Help! I Sold the Jewelry My Mother-in-Law Gave Me, but Now She Wants It Back. Oops?

Advice on manners and morals.
April 29 2014 6:00 AM

Here Today, Pawned Tomorrow

In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman who already sold the jewelry her mother-in-law now wants back.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

See Dear Prudence live! Emily Yoffe will be at Washington, D.C.’s historic Sixth & I for a special Mother’s Day themed event, hosted by Slate science editor Laura Helmuth. For tickets and more information, click here

Q. Inherited Jewelry: Four years ago my mother-in-law had a stroke and lost the use of her right arm. She felt that she couldn’t use much of her jewelry anymore so she gave me a few of her pieces. Although the gesture was sweet, the jewelry was not my taste. I had kept it put away for many years, but finally this past winter, money was a little tight and I decided to sell some of my least favorite. I ended up using the money for groceries so we could have a little extra money for Christmas and a birthday for our youngest child. Just a month or so ago my mother-in-law called me up to asked if she could borrow for the very hoop earrings I sold and my heart sank! I told her the clasp was broken from a one time use and were unusable, and she left it at that. Then a couple of weeks ago she asked my husband if he remembered the heart necklace she gave me, he told her he did, she also asked for that back so she could wear it again. Well, I sold that one too! My husband has no idea I sold these items and I don’t think he would say anything about it if I told him. Now I’m hoping she doesn’t ask for it again, but I know she will. Do I fess up? 

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A: I understand that such a gift could be considered handing down an heirloom, but unless the point is made explicitly that this is something that should be kept in the family, a gift is a gift and people are free to do with a gift as they like. There is also an informal statute of limitation on such things. If your mother-in-law had realized a few months after she had given you the jewelry that she had acted too abruptly and wearing her beloved pieces made her feel better, then surely you would have understood and handed them back. But this is now four years later. So if your mother-in-law is enjoying wearing jewelry again, that’s great, but it’s not fair at this point to ask for things back. Especially since you don’t have them. What you do depends on the kind of relationship you have with her. If it is warm and friendly, you just need to tell her the truth. If it’s not so warm and friendly, have your husband be the go-between. It might be easier to hear from him that things are a little tight financially, and you both thought it was fair to turn the jewelry, lovely as it was, into something more immediately useful for the grandchildren—emphasize the grandchildren.

Q. Dating and Pets: I’m currently dating a great successful girl. We are serious and have talked about marriage and kids. Here is the issue. We both have dogs. I have a 7-year-old lab that I have spent a ton of time training and have owned since she was a puppy. My girlfriend has a small mix that is super food aggressive, toward other dogs and, in limited interactions, kids as well. She took food from a 3-year-old at a cafe. So I mentioned that I’m not sure I would trust her dog with a kid, and she said that if she had to get rid of her dog, my dog has to go as well. She won’t take the dog to training, let me discipline the dog or even recognize that this is a problem. She has said that once a kid comes along, the dog will bond and everything will be fine. Any advice?

A: Unless there is a serious allergy situation which means someone cannot live with a pre-existing pet, my stance is that the pet is part of the package. Her pet is part of her life, and since you two haven’t even gotten engaged, you’re getting way ahead of things to be worried about how the dogs will bond with your nonexistent children. Nonetheless, there is something disturbing about the dynamic here. There simply are some dogs who are very difficult and almost beyond training—I had one for 10 years. But at least I hired trainers and recognized there were situations that required her to be contained. It’s unfortunate your girlfriend doesn’t realize her dog has issues. But I also sense something amiss with your desire to “discipline” it. The dog needs comprehensive training. Your occasional discipline will likely just make the dog (and her) hate you. But then the ante gets upped by the discussion of how if her dog isn’t safe around a baby, your dog has to be dispatched, too. So at issue here is not what do you do with your dogs, but what do you do with each other. This is a really good opportunity to see how you two address conflict and arrive at compromise. So far, I’m not impressed.

Q. A Co-Worker Is Literally Beating Herself Up Over Something: I arrived at work a bit earlier than usual this morning and well before almost anyone else was in. On my way to my desk I saw a co-worker hit herself in the cheek with her fist several times when I walked by her cubicle. I don’t think she noticed me and I was so shocked by what I saw that I didn’t say anything to her and continued on to my desk. She has a red mark and a lump on her face and is saying she ran into a door when people ask her what happened. Of course, a lot of eyebrows are being raised because that seems to be a classic response in domestic abuse cases to explain away bruises and people are gossiping about it. I know this co-worker is married, but I don’t know much else about her. We are not close and do not usually have occasions to speak to each other beyond saying good morning. I am concerned both by what she was doing and by what everyone seems to believe about how she got the lump on her face. I don’t want to embarrass her by telling co-workers what I saw but I really don’t feel comfortable asking her about it. Should I tell someone or is this a time to mind my own business? 

A: You would be perfectly justified staying out of this completely—not saying anything to your bruised colleague or to the gossipers. (And gossipers, I hear from women who have balance problems, etc., who occasionally find themselves bruised then become the object of endless inquiries about their husband’s fisticuffs.) But you saw something so concerning, that if you feel comfortable, you might want to speak up. You could pull this colleague aside someplace private and tell her you wanted to give her a heads up that people are speculating about her being hit. You can say that it’s none of your business, but as you came in the other day, you saw her hurting herself. Tell her you’re concerned about this, that there is help available for people who have a problem with self-harm, and you want to encourage her to seek it. Then you’ve done what you can do.

Q. Re: Inherited jewelry: My first question is, why didn’t her husband know they were so short of money that she had to sell some jewelry? I have given my daughters some of my jewelry, because I wanted them to have it. If they needed money that badly, I would rather give them money so they wouldn’t have to sell the jewelry (and yes, I know it’s a gift. Still!).

A: Yes, it would have been better to have a discussion with her husband about their finances and the jewelry, so I hope she’s comfortable telling her husband now. But no matter what the gift—unless, as I say, it’s truly something with invaluable sentimental meaning—if someone would prefer to turn it into cash, that’s the recipient’s choice.

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