They Can’t Go Home Again, An All Too Familiar Story

Few subjects generate as much contention and heartache hereabouts as siblings and the role they play, or don’t play, in caring for aging parents. Cynthia Barnes has learned to keep her distance, and hasn’t seen her mother since the summer of 2009. Still healthy and active in her early 80s, her mother lives with her son and his family in a small Midwestern town, where she helped them buy a house with a mother-in-law apartment.

Her mother declines to visit Ms. Barnes in Colorado, even if she buys the airline ticket. And, after an ugly blow-up on a family vacation, Ms. Barnes hasn’t made the trip to see her mother. Mother and daughter restrict themselves to brief phone calls.

In Ms. Barnes’s view, a long history of painful interactions necessitated her withdrawal from direct contact with her mother: “It’s always been a very difficult relationship.” Ms. Barnes has twice had agreed to bring her mother into her home. The first time, “she criticized everything I did — my housekeeping, my weight, my not being sufficiently deferential to my husband, my letting cats on the furniture. Ultimately, when Ms. Barnes and her husband divorced, she said, her mother called her some very unpleasant names. They didn’t speak for months.

A few years later, Ms. Barnes had remarried and agreed to her mother’s request to move in. This time, “I removed myself when she criticized me,” Ms. Barnes recalled. “I established the ground rule that once she hurt my feelings I was leaving, going upstairs to my own apartment. And in less than a month, she left.”

Ms. Barnes still visited her mother, though, until a traditional family beach vacation in Florida. As Ms. Barnes recalled the incident, her mother — who abstains from alcohol and berates family members who don’t — grew enraged when people began mixing evening daiquiris. “She got really abusive,” Ms. Barnes said, even going so far as to threaten to throw scalding coffee at her daughter. They haven’t seen each other since.

“I’m sad, and I wish it were different,” Ms. Barnes told me. She loves her mother; she believes her mother loves her. She feels bad that her brother will shoulder the day-to-day burden when her mother falters. Ms. Barnes is willing to participate, even from a distance, but said her brother hasn’t responded to her repeated offers.

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