Dear Mrs. G,
We are flying to my stepmother-in-law's again for the holidays this year, and once again, she will probably cater the entire three-day event. Food for the various meals comes in on aluminum trays and comes out of plastic tubs. It's good, but there's no pleasing kitchen ritual. And there's no smell of cinnamon buns baking, or sweet onions sautéing. And, gulp, everything but dinner is on paper plates. The horror! How can we who actually love the cooking part take it over in a nice way?
- Julia Stepchild
This is really your stepmother-in-law's call. She could see this catering deal as a good solution to not wearing herself out while getting to spend more time visiting with you. (Yes? Maybe? No?) Or look at it this way - she could be saving you from perfectly horrible food that she herself might cook.
The tact involved in getting any of this to change is complicated by the "step" in her title. If a mother-in-law is not difficult enough to handle, a stepmother-in-law is a minefield. Start small, maybe with those cinnamon buns. Tuck a recipe in your carry-on; make a run to the market once you're on site and pick up whatever ingredients you need. Surprise everyone with that. And breakfast doesn't horn in on any of the major holiday dinners. Use the bun as a test. See if the mood changes, either to warmth or chill. Worst-case scenario: You infused the house with some wafty goodness this year, anyway.
Dear Mrs. Gift,
I'm a brand-new grandma to a very gifted (get it?) little girl. I don't want to give the usual g'ma thing for the holidays - little dresses with I (heart) Grandma, yet another stuffed critter, etc. Any brilliant ideas to help set her on the road to perfection that is surely her birthright?
- Basking in Reflected Glory
Mrs. Gift hears you. While another flopsy bunny need not be added to the pile in the crib, shoving money into a college fund, while surely appreciated, is likely to get you branded the "not fun" grandma. This is obviously not the role you want to play. Keep this in mind (from Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King): "Imagination, imagination, imagination. It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems!" Think of any opportunity to engage with a child's imagination, from the big empty box every kid likes to play in, to blank books and crayons, to dress-up clothes and jewelry, to a backyard sandbox. You can be the provider of raw materials and a space in which they can be turned into - whatever.
I have an unusual problem, one that you might not have much sympathy with. I know my friends don't. I. Am. Rich. Very well off, anyway, through inherited money. This means that the rest of my family is also rich. While my siblings and I would be fine with exchanging something personally meaningful (like a CD of my niece playing the piano, for instance) or handmade (we all have various talents) or experiential (tickets to the symphony), our mother looks askance at this. She thinks we should use the family money to give very generous presents. Last Christmas she bought me a very old Italian violin when I had only mentioned in passing that it might be nice to take fiddle lessons. Net result: The gifts we buy end up as attempts to please our mother, not each other. How can we get our giving back on track?
-Mel O. McPrivleged
While it may be hard for some to sympathize, it is always refreshing to see how the grass grows on the other side of the fence. It occurred to Mrs. Gift as she made the rounds to a spate of fundraisers over the last couple of weekends that your siblings and the concept known as "the silent auction" are a match made in heaven. These auxiliaries to many a fundraising event are based on donations from local businesses; items might range from a pound of coffee to theater tickets to weekends at bed-and-breakfasts to Caribbean cruises. (Stradivarius violins might be in short supply, though.) Usually there's a wide range of items to choose from. Sadly, bidders often seem to be in it to get a bargain rather than thinking about giving for a greater good. Here's where you come in: You can get that lavish gift your mumma wants you to give by jotting down a high bid and at the same time have the satisfaction of knowing your money is going to support a cause that you (presumably) also support.
Dear Mrs. Gift,
What is the proper way to act in church, at the family gift exchange, etc., if you're a non-Christian who's married into a Christian family?
- The Papa
Whatever you do, don't come jumping in on a pogo stick. No, seriously... why do you need to act in any particular way? Mrs. Gift once had a non-Christian college friend who was irritated by all displays of Christmas, including all holiday lights, which she thought should be banned from dorm windows. She would have advised you not to show up. You clearly have decided not to go that route, so you have to let go of your discomfort and go with the flow. No one expects you to genuflect or take communion, but blocking out the Christmas carols by listening to your iPod is also not kosher. Sing along - they're mostly nice tunes, really, and if necessary, remember that the origins of this holiday are pagan, so it's all pretty much a farce anyway. Adeste fidelis.