Please don't ask about my mom. Just don't

My dad's second wife always says, "So how's your mom?" Can't she tell it's a touchy, painful subject?

Published February 18, 2011 1:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

One of your recent columns advised someone on how to handle uncomfortable conversations from their sweet in-laws about their dysfunctional family. My question is somewhat similar: How do I fend off questions from my dad's wife when she asks about my mom? It makes me incredibly uncomfortable, especially because my mom is unstable and she knows it, was even the subject of uncomfortable confrontations in which the entire family was left in tears while she (my mom) sped off. That was 20 years ago and I would just prefer that my dad's wife never ask me casually, "So how's your mom?" She does it along with the usual litany: "How's life, how's work, how's everything, how's your mom?" and I try to make the answers as boring and dull as possible hoping that she'll stop asking, but she never does.

I'll say "fine" but "fine" isn't enough, she presses for more. We end up with long uncomfortable silences until I change the subject. If she sees my mom in a supermarket, she'll tell me later, even though the two of them did not talk. My mom essentially hates her but at least does not ask about her in my company and I wish my stepmom would do the same.

Should I just come out and ask her "please don't ask me about this"? When is it OK to tell people what you need/want if they're not getting the hint?

Tired of Beating Around the Bush

Dear Tired of Beating Around the Bush,

Maybe it's rude but when I don't want to talk about something I say, "I don't want to talk about it." I don't know what else to do. I would run away but sometimes the door is locked or there are too many people in the room or it's raining outside and you can't run away. For me, anything short of saying "I don't want to talk about it" constitutes talking about it. Like if I say, "Oh, it's going OK," that's talking about it. And then later I feel bad because I talked about it.

So with your mom and everything, well, if you don't want to talk about your mom, you could always ask your stepmom how her sex life is going. I mean, you could say, "We're all family and, well, it's so hard to tell what one person will think is personal and what another will think is just normal so I don't mean this about you in particular when I say that talking about my mom is a very sensitive subject because it's sort of like things some people feel are very sensitive which I, myself, do not find all that sensitive such as certain issues about the human body and certain habits that we all may have but feel are inappropriate to talk about with others especially in a crowded kitchen such as this one filled with close family and friends and ex-wives and stepchildren which, to me is a perfectly normal atmosphere in which to talk about this skin thing I've had lately where I wake up in the middle of the night and my skin is just not exactly itching but more like crawling, you know, and I start rubbing and scratching and then weirdly enough it's not that it starts out sexual but it becomes sexual, after a while, and I have to wake my husband up."

And then if she's still there, I don't see any reason not to continue.

"Like instead of talking about my mom, whom we don't really have in common because she's my mom but she's the ex-wife of your husband, who is my dad, which makes things icky, don't you agree, plus which of course she's a little unstable, which you know, which does not help, but you and I have so many other things in common, like first of all we're both women, and like a lot of us have this body image thing, like do you ever feel you're a little overweight and stop eating certain things and then start craving them and feel guilty about craving them and start lying about what you're craving or start eating secretly in the middle of the night standing there in your pajamas at the refrigerator eating really fast afraid that somebody is going to wake up and find you there, like it's your house, right, and your food, and yet you feel like you're doing something wrong by eating it? And speaking of food, how's your sex life going?

"I mean, we're both women, and as women we're sexual creatures, and as sexual creatures, I'm sure we sometimes have the same thoughts even though we don't express them, such as the thought that your sex life could probably be better but then you wonder if you'd get in trouble if you brought it up or God forbid if you finally decided you've had enough of this boring sex life with your husband, who, incidentally, is my dad, which is icky, and my mom's ex-husband which is also icky, which is why I don't like to talk about my mom with my stepmom but don't  you wonder sometimes what would happen if you just said, Fuck it, I'm going to have an affair, and then you start thinking who you'd have an affair with, would it be with your boss or somebody you know, or would you pick out some total stranger, and if you picked a total stranger how would you be sure it's safe? Do you just ask them outright if they have any sexually transmissible diseases or is that rude to ask someone something that personal? Or is it sexually transmissible or sexually transmitted? Or just STD? Do you think he'd be offended if you asked him, or would that be too personal? Because it's very hard to tell what's too personal and what's not. The negotiations between two consenting sexual partners, not only about sexually transmitted diseases but what they're going to consent to, like vaginal only, or anal, or oral, or everything, and do you like to be tied up or at least will you go along with it if I happen to have a thing for tying people up and slapping them around kind of hard before settling down for the old in-out, as the boys in "A Clockwork Orange" liked to say, because you just can't tell what somebody's going to consider too personal or out of bounds, you know? Take my mom, for instance. Me, I don't like to talk about my mom. It's kind of personal. Let's talk about you instead. Where'd you get that lovely dress? How are your teeth? Have you had any affairs lately?"

On the other hand, you could always just be rude like me and say you just don't want to talk about your mom.

I like talking about my mom even though she went crazy and then died. But I don't want to talk about my novel. Because my mom is at least done but the novel's not done. And I'm stuck. And I don't want to talk about it.

Because if a stranger asks me and I'm in the right mood, then I will talk and talk and talk and then later lying awake in bed I will feel that I was misunderstood by someone who wasn't really interested anyway or even worse was looking to size me up and whittle me down with passive-aggressive observations about how easy it was for him to write his first novel and how he's grateful for all the support he got, and how if you really want to get something done you'll get it done and people who can't finish things are probably afraid of something or maybe they're just plain dishonest cowards always complaining that they can't get it done instead of doing the honest, courageous thing of just doing it.

So that's the kind of trouble I get into when I talk about stuff I don't want to talk about. Which is why I say I just don't want to talk about it.

Except of course with you. Because you are not a stranger. You are a reader. We talk every day. You've got pictures of me on your refrigerator. That's different. I would tell you anything.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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