miss the fun activities and wide-ranging discussions of the old days. Who knows? They might actually dial it down a notch.
From the rather extreme tone of your letter, I suspect that the issue is not just Thanksgiving, and not even just the condo obsession. It sounds as if you miss the old Marvin and Ivy, and are afraid that Marvin, at least, is turning into not only a bore but also a petty, bureaucratic, overbearing, and unkind person, his tale about the 87-day lessor being a case in point. For Ivy’s sake and your own, would you consider having a serious talk with her about this issue? I suggest her rather than Marvin because she is your sister and because she does not sound as far gone. And of course you would avoid casting aspersions on Martin or her, much less mentioning that you have any reservations about hosting them – just talk about how you think it might make them feel happier and younger if they pursued some of their former interests, or found new ones. I am sure Boca abounds with opportunities to learn, teach (say as a museum docent or a financial coach), help the poor and housebound, patronize the arts, or just get healthy and have fun. You might be doing Ivy a favor by suggesting that she and Marvin branch out a little. She might even be a bit tired of playing second fiddle to the Board President for a big chunk of her waking hours.
On the other hand, she may be so furious at even this mild suggestion that she and Marvin decide to stay away for a while, in which case you can look at their empty places at next year’s holiday table, experience a warm glow of moral satisfaction because you really did try to help your sister and brother-in-law, and give silent thanks. But don’t let any rifts last too long. Sisters are precious. I know, because I am one.
P.S. Do people actually ride the gondolas? Is there a gondolier?
I host our annual Thanksgiving feast. My family, who is a mixed bunch in terms of what we believe in, and how much, has adopted the secular Thanksgiving tradition where we go around the table and each person in turn says what they are thankful for. This year it was a total shit show. My uncle started off by saying he didn’t have anything to be thankful for this year, because a bunch of morons just voted our democracy and probably the planet into oblivion, which reduced his little great-niece—who, though only eight, has a large vocabulary—to tears. I do not totally disagree with his sentiments, but there is a time and place for everything.
My husband’s mother soon followed by saying that she was grateful for her grandson Michael, my sister-in-law’s child. This caused my own daughter Ellen, the other grandchild present, to blink back tears. And I did not feel any better after my sister-in-law gave thanks that Michael has “done so well at his first- choice college this year,” causing Laurel, my daughter from a previous marriage—who got turned down by all the colleges she applied to and is now commuting from our house to a job she hates—to run out of the room and hunker down under her bedcovers. My mother went next. She said that our thanking tradition was stupid and phony because we weren’t actually thanking Anybody and that she would take the opportunity to say the Catholic grace. She proceeded to do so. I could hear people snickering—whether at my obstinate mother, or her ineffectual daughter, I do not know. Then it was my husband’s turn. He just looked at me and said “Seriously? Over to you, Callie.”
That’s me. By that time I was so freaked out that all I could come up with to say was “Thank you for the food we eat,” which I think is from some kid’s poem, whereupon my younger brother, whose turn it was, didn’t give thanks at all but just said “That’s my big sister—it’s always about the food.” This was just plain mean, since he knows I am scheduled for bariatric surgery in January. I might have gotten past the remark itself except that it was followed by one of those awful collective gasps, which went all around the table. My husband ended things at that point by saying: “Time to eat. The food’s getting cold.” Nobody objected, not even the actor cousin who had prepared a page of remarks.
The rest of the dinner was less terrible than it might have been. Once people were occupied with their food I went off and found Laurel and, after a few satisfying minutes where we trashed the family together, got her to rejoin us. The rest of the group found people around the table to have civil, if not animated, conversations with, and then my wonderful daughters found some funny YouTube shorts we could all watch on the big screen in the family room.
But I am having trouble recovering. When I think of my family I tremble with resentment and anger and have Thanksgiving flashbacks. Advice?
Harried Harrisburg Hostess
Dear Triple H,
I am not sure what you want me to advise you about, your family’s round-robin thanksgiving ritual or your family itself. If it’s just the ritual, there’s an easy answer: dispense with it. After everyone has sat down, you (or your husband) can say something like: “Let’s all stop for a moment and give silent thanks, or say a silent grace.” Then count slowly to fifteen and say: “Let’s eat!” Or, for an even safer solution, start the meal with an inoffensive toast, like “To family and friends!” If your mom insists on saying the traditional Catholic grace aloud, I don’t think that’s a huge problem: she’s old, and it’s short. But nobody else should get any leeway.
As for your family as a whole—well, they do sound quite trying. If they tend to behave worse than usual when in groups, I’d consider limiting your attendance at extended-family gatherings for a while. Not forever, though: family is family, and I have seen a lot worse.
As for the individual family members you’ve mentioned, I can’t offer much advice without knowing how close you are to each of them, what their intentions were at dinner, whether they were acting in character, and whether you think they are educable. Is your mother-in-law developing a cognitive impairment, or is she just a mean old woman who plays favorites? (For all we know, she may even have had some fairly innocuous reason for singling out her grandson, say if he had just driven her to the party.) Was your uncle speaking from true despair, and not just being a blowhard? What does the rest of his behavior tell you? Do you ever see him, except at Thanksgiving? Is your sister-in-law a basically decent person who, like maybe half the parents I know, forgets about everybody else’s kids when bragging about her own? Was your husband thinking about your welfare, or the success of the dinner, and not disrespecting you by refusing to participate in, and then ending, the ritual? Is your mother a deeply religious woman and unable to imagine eating without a proper grace? And what was your brother thinking?
I suggest that you consider each of these cases on its own merits and then decide what to do. In the case of your bragging sister-in-law, for example, she must know at this point that she hurt Laurel’s feelings. This was probably unintentional, or at least not done with conscious intent, but I can still see the merits of raising the subject with your sister-in-law in hopes that she’ll be a bit more sensitive in the future. In the case of your mother-in-law, you should try to ensure that she never again upsets your daughter Ellen with obvious favoritism—but the effort you make will depend on how you assess the situation. If she is generally kind and alert, but sometimes a bit careless, you can probably resolve the situation with a tactful conversation leading to some special attention for Ellen. On the other hand, if your mother-in-law is losing her marbles, or if she is simply nasty and contrary, the solution may involve explaining all this to Ellen, or limiting Ellen’s contact with her.
As for your husband, from what you write it sounds as if he was exasperated, for all the right reasons, and was probably trying to help. But you may think, and with reason, that he behaved in a bossy, dismissive way. If so, talk to him. I assume that he is one relative you hope and plan to see quite often, so it is worth clearing the air.
Your kid brother is the miscreant who bugs me the most. Given the ages of your other relatives, I assume that he is a grown man; but even a ten-year-old should know that you do not publicly embarrass your sister, especially in front of her whole family, in the middle of a sort of secular prayer, during a dinner she has spent days preparing. I know that there is a culture of “teasing” and “roasts” in America these days, but that is no excuse. There is only one roast on Thanksgiving Day! Your brother needs to learn the difference between affectionate banter and an offensive personal remark. Maybe he just needs a little talking-to. But if you don’t think he is capable of absorbing this lesson, I would see as little of him as possible until well after your surgery.
I hope the next round of winter holidays goes better for you!
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.