DEAR MISS MANNERS: Would it be wrong for me to not only bring up but to also inquire about the tragedy that ruined my family before I was ever born? Is it really any of my business, as I hadn't even been thought of yet?
See, I have a big sister and a big brother: one 11 years older, one 10 years older. There was another sister that I would have had also, as a big sister, only she drowned in the family's backyard when everyone was home. She was only 3 or 4.
I figured out that had I not had another sibling, well, they would have had her, not me. I kind of found out on my own -- nobody ever told me. To this day, my brother, who is 36, will not talk about what happened.
My parents were divorced by the time I was 6 or 7 and, to be honest, none of us kids is a role-model type adult. There is no communication on any level, no normal family gatherings. I feel knowing the truth about the past will help me resolve issues in my life, but I can't make up my mind because of the risk of hurting my mom and everyone else all over again.
GENTLE READER: Miss Manners hopes that your figuring that you were born only as a replacement for your dead sister is not an example of the way you hope to resolve issues in your life by learning about the past. It does not show talent for separating fact from speculation. You can jump to such conclusions more easily without having any of the information you seek.
All the same, she sympathizes with your curiosity about your family and appreciates your hesitating to hurt their feelings to satisfy it. You might begin your inquiry by research that does not involve them. Birth and death are matters of public record, so you will be able to discover at least the basic facts. There may also have been some journalistic attention on the death, as it presumably occurred when juvenile death was less common that it is now.
Knowing the background will enable you to make a gentler approach, asking your mother what your sister was like, rather than demanding to know what happened to her. Your mother and siblings may still be unwilling to talk, however. In this blabby age, where any reticence is considered unhealthy if not sinful, it may be hard for you to imagine how strong a wall of silence may be. If you want to spare their feelings, you will back away if you encounter it and seek out other relatives or friends who may be able to enlighten you.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: As a teacher, I frequently receive gifts from students during the holidays and at the end of the school year. I gladly write thank you notes to the student. They are always happy to receive them and appreciate having their gifts acknowledged.
This year, I received a few thank-you cards from students, thanking me for helping them out during the school year and for being their teacher. The cards have meant as much to me as the gifts, but I don't know the proper way to acknowledge them. Do I write a thank-you note for a thank-you card?
GENTLE READER: Strictly speaking, a letter of thanks does not require a reciprocal letter of thanks. As you no doubt realize, that would start an endless chain. But just as you enjoy those letters, and the children enjoy your letters of thanks for their presents, children who have taken the trouble to write to you would also enjoy a word of appreciation.