I bet if you asked 10 people, most of them would say they know their parents. But knowing them when you’re a child and when you’re an adult are radically different things.
I feel lucky to have learned this lesson, mostly before it was too late.
A few years before my mom died unexpectedly, I was watching a movie about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and it occurred to me that she was a young woman during that time. So, during our weekly phone call, I asked her if she remembered it. She did and she had an amazing story to tell.
The next day, during my weekly phone call to my dad, I asked him the same question. He and my mom were not yet married at that time, and he also had a cool story to tell me.
All during the workweek, I kept thinking of something else I could ask each of them, and that started a weekly Q and A with my parents that lasted until my mom’s unexpected death three years ago. What I learned about them was awesome, and still is in the case of my dad, who I now live near and talk with almost every day.
Here are some of the questions I asked them, or things I suggested they tell me about, to give you an idea of how to get a conversation started:
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- What were your best and worst days ever? (Interestingly, while my mom clearly remembered a beloved best day immediately, my father said he hoped it hadn’t yet happened to him.)
- Where were you when John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed, and what do you remember about those times? What about when we landed on the moon? Where were you on 9/11? Do you remember the Challenger disaster?
- Do you remember the first time you saw a movie and what was it?
- Tell me about the first time you fell in love.
- Tell me about when you met my mom/my dad.
- Tell me about you when you were a child and teenager.
- Do you remember your first favorite pair of shoes, and what were they?
- Tell me about your first pet.
- What was your first car?
- Do you remember your first job? And what was your favorite job?
(Just for fun, after writing this column, I Googled “get to know your parents” and there were 19,100,000 results! Try that if you need more questions.)
Sometimes, stories can just pop up if you ask a question about a comment one of your parents makes. Yesterday, my dad said something was “rough as a cob.” Knowing he had grown up on a farm where they had an outhouse when he was a child, I asked him if he really had ever used a cob. The ensuing story was hilarious and we both laughed until we had tears in our eyes. I will never forget that story as long as I live.
(And so you know, yes, they did use cobs because they couldn’t afford store-bought toilet paper. But they used gloves to rub down the cobs first, so they were actually fairly smooth on the surface. “Hell, it was better than a page from the Sears & Roebuck catalog!” he said. “That slick paper wouldn’t do you much good.”)
The conversations I had with my mom before she died, and the ones I continue to have with my dad, have enriched my life and made me look at my parents in a whole new way. I have come to appreciate things that were hard for them, and to really enjoy some of the things they have loved.
Knowing them as they were throughout their lives, instead of who I thought they were based on the memories of a child, has been a huge blessing.
Memories are all we really have, when you think about it. There is nothing else that you can take with you. So, adults, why not pass on some of your memories to your children today? And to those of you who still have one or both of your parents, why not ask a few questions now to gather some of those memories? One of these days, it will be too late.