Answer Lady: June 2009

This month our wise and witty columnist sets us straight on ungrateful nieces, a jobless friend, a (potentially) dangerous dad, and more.
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Q. I send my teenage niece birthday and Christmas presents every year and never receive any sort of thank-you. I end up asking her parents if she got the gifts. I'm getting fed up. At what point do I simply stop sending them?

A. Right this minute, if you're not getting any joy out of it. It's annoying that these slackers can't be bothered to let you know the gift arrived, but your complaint does raise some questions: Do you have a relationship with your niece other than obligatory gift-giving? Why don't you forget about bugging her parents and call or e-mail her directly? Tell her you'd like to get to know her better. Perhaps you'll end up with something more gratifying than a coerced biannual thank-you. On the other hand, if you still don't get a response, forget it. Don't even send a $10 iTunes card.

Q. I'm a 46-year-old divorcee who recently reconnected with an old classmate who's also divorced. The problem is that he and my best friend, who's been happily married for 20 years, were a serious couple back in college. I really like this guy. Would it be wrong to go out with him?

A. Okay, I know you're never supposed to date a friend's ex, but I have to think a happily married forty-something woman wouldn't begrudge her best friend a chance at romance. Then again, old loves retain a dreamy nostalgic luster years after they end. At least in memory the person is still yours. That's why you need to be completely open about what's developing before you start seeing him. Either you will get her blessing or have a tough decision to make. With luck she'll be happy to see two friends who've been through the wringer get a second chance. If she's uptight about it, you have to wonder how much she really cares about your happiness -- and how truthful she's being about her own. Whatever happens, it's up to you to make sure that there's no whiff whatsoever of sneaking around behind her back. That would poison everything.

Q. A good friend was laid off two months ago. I never know what to say to her when we talk. If I ask if she has any prospects, it almost sounds like nagging, but avoiding the subject seems unnatural since I know it's at the forefront of her thoughts. How do I handle this?

A. Go ahead and ask occasionally. It shows you care, and that's important. But don't ask every single time you get on the phone. Then it is nagging. Use common sense and your obvious sensitivity to find that fine line. You might even ask her if it makes her uncomfortable to talk about her situation. Maybe you can show you care by actually helping. Do you have contacts or ideas you could share? Otherwise, don't let the entire universe be reduced to the single pinpoint of her joblessness. Surely the two of you still have annoying friends and fascinating personal problems to analyze at length.

Q. My 77-year-old dad, a widower, recently had a minor fender bender. Now my brother thinks it's time to take away his car keys. Easy for him to say: He's 1,000 miles away, while I'm just across town and will end up as Dad's chauffeur. Plus, I believe my father is still a safe driver. Any suggestions?

A. The issue isn't how your aging dad will get around (not yet, anyway); it's whether his vision, alertness, and physical fitness impair his driving. You say no, your brother says yes, and since he's still living independently, your dad has a vote, too. Rather than put off this discussion, take a look at the National Highway Traffic Association's online tool for assessing senior driving safety (go to and search for "Aging Gracefully"). It provides checklists that you and your dad can go over to measure his skills now and evaluate changes as they occur. And remember, when the time comes for him to stop driving, the money saved by no longer having to insure, maintain, park, and gas up a car will easily cover the cost of taking a few cabs. In short, your reluctance to be your dad's designated driver should not be the deciding factor here.

Q. My sister is a great mom and an obvious choice as our children's guardian, but her husband is a terribly uninvolved father. Do I have to tell my sister we're going to name a friend, or should I keep my mouth shut?

A. Is your friend really able and willing to accept the job of guardian? Before you go any further, make sure this is true, since it's a huge financial and emotional commitment. Also consider whether you want to sacrifice the benefits of having your children brought up within your extended family. If, as you say, your sister is a great mom, I have a hard time imagining there's anyone more suited to help your kids cope if they lost their parents prematurely -- her substandard husband notwithstanding. But if you're still determined to name your friend, realize that telling your sister is likely to cause bad blood. Granted, not telling her would do the same, in the unlikely event that both you and your husband die before your kids are legal adults. On balance, I'd say the actuarial odds are on your side and you can safely keep mum.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2009.

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