Dear Prudence

Mama, Didn’t Mean to Make You Cry

A capricious mother figure, an unequal bequest, and cheap body disposal—just in time for Mother’s Day.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
“Sally,” “Jane,” and I have been best friends since we were 14 years old. We’re now almost 30 and refer to each other as sisters. Jane and I both grew up in poor, broken homes, and in high school we both lived at times with Sally and her mother, to whom we were very close, because of our home lives. Sally’s mother became Jane’s legal guardian. Sally’s mother is wealthy and for years we were invited to dinners, parties, and major holidays. For all of this, we are very grateful. Two or three years ago Jane and I both had a falling out with Sally (her mother was not involved) and there was radio silence between us and Sally for a year. Her mother unfriended us on social media and encouraged her friends to do the same. Sally, Jane, and I ultimately worked out our issue and we are strong as ever, but Jane and I now don’t have any relationship with Sally’s mother. For Mother’s Day Sally wants to create a video featuring all the folks “mothered” by her mother. (Sally’s mom collects broken people and views herself as a savior of lost souls.) Jane and I have been asked to make a clip for this video, but we don’t feel comfortable doing it. Jane feels that Sally’s mother took us in then threw us out because Sally, who can sometimes be a spoiled snob (but we love her), had a temper tantrum. Mine is more an issue of pride. Jane and I would both be open to having a relationship with Sally’s mother in the future, but we don’t want to come crawling back as if we were the ones who behaved badly. We don’t know how to tell Sally we don’t want to do it, but maybe for the sake of our friendship, we should suck it up and smile for the camera.

—Say Cheese

Dear Cheese,
Gather up those anecdotes and tell them with a smile. You’re right that Sally’s mother behaved badly. Unless you two committed a heinous act against her daughter, she should have just stayed out of it. But you are now able to see Sally as both the endearing and flawed person that she is. That combination goes for Sally’s mother, and you and Jane—actually the list runs into the billions. Think about your 14-year-old selves and how this woman swooped into your lives and provided you with stability, understanding, warmth, and welcome. Now, from the perspective of young adulthood, you can see that she wasn’t acting entirely out of selfless compassion. She had her own emotional needs to fill by being the “savior of lost souls.” Then, when the two of you appeared to hurt her own cub, she struck out. But telling a few stories of what Sally’s mom meant to you at a vulnerable time in your lives will not be hypocritical or humiliating. Instead it’s a recognition of the gratitude you have and a way of further restoring your relationship with Sally. I also think this video will be the opening to resume one with her mother. You and Jane grew up with parents who demonstrated how unreliable adults could be. Sally’s mom gave you a different lesson. Telling her now what that meant will show what fine adults you two have become.


Dear Prudence,
I’m an 81-year-old widow with two daughters, Ann and Bea, who are both around 60. Neither had children and neither live nearby. I’m considering changing my will to leave a greater share to Bea, for two reasons. She’s helped me considerably more than Ann since I was widowed 30 years ago, coming here every year to help with the house and garden, and staying with me when I recovered from surgery. The second reason is because I dislike Ann’s husband, Alf. Ann pays for everything because he’s never held a job. Alf talks excessively about himself and his accomplishments, which are exaggerations and untruths. He was here recently and asked many questions about my things (furniture, paintings, silver, etc.) and took offense when I refused to give him any information. He wanted to know the provenance and value, and didn’t even pretend otherwise! He took photos of many items, even after I told him to stop. When I told Ann his behavior upset me, she wouldn’t acknowledge how rude it was to so obviously anticipate my death. I’m considering leaving her a cash sum that equals about 25 percent of my estate, with the house, its contents and remaining assets to Bea. What do you think?

