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Dear Care and Feeding,
I don’t have much of a relationship with my paternal grandma. She and my dad got in a fight over the way she took care of us while my parents were on a trip when I was a little kid, and after that, she stopped visiting or even really talking to us at all. This was also around the same time my younger cousins were born, and they lived a lot closer to her, so she used them as an excuse to not come see us.
When I went away to college, she wanted my address to send me cards. I thought it was going to be the obligatory Christmas, Easter, and birthday cards, but it quickly got out of control: She sent a lot of cards, and the cards had increasingly longer notes in them until this past spring, when a card came with a whole letter tucked inside it. She wanted to come visit me, which was out of the question (my mom came to visit once and it was a logistical nightmare because I was so busy—I decided I never wanted any family to visit me at school again). My grandma also rambled on in the letter about wanting to build a better relationship with me now that I wasn’t living with my parents full time. She blamed my dad for her not being closer with us, even though she is the one who stopped putting in the effort to spend time with us. I was too overwhelmed to do anything with the letter except throw it away. I had come to the decision on my own that I didn’t want to have a close relationship with her.
Her behavior is strange: She once showed up at a party we gave for my grandfather (her ex-husband) without being invited. Now I have moved again, for grad school, and she’s asking for my address again. I don’t want to give it to her, but she’s messaged me a few times and ignoring her hasn’t been working. I feel stuck because, historically, she hasn’t liked when people create boundaries with her and often gossips and lies about what happened with other family members. I’m also worried she’s going to continue to blame my dad for the way I interact with her, even though he’s been clear that his relationship with her doesn’t have to determine mine or my sibling’s. I know that I can’t ignore her forever, and I know that I don’t want her sending me things or knowing where I live; but I don’t know how to handle that while trying to reassure her that I don’t mind interacting on social media or potentially visiting her if I have the time/money. How do I handle something so messy?
— Return to Sender
Dear Return to Sender,
It’s not clear to me, I admit, why you are so certain that it was your grandmother’s choice to keep her distance after the fight with your dad in your childhood. Can you be sure that she’s the one who “stopped putting in the effort” and used her other grandchildren as an excuse not to spend time with you? Your father explained it that way—I get that—but your grandmother’s perspective, it seems, is different. Just the fact that she immediately made contact once you left home, and increased contact the longer you were away from home suggests that there is at least the possibility that your parents asked her to stay away (or said something so unforgivable in the course of that fight that she made the decision to do so). Sure, she might be a terrible person—toward the end of your letter you mention that she’s a gossip and a liar, and that she doesn’t like boundaries—but if you haven’t had much contact with her over the years, I’m guessing that this may be hearsay, at least to some degree.
Since your father has made it clear that it’s OK with him if you have a relationship that’s separate from his (nonexistent) relationship with her, why not give it a chance? At least for long enough to find out for yourself what sort of person she is? I know you said you made your own decision not to have a relationship with her, but if this was a decision based on what you’ve been told and not on what you experienced directly, are you sure you want to stick with it? (My apologies if there are in fact plenty of examples of your firsthand knowledge of her general undeservingness of your forgiveness or kindness that you just didn’t offer in your letter. Her turning up at a family party without being invited, while nervy, doesn’t seem to me to rise to the definition of “strange”—or unforgivable—if she felt it was her only chance to see you and your sibling, for example.)
Finally, it puzzles me that you’re fine with social media contact and would be willing to visit her once you have the time and money, but you don’t want to correspond with her. Why not? What have you got to lose? People who love you—or who want to love you, and want to know you—don’t grow on trees. Nor do grandmothers, of course. You don’t have to let her come visit you if you don’t want her to. But what harm do her cards and letters do? Are you really afraid that if she knows your address, she’ll show up on your doorstep? If so, things are even “messier” than you suggest. But given what I know—which is all I have to go by—I would not be so hard on her.