Dear Prudence

Unearthing Family Secrets

My grandmother hinted that my father’s parentage isn’t what it seems. Should I demand the truth?

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Dear Prudence,
I just learned a big secret from my grandmother. My grandfather has been suffering with Alzheimer’s disease for several years now, and my grandmother is his main caretaker. They are both in their 70s and have been married for more than 50 years. Recently I was spending time alone with my grandmother, and she told me that my uncles will need to watch out for Alzheimer’s, “But not your dad, shhhh.” I thought she was joking and asked if she was hinting at some torrid family scandal, to which she replied, “Something like that.” I was shocked by the implication that I am not biologically related to my grandfather. I think my grandma confided in me only because she wanted me to know I wouldn’t have to go through Alzheimer’s, too. I’m not sure how to approach the situation with my dad. Should I ask him, hint about it, or just keep quiet? If my dad doesn’t know, it seems like he should, if only for the medical aspect. And if he does know, I’m curious about this part of my genealogy. Would it be acceptable to bring it up later, after my grandmother has passed on?

—Keeping Quiet

Dear Keeping Quiet,
It is a theme that runs through literature, from the Greeks’ Pandora’s box to the Bible’s tree of knowledge, that getting forbidden yet tempting information inevitably brings unintended consequences. However, these stories also tell us that humans simply have a need to know. Your grandmother has opened the box and dangled the fruit, and I don’t blame you for wanting the full story. But if you’re seeking clarification of what she meant, then an unproductive course of action is waiting until she’s dead. Before you do anything else, go back to her. Say that on your last visit she seemed to indicate that your father (and therefore you) isn’t biologically related to your grandfather. Tell her you haven’t been able to get this out of your mind and you’d like to know the real story. I hope she tells you the truth, torrid or not. But be prepared that your grandmother may regret blurting out a partial revelation, and that she just backs off and says she was being silly. After that conversation, you’ll then be better able to decide whether you want to bring this up with your father. I’m generally in favor of people having the opportunity to obtain information about themselves. But bear in mind that depending on what you discover, it could be wrenching for your father to find out the man he thought was his biological father isn’t, and because of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s too late to talk to him about it. If you go ahead, don’t be coy. Just tell your father what you’ve learned. And, speaking of Alzheimer’s, your grandmother is neither a genetic counselor nor a seer and can’t know which sons might or might not get this disease, no matter what their parentage. Make your decisions about disclosure for emotional reasons, not medical ones.


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Dear Prudence,
I got divorced almost three years ago. My ex-wife constantly belittled me, and she also ran up $35,000 on fraudulently acquired credit cards. After I left, she broke all the windows out of my apartment in a drunken rage. I got an order of protection against her, which she kept violating. I finally got some peace after she had to spend four months in jail for the violations. I am now romantically involved with a woman who lives in the same small neighborhood where my wife and I used to live. My ex composed a very nasty letter to each home in the neighborhood stating that the other woman was the reason for our divorce. Now, every time I go into the neighborhood, I feel as though people are eyeing me with contempt. The woman I’m seeing says she no longer feels comfortable in her own home because of it. I consulted my attorney, but the letter doesn’t violate the order of protection. If I send my own letter, I fear that I’d be falling into the trap of being no better than my ex. I care for the lady I’m seeing, but the situation is stressful. What should I do?

—Not a Naughty Neighbor

Dear Not,
If I got a letter from a former neighbor saying that her ex-husband ended their marriage when he started an affair with someone else in the neighborhood, I might believe that was the case, while also concluding the woman who sent the letter seemed deranged. Maybe some neighbors are eyeing you with contempt, maybe some with pity, and maybe some are thinking, “Gee, this guy looks familiar. I hope he doesn’t start a conversation with me because I can’t place him.” Your girlfriend may also be reading more into her neighbors’ expressions than is actually there. I agree with you that sending a dueling letter will only make you look bad and that, for the most part, doing nothing is the best approach. However, if your girlfriend is friendly with the neighbors, she should go ahead and speak to a few—preferably those with the biggest mouths—and say she is so sorry everyone was drawn into this unpleasant drama. She should add that the assertions in the letter are untrue and that her boyfriend’s ex has served jail time for violating an order of protection, but unfortunately she can’t be prevented from distributing these lies. The next time you’re in the neighborhood and you run into someone you know, you also can say you regret people got such an awful letter from your ex. Shake your head and explain she is a deeply unhappy woman and you hope she doesn’t trouble her former neighbors anymore. Then go on with your lives with confidence—while keeping an eye out for a crazy ex who might be skulking in the bushes.


Dear Prudie,
My sister “Eileen” just had a baby. She has to attend an event soon and, due to the driving distance, Eileen e-mailed to ask my other sister “Karen” if she could stay at her home (which is at the halfway point) that night. Karen and her husband would be responsible for hosting Eileen, her husband, and a newborn. Karen wishes to keep the family peace and came to me for advice as to how to politely tell Eileen that even though she and her husband have a guest room, they do not wish to allow Eileen’s family to stay over for fear of losing sleep due to the baby crying and the general inconveniences of having a newborn present. How does she do that without upsetting Eileen? With most people, it wouldn’t be a problem to just decline to host, but Eileen is extremely sensitive and tends to take things personally.

—Trying To Keep the Family Peace

Dear Trying,
It would be ridiculously sensitive of Eileen to take it personally when her loving sister Karen says, “The idea of you spending a single evening in my home with that screaming piece of protoplasm you have just given birth to makes me ill.” Since you think Karen’s attitude toward Eileen’s baby is perfectly understandable, maybe you two should tell Eileen that you look forward to being aunties, just as long as her kid never has the temerity to have any bodily functions while in the presence of either of you. However, I suggest you take a different tack than you intended and convey to Karen more diplomatically than I’m able to here that she sounds like a cold, inhuman twit. Explain that helping one another out is what families are for, the baby will probably be far less disruptive than she anticipates, and that you would assume Karen would be delighted to spend some time with her new niece or nephew. You come from a family of at least three children, and your parents survived without hermetically sealing the kids each evening. Surely, your sister Karen can invest in a pair of earplugs, put a welcoming smile on her face, and pretend she’s happy to see her sister Eileen.


Dear Prudence,
This is a two-part question. I’m the youngest person in the building where I work by at least 10 years. My co-workers are constantly pointing to their gray hair, wrinkles, and flab and saying, “This is what happens when you get older!” I don’t want to offend them, so what should I say? Part two is about the fact that my mother works in the same building for the same company; however, we are in completely different departments. I got training for my job and work hard. What do I say when people ask me whether my mother got me the job?

—Not Too Young

Dear Not,
Part one: “I hope I look as good as you do when I’m your age!” Part two: “My mother made this sound like such a great place to work that I thought I’d be fortunate to get hired here. And it is great and I am fortunate.”


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