Dear Carolyn: My family has never been particularly close, emotionally. I have only one sibling, an older sister, who lived nearby until she retired elsewhere about four years ago. (I found out she was moving because my daughter read about it on Facebook — but it is what it is.)
She has one son, who is married and has an adorable young daughter, whom we’ve met, and they live out of state. We were actually pretty close when he was young, and he has always seemed fond of me, calling on holidays and sharing many pictures and videos of his fabulous daughter. When his parents moved away, we stopped seeing them at holidays.
Because I want to maintain some sort of connection with my nephew and his family I began remembering birthdays and Christmas with a check. I just want them to know I care and am thinking of them.
Here’s the puzzle: Each time I’ve sent a check — for wife’s birthday, nephew’s birthday, baby’s birthday, Christmas — it has taken months to be cashed. Finally I said, “Duh! They don’t want/need your money. Stop!” So I included just a cheerful note full of love on their last card.
Was my “Duh!” moment the truth? Should I just keep sending cards with “love you!” messages? It feels nice to be able to give them something. My sister was always very generous to my kids as they were growing up.
Carolyn says: I think you’re right that the checks aren’t meaningful to them, at least not in the way you intend. That’s fine.
Instead of just sending cards minus the checks, though, I hope you’ll rethink your strategy with your family.
I count four different motivations for sending checks: to stay connected, to show you care, to help this young family, to repay your sister’s generosity with your kids. Each of these is valid and worthwhile — but checks didn’t get it all done.
So, what would?
I can think of one that covers caring, paying back and actually helping: Make contributions in their daughter’s name to a tax-deferred education account. That covers your impulse to be generous in kind, and might better suit their needs. They could be affluent enough not to feel much of an effect from, say, $100 on their birthdays, but when it grows into several thousand at tuition time, then you could be Auntie of the Year.
That just leaves connection, which is of course where your family struggles most. I urge you to recognize that what didn’t work for you and your sister — connection by cash — will also not work for you and your nephew.
Instead, it’s going to take more of what did work with you two when he was young. Presence. As in, a pushback against your muscle memory of operating at arm’s length. If you want him in your life, then you’re going to have to try harder to be in his.
Showing up on his out-of-state doorstep is neither practical nor advisable without his encouragement — but you can find out if he would encourage more of your presence by taking the steps that make sense on your end, like inviting him and your sister to spend a holiday with you — or just calling him occasionally when it’s not someone’s birthday. Auntie steps.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.