Running out of time

I Have So Many Questions For My Parents... But Not Enough Time

As a busy mom, I don’t know when or how to ask them.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Shutterstock
The Sandwich Generation Issue

I was searching for a board game to play with my kids at my parents’ house when I spotted a book on my mom’s closet shelf.

The title was Mom, Tell Me Your Story. It was a memory book with blank pages and an audio component so my mother could record stories for me. Many of the pages were filled with her handwriting.

I flipped to a random section and began to read. My mom had written about the first apartment she and my dad shared right after they got married in the ’70s. They lived directly above their landlords, and when she and my dad went out, the landlords would sneak into their apartment and watch their TV because they didn’t have one of their own.

I smiled at the story, one I’d never heard before. Then one of my kids came looking for the game I’d promised, and I slammed the book shut like I’d been caught doing something wrong. I never told anyone I’d found it.

But I’m still reeling from it. I felt like I found a secret: My mother is creating a book for me to read after she dies. And I’m not ready for that.

My parents are nearing 80, so it should come as no surprise to me that they won’t be around forever. But there’s still so much more I want to know about them. I want to hear all the crazy landlord stories, but I also want to know more about their childhoods. What were their relationships with their own parents like? Did they enjoy having siblings or did they fight with them? I want them to tell me more about my childhood. What was I like as a kid? What songs did my mom sing to me at night, and did she sit with me until I fell asleep? Did the theme song from my favorite TV shows get stuck in her head like Blippi does in mine?

As my own kids grow older, I want to ask them about the way they parented me. How did they decide who was going to teach me how to drive? What was it like for them to raise me in the ’80s and ’90s, when video games and cell phones were becoming commonplace? Did they decide behind closed doors at what age I was going to be allowed to date? Did they sit me down for a puberty talk? (I have no memory of one.) Did they worry about how I would grow up? Do they feel like they did a good job?

There’s so much I want to learn from them. My mother makes homemade pierogies and chicken noodle soup that make my mouth water just thinking about them. She’s written down the recipes for me, but will I ever be able to replicate them? I’ve asked her to make them with me, but there never seems to be an opportunity. She asked me once if I wanted to drive the hour from my house to hers by myself to learn some of her Christmas cookie recipes, but I laughed.

“You’d cry if I showed up without your beloved grandchildren,” I said. She laughed, too, because she knew it was true.

Last summer, my uncle flew in for a visit from his home in Arizona, something he and my aunt do only once every few years. Sitting in my parents’ garage while my kids played in the yard, I was able to ask him a few questions about my mom: What she was like when she was little, what their parents — my grandparents — were like; my grandma died when I was 2 and I know very little about her. Did they like my dad when my mom first brought him home?

I gleaned a few good nuggets of information, but then it started:

“Mom, can you play soccer with me?” “Mom, do you know where my water bottle is?” “MAMA!” (That last one was the baby. She didn’t need anything specific, just me).

Part of me doesn’t want to acknowledge that my window to ask my parents all I want to know about them is closing, and the other part is frustrated that every time I try, I’m interrupted.

I know my mother is preparing for the day when she won’t be around to answer my questions. I found the book as proof. I hope I can let her know before it’s too late that I want to hear those stories. She’s been courageous enough to tell them; I hope I’m courageous enough to ask her about them.

Lauren Davidson is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor focusing on parenting, arts and culture, and weddings. She has worked at newspapers and magazines in New England and western Pennsylvania and is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in English and French. She lives with her editor husband, four energetic kids, and one affectionate cat. Follow her on Twitter @laurenmylo.