Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Father deserves appreciation, even if his girlfriend does not
Baltimore: How do you nicely tell your father that you do not want his girlfriend at your graduation? I am deeply indebted to him for paying for graduate school, but I don't want to feel indebted to the point of having to invite his girlfriend. She is not very pleasant for me to be around and would only be a reminder of that fact that my mother is not alive to be there.
Carolyn: Which impulse is stronger in you, to celebrate your moment, or to thank your dad? I know which I'd choose, and I have an opinion on which choice is the more evolved (and less regrettable) in your case, but you need to come to it on your own.
I'm sorry about your mom. If my own experience is any guide, you will be acutely aware of her absence regardless.
Baltimore again: I am very thankful to my father but I did not solicit his help. He offered, and I accepted. My mother actually passed during the first month of medical school, so this is a big deal. My dad's girlfriend has made no effort to get to know me and at most family events finds a way to criticize me. She actually ruins most things for me. When she does that it just makes me wish even more that my mom were there.
Carolyn: This sounds like a conversation you need to have with your dad. Not, "I never asked you to pay, and she's a witch to me," but instead, "I am grateful beyond words, but also in an awkward position on the graduation. Can you explain why (girlfriend) is so critical of me?"
It's quite possible she feels threatened by you, and handles it reprehensibly, for sure . . . but might handle it better with an overture from you. She may have earned every bit of your loathing, but it never helps when that loathing is overt.
Anyway, communicate nondefensively with Dad. Or, invite her and treat it as a new start; she may be awful, but your love for Dad is paramount.
Pacific Northwest: How much credit do you give to the simple act of aging as a method of figuring out what is important in life? I used to think many of the things that letter-writers ask about were important too, but now that I am pushing 50 and have lost some important people in my life, I can't believe I was concerned about those things. For example, my dad had a wife who was a bit of a control freak, and I was worried about her being at my wedding, but now they are both gone I can't believe I cared.
I certainly don't mean to belittle anyone's problems, but maybe if they could project into the future 30 years they could see the issues aren't so overwhelming.
Carolyn: This is what I meant by "less regrettable." Ceremonial decisions are best made with an eye to decades from now, though we'll still get a lot of them wrong in spite of that (and ourselves), just as you say: by regarding as important things that don't stay important. All we can do is try to locate our better impulses, and honor them.