Dilemmas: Can I keep my distant cousin at a distance?

A very, very distant cousin, who's met Emma only twice when she was tiny, has been sending her birthday presents. Now she wants to arrange Sunday lunch for Emma, now a teacher, and her boyfriend to meet her daughter, a banker. But Emma treasures her Sundays and weekends. What should she do?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

I have a personal code that I should have at least three people in my life whom I don't necessarily find very sympathetic - but of course some are - whom I take on in a minor way out of duty. At one point I had about six of these on the go - mostly, of course, elderly and lonely. For a few years I've had only the odd one, but I'm working on a couple. They may be distant relations, they may be lonely people who live in my street, they may be the children of friends who I feel are having a hard time.

However, I don't usually take on people with children, unless the children live abroad, because I feel that they have their own support system.

So I suppose that's one reason I feel that Emma should not feel so bad about her distant cousin, however generous she's been toward her in the past. Another reason why I feel sympathetic towards Emma is that if she's anything like me she'll have had a basinful of "Oh you must meet my son/ daughter, she's just the same age as you" ever since she was three.

There is a moment when the fact that someone is the same age as you or went to the same university as you, just isn't a good enough reason to meet. After all, you never introduce people of 62 to each other with the words: "Oh, you must meet, you're both 62", so why should Emma want to meet her distant cousin's daughter simply because they're of the same generation? Emma's a teacher; the daughter's a high-flying banker. Although it's possible, it's not awfully likely that they're going to become bosom buddies.

I imagine, too, that Emma is worried in case meeting this cousin and her daughter is going to start up a relationship that she really doesn't want and hasn't got the time to continue. And in a way it's easier not to start the relationship at all than to spend the next couple of years refusing further invitations - for Christmas lunch? Cold weekends in Kent?

And finally, Sunday lunch. There is nothing nicer than Sunday lunch with close friends. There is nothing worse than Sunday lunch with people you don't particularly like or know.

It is a complete killer of a meal. It writes off half the weekend. I very, very rarely accept invitations to Sunday lunch because they never end until six, and by then you're barely sober enough to drive home.

So - should Emma take up this invitation out of a sense of family duty to a lonely woman? No. Should she spend an entire Sunday with her? No. Should she simply say "No"? That would be too cruel. But (that horrible phrase, used to cover up so much cruelty and thoughtlessness) life is too short to start relationships with people with whom you have nothing in common. I think Emma should simply say that she's too busy correcting homework at weekends to go anywhere, and that when the holidays come she'd love to drop by for a cup of tea and will give her cousin's daughter a ring then.

And if she feels guilty, and hasn't already got enough lonely people to care for, she should take up the invitation of someone nearby whom she rings perhaps once a fortnight and sees sometimes for a cup of tea, who is really desperately in need of company and a continuing relationship. This would be a far more constructive way of spending any extra time she has.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

They won't want to know you

If for no other reason, good manners dictate that you must humour this woman, from whom you have been accepting gifts all your life, in her wish to introduce you and your boyfriend to her daughter.

Once these women have met you, and formed their own impression of your character - so eloquently displayed in your letter - they will most certainly want nothing more to do with you, and will themselves put an end to this relationship, which is now proving as irksome as it has hitherto been profitable to you.

JAMES LOADER

Orpington, Kent

Do not give in to persistence

You have already sorted out in your mind sufficient and reasonable grounds why you should not feel obliged to visit this distant cousin. Her persistence in inviting you, despite the tenuous familial link, sounds to me as if she is doing it for her own ends.

If you give in and visit her then you are signifying a desire to strengthen the relationship and do not be surprised if this encourages her to make further invitations.

GRAHAM WRIGHT

London SE26

You owe her nothing

It feels as if you should recognise your own needs - you owe nothing to this cousin. She has chosen to give you presents and to invite you to lunch, and while politeness makes you feel "obliged", you still have every right to say "no".

I feel that you should consider politely telling her that you are over- committed at this stage in your life, but will try to get in touch with her when things become less pressured. In this way the ball is in your court, not hers.

ANGELA ROSENTHAL

Overton, Hampshire

It's only Sunday lunch

Of course busy people need relaxing weekends, but this is "Sunday lunch" - probably only four hours of Emma's time.

Her cousin has kept in touch over the years without making any demands, and it would seem only polite to visit to catch up on family news. It doesn't have to lead to anything further than an occasional phone call or letter and the high-flying banker may turn out to be an interesting addition to the occasion. After years of close involvement with immediate family and friends, to meet up with distant relations can be very rewarding.

CHRISTINE VOSS

London N6

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I have a friend who is a compulsive gossip. That's always fun, but I can't believe she's not gossiping just as much about me as she is about everyone else. I often confide in her, and she promises not to tell, but last week she started telling me something that she said she'd `promised not to tell' and I start to wonder if I can trust her. If she makes me promise not to tell, I keep quiet, then a mutual friend rings up and repeats the confidence, and I get upset. I've known her for years, but it's increasingly hard to feel at ease with her. Am I a prudish old bore, or is it time to move on?

Yours sincerely, Karen

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside at `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; or e-mail dilemmas@ Independent.co.uk, giving a postal address so that we can send a bouquet

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