Ask Amy

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 11:31pm

DEAR AMY: I work with a fiftysomething woman who was widowed when her children were very young.

She has never remarried and now ekes out a living by cobbling together paychecks from two or three jobs, none with benefits.

She rents a tiny apartment and drives an old clunker.

Most of us have bought her an occasional meal, given her clothing or household items, or "lent" her small, and sometimes not-so-small, sums of money. Her children are grown, live nearby and seem to be doing well.

She does not want them to know about her circumstances, saying they have always viewed her as strong and she considers her current plight a sign of weakness.

My parents are long dead, but I would be appalled to learn they had gone without when I could have helped them. I think it's inevitable that our colleague's health, car or some other circumstance will soon bring matters to a head.

In the meantime, do we sit back quietly and watch her struggle? Or do we politely ask her children, in person, by note or e-mail, "How can you go to Europe when your mother is destitute?"

Is there some other approach?

We've tried hooking her up with social services but to no avail.

— Worried Co-worker

DEAR WORRIED:
I took your question to the smartest woman I know: my mother.

We agreed that this sounds like the plot of one of our favorite movies, "Stella Dallas." In the film, the title character sacrifices everything so her child can have the life she never had. The movie's melodramatic ending makes it clear that the child will never know all her mother has done for her — and that's exactly the way the mother wanted it.

My mother wisely observed that your co-worker is making a conscious choice of how she wants to be seen by her children. You should respect her choice, even if you don't agree with it.

I appreciate and applaud that you care enough to get involved with your co-worker's struggle, but the best approach would be to continue to attempt to mentor her directly.

Ask her how she thinks her children would feel if they knew she was foundering. Tell her you understand and admire her pride, but also reflect your view that if your own parents were struggling and you didn't know it, you would have been devastated. Urge her to be open with her children.


DEAR AMY: I'm looking for a kind yet effective way to respond to a co-worker/friend's request for my time.

I have a degree in interior design (though that is not what I do for work). I am often asked for my assistance in "picking out paint colors," reworking floor plans, weighing in on redecorating, etc.

As I don't work in this field, I don't charge for my services.

Recently a co-worker asked for my assistance in helping with her latest design project. The tone of her request struck me as "cold," demanding, presumptuous and unappreciative. She e-mailed me dimensions and specifications for a project and wanted me to design it for her over lunch.

I would typically help the person, but what I would rather do is stand up for myself and respect my own time. I have three young kids, work outside the home and have a husband who travels for work most of the time. My plate is full.

— Lilan

DEAR LILAN: One way around this would be to recommend a professional whose work you like.

You could respond to design requests by saying, "I'm swamped, but 'ABC Design' does a really good job with this sort of thing. You should give them a call."


DEAR AMY: A prominent member of our corporation died last week and the memorial contribution mentioned in the obit is one that I would never support.

I can see this being a moral issue within our company, but I cannot voice my opposition.

Should I make a contribution to the charity of my choice, or send flowers instead?

— Unsure

DEAR UNSURE: Instead of a contribution or flowers, send a hand-written note of condolence to the family of the deceased.

Send questions to askamy@tribune.com

Filed under: Lifestyles