Your mom's life story worth chronicling

Wednesday , May 14, 2014 - 1:01 PM


So we just got through Mother’s Day, the day that celebrates the common denominator of the human race. You probably think you know your mom pretty well. You’ve known her all your life. Technically, you knew her before you were born, in a very insider way. But anyway…

My mom and I have been working on the history of her mother, an interesting woman who, in a nutshell married young, had my mom and her sister, divorced, remarried the same man, outlived him, married a second husband, outlived him and married a third, outlived him and married a fourth, decided they weren’t meant to be, divorced him, and spent the rest of her life cheerfully recovering. During her life she lived through the Depression, a couple of wars …. My mom grew up, met and married my dad, and in the interest of not carrying on every family tradition, stayed married to one man only. When he passed away 10 years ago after 50-plus years of being together she chose to stay single. In her words, “No man could ever even think of taking his place.” A notably different approach from Grandma’s. Mom also lived through the Depression, a couple of wars, good times, bad times, and ho-hum days.

She and I get together about once a month to work on family stuff — genealogy, histories, photos, journals. We scan documents and identify photos and do a lot of reminiscing. Actually, she does the reminiscing. I do the recording. My role is to listen, listen, listen. And ask. I’m assembling her story and it’s quickly becoming the story of a woman I thought I knew, but really don’t. This leads me to turn to everyone I know and say, in capital letters, “PRESERVE YOUR MOTHER’S STORY.” Most of us know we should do it. The problem is, we think we’ll do it later. But this is mom we’re talking about, and the tough truth is, later is not the same as forever.

So guide her into the idea. “Mom, tell me your story,” won’t produce much of anything. Say something like, “Mom, I’d like to learn more about you. I’d like to hear about your life.” She’ll look at you either amused or puzzled, and then in true mom fashion will reply with something like, “Oh, Honey. My life just isn’t that interesting.” Never mind that she’s raised you and your siblings, dealt with all the crap that life has thrown her. She’s thinking that you’re just going through some kind of cute phase or dealing with a class assignment or feeling guilty about something. So you have to step it up. “Mom, I really do want to hear about your life. Tell you what, you think about it for a couple of days and I’ll call you on Wednesday and we can start with just a couple of questions. OK?”

The offer to postpone to a later date will garner an agreement from her. The next step is the most critical because it will seal the deal. You actually call her back on Wednesday. You can’t let her down; I mean, this is your mom we’re talking about. So when you call her back on Wednesday, she’ll be shocked. And secretly pleased that you really are that interested. And so she’ll open that door.

So, what to ask. Start with the regular stuff, stuff you probably already know. Start with that stuff because it’s the threshold into the more detailed stuff. So start with where were you born? When? Parents’ full names? Anything particular about the details of your birth? And if you think that’s boring, consider that I recently heard someone tell a child who asked where were you born, “I was born in a bedpan.” It was an awesome story, one that none of the children had ever heard. And all that was needed was the prompting question. So ask. Ask. Ask. Ask.

And pepper your questions with, “How did that make you feel?” she’ll resist that one at first, but persist. Have her finish this sentence: “I felt (blank) because (blank). It really does work. And you will see a side of your mom that you’ve never known, because moms have a built-in stoic button that masks us.

Why bother? Well, beside the fact that this is your mom we’re talking about, you can learn a boatload of stuff about yourself by asking your mom about herself. Sometimes your hair will stand on end when, as she tells some story, you have flashbacks of your own similar experience. Sometimes when she reminisces about feelings she’s had, you’ll see yourself in a mirror-like image. And in the connecting that takes place, you sincerely will love her more, because you’ll understand her more.

And finally, you want it in her words. From her heart. Not your words. Not your siblings’ words. You want her to tell it to you. 

Details will amaze you. sometimes a well-placed question will jump-start a memory in my mom’s thoughts and she’s off and running headlong into a story she relates with a faraway look in eyes. She’s not sitting with me. She’s somewhere else and the details bubble up and out. I sit and listen quietly, preserving her words not just in my little recorder, but more importantly in my brain which responds periodically, “Oh wow…. Seriously?....How did you live through that?... Brilliant way to handle that!...You’re amazing, Mom…” You can’t get to know someone that well and not love them more.

Which is precisely the reason for doing this.

Just do it.

You can contact D. Louise Brown at

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