Dear Annie: My mother passed away unexpectedly four months ago. My 71-year-old father has had a hard go of things, needing to learn how to cook, clean, wash clothes and pay bills. Until recently, my husband and I had been having Dad over once a week for dinner, and we checked in frequently to help him with bills, etc.

Dad's not an easy person to get along with. He's negative, overly critical and outspoken. Mom was the glue that kept us together. A month ago, we took Dad with us on a brief vacation. After spending a great deal of time together in the car, he and I had a blowup. I'm almost 40 and had never stood up to my father before. I've since seen a counselor who has advised me to establish boundaries and only interact with my father in public until some time has passed. I suggested a counselor to Dad and even gave him a phone number.

Because we live in a tightknit community, I often see people who know our family and inquire how Dad's doing. I'm reluctant to say, "I don't know," so I usually say, "OK" and change the subject. I'm guilt ridden for not being there for Dad, but the very thought of being in his presence makes my heart pound and my stomach churn. How do I get through this tough time? — Grieving Daughter

Dear Daughter: You don't need to offer details to acquaintances on the street who are simply being cordial. All you have to say is, "I'm sure Dad is fine" or "He's managing, thanks." The distance the counselor suggested should not be only physical. You must work on creating enough of an emotional distance that Dad's criticisms and negative remarks no longer have such an extreme effect. Your counselor can help you learn how to stop giving Dad so much power to upset you.

Dear Annie: I am married to "Oscar," a wonderful guy, and we have two children. When I was in my early teens, my mother was arrested for fraud and spent six months in jail. I have never told Oscar about this because I felt it had nothing to do with him and it's hardly a point of pride.

We are very close to my mother, and I am not sure how he would handle this news. My siblings' spouses, however, all know about the family secret. Should I tell Oscar? What should I say? — Asking for Guidance

Dear Guidance: Since the rest of the family knows, you should tell Oscar before he finds out from someone else. The fraud conviction happened many years ago and we assume Mom has been a good girl since, so Oscar may be surprised, but he will eventually get past it. Start by telling him there is some confidential information about your mother that you want him to know and you hope it won't change his good opinion of her because their close relationship means the world to you. It would help if Mom would agree to be there when you talk about it, but either way, inform her that you are telling him so she isn't blindsided.

Dear Annie: We are desperate for help. Two years ago, our son's wife asked him for a divorce. At first, no reason was given except that she no longer loved him. Shortly after they separated, we found out she had been having an affair with his best friend. Our son was devastated.

Our former daughter-in-law showed up at our door and asked us not to say anything that would hurt her reputation in our small town. She said she was sorry for what she had done. Reluctantly, we agreed to keep quiet about the affair.

Now she is telling her friends she divorced our son because he was emotionally abusive. You can imagine what this is doing to him and to us. She has also made it clear that if we don't keep our promise to say nothing about her affair, she will never let us see the grandchildren again.

Tell us, Annie, what should we do? This is breaking our hearts. — Small Town in Oregon

Dear Oregon: Your former daughter-in-law obviously needs to assuage her guilt by making your son the villain. He needs to speak to his divorce lawyer immediately about this defamation of character. If necessary, he should sue for custody of the children, since being raised by this viper is not in their best interests. In the meantime, you are not breaking your promise by defending your son. Without mentioning her affair, feel free to pass the word that your son was never emotionally abusive and, obviously, the ex-wife still carries a lot of bitterness.

Dear Annie: I have a beautiful granddaughter who has pierced her tongue and gotten a tattoo behind her ear.

I'm losing sleep over this, especially the pierced tongue. Could this be a health risk? What can I do? — Caring Grandmother

Dear Grandmother: Not much at the moment. There is a risk of hepatitis and infection from tattooing and piercing, but as long as both were done by a licensed, reputable operator, she should be fine. Tongue jewelry can damage her teeth and she should be aware of that, but otherwise, please don't get too worked up over this. Take a deep breath, recognize that you can't change what's already happened and let it go.

Dear Annie: I had to laugh at the letter from "Baffled in the Midwest," whose brother-in-law drives seven hours to drop in without advance notice.

Several years ago, my uncle and his wife came by our home to pay us a visit. We had not seen them in over 10 years. To make a long story short, we had moved and, since my uncle never bothered to knock on our door, they just walked right in and sat down in the living room. All of a sudden, the new owners came in from the backyard, looked at them and asked, "Who the hell are you?!"

My uncle called his sister to ask where we were, and she said, "This is what you deserve for staying away all these years and then not calling in advance." — Lesson Learned


Annie's Mailbox is written by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar, longtime editors of the Ann Landers column. Please e-mail your questions to anniesmailboxcomcast.net, or write to: Annie's Mailbox, P.O. Box 118190, Chicago, IL 60611. © Creators Syndicate