Ask Wendy

Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2002/ 20 Teves 5762

Salvaging a sister; mother knows best?

By Wendy Belzberg -- My 90 year old mother lives in a retirement home in New York and my sister and I, who live nearby, visit her often and take care of all of her needs. Our third sister lives in Florida and does nothing. Her excuse is "But I'm not there." She rarely visits, and phones Mom only once in a while. What is fair for us to expect of her?

A: It is fair for you to expect your sister to visit her ailing mother at least once a month and to do her share of handholding and care taking. Assuming your mother is not paying her own bills, it is also fair that your sister pay one third of your mother's nursing care and medical expenses. Even if your sister feels some ambivalence toward your mother-as clearly she does-she has no excuse to behave irresponsibly.

And now let's shift from what is fair to what is realistic. There are two issues at stake if your sister is not willing to step (or fly) up: the emotional issue and the financial one. If your mother leaves an inheritance, you and your sister should be reimbursed, off the top, for all of the expenses you incurred. And though it may sound crass, your time is also valuable and you should pay yourselves for the hours you sat at your mother's bedside while your sister was sunning herself on a Florida beach or getting an up do at the beauty salon.

More important, do you want to preserve-or should I say salvage--the relationship you have with your distant sister? If you do, speak up now and express your disappointment, anger and resentment. If you do not, the chances of repairing the damage after your mother dies will be slim. It is not your job to worry about your sister's relationship with your mother; when your mother dies you sister will have to cope on her own with the knowledge that she did not carry her weight. It is your job, however, to think about the family you will have left after your mother's passing and to sort these things out now, while you have the opportunity.

Q: Years ago my wife and I bought a piece of land in Wyoming for our retirement. Since September 11, however, my wife has been pushing me to move now. We have three school-aged children, I have a solid, well-paying job and to put it bluntly, I don't want to move. The topic has become a source of huge conflict, with the children even beginning to weigh in (2 for, one against.) My wife and I were very happy together before this, but now it seems that all we do is argue.

A: The terrorists already have the sick satisfaction of having murdered thousands of innocents and of having blown up the World Trade Center. Do you want your marriage to be one more notch on their belts?

At the risk of being accused of sexism, there isn't a mother I know whose reaction to the September 11th bombing is not more intense than her husband's. Write it off to maternal instinct, to hormones, to our having descended from Mars. But I have seen this phenomenon too frequently to dismiss it. And-Wyoming aside-you shouldn't dismiss the anxiety either.

It has been only a few months since the life of every American was forever changed by the events of September 11; it will take time to adjust to what these changes mean. Don't fail to read the signs. What you describe as an argument about Wyoming sounds to me like your wife's desperate attempt to make sure your brood is safe and secure. This is no time for anyone to be making a major life decision. Who knows, you may find that just as your wife begins to come around, you begin to experience the same aftershocks that shook her foundation.

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© 2002, Wendy Belzberg