Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
My boyfriend of four years and I are planning on getting married next year. We both get along with each other’s families. The problem is my boyfriend’s relationship with his only sibling, a sister. Several times, he’s called me by her name. At the last family dinner, he was playing footsies with her under the table. It creeps me out how they interact, but my boyfriend is also very sensitive. If I were to bring this up, he’d be upset and think I don’t like his sister, which he’s accused me of in the past. I do distance myself from her because I don’t like being with the two of them due to their behavior. She is married to her one and only boyfriend. My boyfriend knows very private things about her, the kind I would never discuss with my brother. Am I being unreasonable? Is it normal for siblings to be that close?
It’s certainly normal for siblings in mythology. Greeks Zeus and Hera and Egyptians Osiris and Isis were siblings and spouses, and Norse brother and sister Sigmund and Signy were lovers. For a modern twist, the wonderful Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, tells what comes of the marriage of an immigrant brother and sister who settle in Detroit. Let’s just say a moral of these tales is that things rarely turn out well for sibling couples. I will set aside the possibility that you are the one with a problem and resent the fact that your fiance and his sister seem to have an unusually close bond. Because, unless he is a podiatrist and has an unorthodox method of examination, it’s hard to think of a reasonable excuse for discovering these two are playing footsie. Given this, and the fact that the entire tenor of their relationship makes you deeply uneasy, you must say something to your fiance. Of course, there’s no good way to ask if your fiance is cheating on you with his sister, so you might as well take the opening he provided and say, “Sigmund, last time we were visiting your family, I saw you and Signy rubbing feet under the table. It made me really uncomfortable, and we need to talk about it.” Too bad if he’s the sensitive sort—if he’s touchy because he and his sister have a physically, or even emotionally, incestuous relationship, this is something you need to clarify before you walk down the aisle (or run screaming into the night). When you take a look at the sibling romance literature, you will find betrayal, murder, and madness are common occurrences. If your fiance and his sister are violating that taboo, you would be wise to avoid living your own version of these tales.
Several years ago, my then-boyfriend (and still good friend), a talented artist, did a large nude oil painting of me from the neck down, which he framed and presented to me. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but I have never had the nerve to hang it in my very small and open-style house, where the only available wall space is visible to guests. So to hang it anywhere would mean that anyone—family, colleagues, repairmen—could see it. Though there’s nothing in the painting that definitively identifies the subject as me, obviously people are going to wonder and probably ask. On the other hand, I hate keeping it hidden away. What should I do?
Padma Lakshmi, host of Top Chef, shows in a photo spread of her apartment how to nonchalantly carry off the larger-than-life, more-or-less nude portrait: Proudly put it over the bed. But that requires the insouciant self-confidence about your naked self that you seem to lack. If you hang the portrait in a public area of your house, while your guests are trying to keep abreast of one another’s news, or repairmen are tightening screws, their minds will actually be on another track: “That’s her. That’s gotta be her. I wonder if she really has a birthmark on her thigh.” If you hang it in a more private place, say over your bed a la Padma, well, that will present a whole other set of problems for anyone occupying your bed with you, since it will be very hard for that person not to be thinking about your relationship with the boyfriend who painted such an intimate portrait. Since you enjoy the painting, just keep it stored until the day you perhaps have the space to display it more privately.
I am a single mother of a beautiful, vibrant, inquisitive 4-year-old girl. I have been single all her life. We live with my parents so I can work and finish graduate school. Her father lives across the country, has never met her, and has no interest in doing so. The only participation he has in her life is through an automatic child-support payment. My daughter sees other fathers all around her. One day, she overheard a conversation I had about her father and immediately responded to it with, “I have a daddy?!?” I replied that he was dead and in heaven. I know this was not a good response, but I don’t know how to rectify it and answer the question honestly. It’s been almost two weeks since this happened, and she just asked me again about her daddy. I gently said that he was never coming back. My heart breaks for my daughter. Please help me find a starting point at which to address this issue.
—How Do I Tell the Truth?
You’re right, you need to tell your daughter the truth, but she’s only 4, so she’s simply too young to understand the whole truth. What you need to convey to her is that you’re going to be honest about her father, that it’s just fine for her to ask questions about him, and that you will do your best to answer, even when there really aren’t good answers. Start by telling her that you told her something wrong when you said her daddy was in heaven. You can say that, actually, he’s in California, which is a long way away—then get a map and show her how far. She’ll want to know why he’s that far, and you can tell her that’s where he works. Since she surely has friends with absent or missing fathers, you can explain that sometimes mommies and daddies don’t live together—like Lizzy’s mom and dad. Sometimes the dads aren’t even around, like her dad. Then you can say that fortunately she has so many people who love her—then list all the men and women in her life who think she’s the greatest. If she asks whether she’s going to see her daddy, you can answer that one honestly, too—you just don’t know. Tell her that she can talk about this with you any time she wants, but right now what you’d really like to do is go to the playground or bake some cookies. Of course you’re sad that she doesn’t have a loving father, but how lucky she is to have such a loving mother. And how much she will appreciate that she can ask you anything and that you will do your best to answer.
I take my 80-year-old mother-in-law to the store for her weekly shopping since it has become dangerous for her to drive. She believes she can simply eat all the candies, bulk items, and fruits she likes before paying for them. I am finding it really hard to convince her that she is stealing from the stores. I want her to stop doing it before she embarrasses herself one day, passing security with a mouthful of goodies. It causes me great stress on what otherwise should be a pleasant day for us. She thinks it’s fun and that I should stop being the moral police to her.
If she doesn’t understand that munching her way through the aisles is theft and instead thinks it’s fun, perhaps she needs a complete neurological workup because she may be losing touch with reality. If it turns out she’s fine and just believes the grocery store is an all-you-can-eat-and-you-don’t-have-to-pay buffet, then you need to disabuse her of this notion. I know you’ve been having this discussion with her, but instead of fighting when you’re at the grocery store, reiterate your view while sitting down at her home or yours. Explain that you enjoy her company and are happy to be able to go shopping with her, but your worry that security is going to grab her one day for stealing—and eating food without paying is stealing—is making these trips to the store miserable for you. Tell her if she can’t stop, then you’ll have to. Say that unless she curbs her appetite until the groceries are bagged, you will take her list and do her shopping for her. Then stick to it. Maybe realizing how much her world is going to shrink will prompt her to give up her sticky-fingers routine.