—Where There’s a Will

Dear Will,
I agree that placing sticky notes with your initials on them on your elderly parent’s silver and antiques is not the way to endear yourself, nor solidify your claim on the loot. In general, I’m strongly in favor of equal division of a parent’s estate. Of course, there can be good reasons to leave one child more money than another: one child has a disability and needs to be provided for, another just sold an app to Facebook for a billion dollars. There also can be circumstances for which disparate distribution is ultimately more fair: one child made great personal sacrifices to care for an elderly parent, another committed fraud against mom or dad. But if a parent is looking at the kind of normal sibling differences, both financial and emotional, that emerge over a lifetime, I say it’s preferable to treat everyone equally. Meting out punishments and rewards may seem satisfying in the estate lawyer’s office, but they can have ugly posthumous consequences. A parent’s parting act of favoring one child over another can do great damage to the sibling relationship, which would be an unfortunate legacy. But in your case, I agree that Bea deserves recognition for her aid to you, and Ann and Alf deserve a slap for their avariciousness. My suggestion is that you divide the bulk of your estate—your house, your money—between your daughters. But that all the contents of the home be left to Bea. Then it’s up to her to decide whether to toss a painting or a chair Ann and Alf’s way.


Dear Prudence,
My mom doesn’t have two nickels to rub together, as she would say when we were kids. She was not around me and my three siblings after I was about 10 years old. She and my dad divorced, she moved away, and he got custody and remarried. She’s in her 80s, back in our neck of the woods, and we have a cordial relationship (although I never leave my kids alone with her since she didn’t learn any mothering skills while she was gone). All the siblings are successful financially, in varying degrees, with me in fourth place. I have the youngest kids, with college expenses looming. When mom dies, I’m fine with offering to pay one-fourth of the funeral costs, but no more. At least one sibling is not likely to contribute a dime to any funeral expenses. (I suspect cremation will be chosen, because it’s cheaper, despite not being the preferred method according to my religion.) How and when should I broach this subject with Mom and the siblings? If the recalcitrant sibling refuses to participate financially, should I agree to pay one-third or suggest that the much richer sibling to pick up the slack?

—When She’s Gone 

Dear When,
You have no buried treasure with which to bury Mom, so I totally support your and your siblings’ taking the practical approach when your prodigal mother bites the dust. Unlike your own mother, you’re not planning to leave it to others to see that a vulnerable loved one’s needs are met. Dust is the way to go because cremation offers a vast savings over traditional burial. None of you are obligated to go broke providing her with a mahogany send-off. Under the best of circumstances adult children and their parents do have frank discussions about end-of-life issues. Your family doesn’t sound too experienced at frank discussions, however, so bringing up with Mom your desire for a bargain farewell is probably not a productive way to start. According to various websites, a bare-bones cremation can cost anywhere from around $500 to $1,000. Even split three ways, mom’s departure will not prevent you from sending your kids to college. Go ahead and do some research at local funeral homes in advance. When you talk to them make sure you firmly avoid mortician add-ons: no memorial service, no urn (you must have a large vase in a closet somewhere), etc. Then, when the time comes, you can tell your siblings you’ve already done the homework on the most economical way to say goodbye. If they want something more elaborate, tell them they’ll have to pick up the difference. And let me note that mothers who don’t hear from their children this Mother’s Day’s about life after they’re gone should be grateful. 


Dear Prudence,
I am a 30-year-old man and an only child who has been living far away from my mother for many years. I’m now overseas, completing a Ph.D. She recently remarried and has a couple of wonderful stepchildren and step-grandchildren who live nearby. My plan had always been to return to my home state after completing my education so I could take care of my mother and bring her the joy of having her only child and future grandchildren nearby. But now I am beginning to feel angst about returning from abroad and living near home again. My mother is a very reasonable person and she would accept my decision, but she would be disappointed and I would feel guilty. Can I rationalize staying abroad? Or does the duty of the only child require me to move nearer?


Dear Guilty,
Of course this distance, were it to become permanent, would be difficult for all of you. But it sounds as if your mother raised you with the belief that you must pursue your dreams and build the best possible life. You also don’t know what opportunities will come your way once you finish your studies. You may find work abroad with a company that is eager to send you back to the States. You could marry a woman over there who always wanted to live in America. In the meantime, as long as an ocean separates you and your mother, avail yourself of the easy, inexpensive ways to keep in touch provided by technology. Invite her to visit and make your own trips home. It also must be reassuring to you that she continues to engage fully in life—finding love and enjoying the children and grandchildren that have come with this new partnership (additional heart-warmer: You like them!). However, as the mother of an only I have to offer a caveat that everything I’ve said here, like the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, “is limited to the present circumstances.” Sure, my daughter is free to pursue her education wherever it takes her, but when she’s done she’s going want to settle really close, isn’t she?


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