Hoarder Aunt Presents Break Fast Conundrum

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Dear Miriam,

My aunt is a borderline hoarder. She’s invited everyone over to her house for Yom Kippur break fast. It isn’t safe for my children to be there. How do I get out of it?

Signed,

Cautionary Kugel

Dear Cautionary,

You basically have two choices: lie, or tell the truth. In these Days of Awe leading up to the biggest day of soul searching and self-improvement on the Jewish calendar, I don’t think I can tell you to lie. But honoring family members is pretty high on the list of mitzvot (good deeds/commandments) as well, so I’m sure we can figure out a balanced way to respond to the situation without compromising your integrity, your children’s safety or your kavod (honor/respect) for your aunt.

Depending on the ages of your children, considering that the fast doesn’t end until around 7:30 p.m., this might be pushing up against their bedtime. You could very reasonably say that it’s already a long day, and you need to get them home to sleep. You’re not saying that’s the only reason, but you’re not lying either.

Another option is that if, like me (and most people), fasting makes you feel kind of awful, tell your aunt that you’d like to find another time to get together (at your house) when you’ll all be in better spirits.

If those options sound impossible, or if your family gatherings are all or nothing, and your absence will be the subject of conversation on every future holiday, then you need reinforcements.

Talk to other relatives, ideally, a sibling of your aunt, and tell them your concerns. Someone in her generation may have an easier time either making excuses for you or explaining to her that your children are too little to be in her home safely. Someone else may even be able to present it as, “She’s worried about her kids breaking your things,” even when you’re actually worried about her things breaking your kids.

If your parents or other relatives aren’t able to back to up, you’re back to where we started with having to make your own excuses.

One unfortunate reality of not being able to take your children to other people’s home, which can happen for any number of reasons, is that you may end up being the default host. If that’s an acceptable outcome to you, tell your aunt, “We’d love to be together for break fast, but since (pick your reason) the kids will be exhausted, they will want to be home with their own toys, we can only eat gluten-free bagels made in our own oven, maybe everyone could come here instead.”

Finally, if your aunt’s home is unsafe to your kids, it may be unsafe to her as well. Though break fast isn’t the time to bring up the larger issues here, right after Yom Kippur might be.

Again, I’d suggest starting with your aunt’s peers and asking if anyone has spoken with her about the state of her home or if anyone is willing to. You could offer to “help her go through some things,” and even if she’s not ready to get rid of anything, perhaps you could at least throw out some trash or help arrange boxes in a way that seems safer for everyone.

All that being said, I wonder if you could consider stopping by for five to 10 minutes to say a quick hello to the family without even having to put your kids down. If that’s really not an option and all else fails, say, “I’m really sorry we won’t be able to make it this year,” and leave it at that.

Be well, and g’mar chatima tova, may you be sealed for a good year,

Miriam

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