My Secret Sister
In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on whether Thanksgiving is a good time to introduce long-hidden relatives.
Photograph by Teresa Castracane.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Because of technical difficulties with this week’s chat, Emily Yoffe had to answer to the posted questions offline, hence the absence of reader responses in the transcript below.
Q. Thanksgiving Big Reveal: My father had an affair on the side many years ago, and I found out about it. The affair had resulted in the birth of my half sister, Annie. Dad has successfully kept Annie a secret for 25 years. She's now a young married mother, and we are somewhat close friends. While my mother knows of Annie, she does not know she's my sister. My parents divorced when Annie was 5 for unrelated reasons, but my parents still get along quite well. I host Thanksgiving each year. Mom and Dad are coming. Annie just told me that she would like to be invited to Thanksgiving. While I have explained the situation to her, Annie says she's tired of being kept a secret. I'm worried of not only causing discomfort for my dad, but humiliation for my mom if Annie decides to let the cat out of the bag. I have tried to tell Annie that we could have a get-together some other time, but she insists. What should I do?
A: You surely want to avoid a pumpkin-pie-throwing contest on Thanksgiving. There’s something so despicable about trying to keep the existence of certain people a secret for the sake of other people. How hurtful this situation is to Annie and how humiliating it is for your mother. You’ve got little time to address this so that Thanksgiving is not a debacle. Tell your mother the truth, and set up a meeting for you, her, and Annie. Yes, it’s going to be a shock, but she’s been divorced from your father a long time and it’s well past the point that she should know you have a half sister.
Dear Prudence: Play-Date Psychodrama
Q. I Don't Want To Help My Neighbor With Cancer: I recently moved into a new home where I share the driveway with five other houses. They are obviously a close-knit neighborhood. Last week one of the neighbors, "Michelle," knocked on my door and told me that "Joan," an elderly woman who lives two houses away, has cancer. Michelle said she and the other neighbors are going to be taking turns bringing meals for Joan once a week for the next three months. She said I had an option of either Wednesday or Friday and asked me to confirm which of the two I wanted. I politely replied that I often eat out and would be unable to commit to a weekly cooking schedule—besides, my cooking skills were terrible and I would feel embarrassed cooking for someone else. Michelle was upset and offended and continued to use emotional blackmail. In the end I told her I would think about it to get her off my porch. It's terrible that Joan has cancer but I do not know her very well, and I don't really want to do this. If my neighbors don't want to look after me if I fall ill, I'm fine with that. Am I an awful person because I don't want to bring weekly meals for a woman I barely know?
A: I have been part of dinner brigades for too many ailing friends. It is a satisfying way to help someone you care about. But what's nice about these missions is that they're composed of people who come willingly. It's great that your neighbors are close knit and want to help Joan. But doing so is not KP duty and Michelle should have politely backed away when you started to balk. You can get back to Michelle and say you cannot sign up for weekly deliveries, but you would like to be put on the calendar for two or three meals and give her those dates. Then just pick up some extra take-out those nights for Joan. Let’s hope your other neighbors don’t conspire with Michelle to shun you.
Q. Drunk Friend Drama: My friend Carly gets insanely drunk whenever we're around alcohol. She gets loud, pushy, and oftentimes mean-spirited. Most of our friends laugh off her antics, because they have more experience with drinking than I do. We're all freshmen in college, and I don't want to come off as a killjoy. But three times now, when I've been with an inebriated Carly, she's almost gotten in a fight or has said really hurtful things to me. Is ignoring the comments and behavior of your drunken friends something adults learn to do over time? I don't think Carly would react kindly to me talking to her about her drinking habits. When she's sober, which is the majority of the time, Carly is a wonderful person.
A: The most salient fact here is that you’re all freshmen in college, and unless all of you are later-in-life students, your drinking is illegal. Your teenage friends who have “more experience” with alcohol do not sound like people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner; it’s just that they’ve had more adventures puking and blacking out. Carly is young, and I don’t know where her drinking will end up, but right now she has a problem. Hers is the kind of behavior that leads to young women finding themselves waking up next to young men they didn’t intend to have sex with. She also sounds like a mean drunk, and while your friends find her “antics” funny, they’re not. When she’s sober, go out for coffee with her and tell her that you’re concerned about her alcohol intake. You can say she’s probably not even aware of her personality changes when she drinks, but she has said some truly nasty things to you. Add that you’re concerned about her safety when she drinks, because she doesn’t seem in control of herself. If she blows you off, but keeps drinking, report her to the resident adviser.
Q. Workplace etiquette: I work in a very small office and have a very sweet colleague. While we have excellent rapport, we are not "friends" in the sense that we don't confide in each other or even meet each other outside of work. However, I really do like and respect her a lot. We were on our way back from work one day and decided to stop for a bite of lunch and window shopping. She really liked a piece of clothing, but decided not to buy it because of the price. I want to buy it for her but I don't want her to think I'm trying to show off my wealth (I'm not that rich) or her to feel obligated to buy me something in return. I just respect her and think she's been a fantastic colleague. Should I go ahead and buy it for her, without any occasion (she does not have birthday coming up, and neither of us are Christian so it can’t be a Christmas present)? It's not wildly out of reach for me; it's about the cost of a gift I might buy for a close friend's birthday.
A: Your impulse is lovely, but I think it would create more awkwardness than joy. Your colleague would feel a sense of obligation, particularly since she knows how expensive the item is. And every time she wore it, it would probably chafe slightly. But when her birthday does roll around buy her something you know she’d like but that’s not too expensive—so she can appreciate your thoughtfulness without thinking she’s going to have to go broke to return it.
Q. Illegal Re-Entry: My aunt has been going through tough times in recent years because of my cousin. He was caught committing a crime, arrested, and after a year in jail, deported. It hasn't been a year since he was kicked out and I heard that my cousin is planning to return to the country illegally (not really sure how). Even though I would like for my cousin and aunt to be together again, I can't agree with this plan. For years I've been an spectator to this whole situation but I feel I have to say something. I know my aunt is not going to listen to me, so should I tell the authorities? I feel terrible about being the snitch and be the reason of keeping part of my family apart. If I don't say anything, can I be legally responsible for knowing this plan and not reporting it?