How well do you ever really know someone?


Happiest of birthdays to my beautiful mom! (I’m early – what can I say – I get it from my her; she taught me to always be punctual/early – my sister Ash must have missed that primer lol).

As many of you know, we almost lost my mom in April 2017 due to Covid. She was on a vent for 2 weeks and continues to have lasting damage from all of the time she spent in the hospital. As we were hoping, and crying, and praying for a miracle I realized that I don’t know much about my mom. This came as a SHOCK to me – because I love my mom and I had an amazing childhood and we have always been close – so how did I not know so many of the important things – like where she learned not to cry and in what areas of her life had she felt as if she had succeeded and where had she felt she had settled or fallen short? What made her fall crazy in love, fall out, and fall back in again? 

It gets worse

Not only did I not know the stories of some of the big stuff, I didn’t know a lot of the little stuff either – like her favorite color, or what, as a kid, she thought she wanted to be when she grew up (somehow I don’t think it was a Labor Relations Supervisor at General Motes – maybe though – she certainly excelled at it). This led me down a rabbit hole of overthinking – what do I know about my grandparents? My aunts and uncles? My cousins? – I mean as real honest to god people with their own heartbreaks, their own hail Mary moments. 

I know the essence of these people – the enduring characteristics, and the same repeated setlist of family nostalgia told over and over on holidays, at weddings, and during funerals. But I didn’t know the nitty gritty, or those moments (big and small) in their own lives that didn’t directly coincide with mine. 

Am I alone here?

Are you aware of the alternate versions of the people in those yellowed family picture albums? Have you ever even considered there just might be more to sick old Aunt Sophie or crazy cousin Kate. What did it feel like to be them 10, 20, 30 years ago? What iteration of themselves scares them the most? Which was the easiest to love? Did they ever coalesce into the same? 

It was at this point in the ruminating, that I made a vow – that if my mom came out of her comatose state, I would take the time to ask her some of these questions and record the answers. 

Fortunately she is with us still and I had the chance to meet her once again – this time as more than just my mom – as a woman that houses all kinds of story and wisdom in her bones. Stuff she probably didn’t share for any variety of reasons – but probably, mainly, because I never thought to ask. 

As I was thinking about her upcoming birthday tomorrow I decided to dig through my journal to revisit her answers. Here are some of the things I recorded that I don’t think she will mind me sharing: 

For Starters

I never knew that she nicknamed her sister (the one I’m named after) Bird (now that bird print I have that my Aunt Chris made holds even more meaning – this world lost her much too soon). I also didn’t know that people used to think they were twins so my Grandma would dress them alike.

On love

Some of the men my mother loved she did so because they shared the same interests if not the same specifics (i.e. The Doors vs. The Supremes), some for how they spoiled her, and others for that charisma that can just be plain hard to define – that je ne sais quoi. Some of the stumbling blocks in those relationships took the form of addiction, cheating, and lack of support (“he didn’t want me to go back to college”). One of my favorite parts of the interview was when she laughing recalled, “I should have given XXXX a chance. He was a doctor who lived in my apartment complex. We went out a few times but all he did was bitch about my smoking.” 

She told me about how one of her ex’s was sent to a juvenile detention center in Columbus (my mom is from Alliance) and how she wrote him a letter every single day. 

I  also love her story of how she met her current husband (I had known they met at work, and pretty much that was all I knew and/or cared to know as a self-absorbed teenage at the time). They sat in many a negotiating room together: my mom tasked with letting people go for not doing what they were supposed to be doing on the job, and Joe doing his damndest to keep them put. He invited her to a hot dog shop on his lunch break. She declined with a snarky “I only get a half hour lunch not like you Union guys.” Not to be deterred, he then said, “If you won’t go to lunch with me, how about dinner.” Guess we see how well the dinner went. Here is where I interjected into the interview, “So you decided to go for the good guy.” Mom responded, “Yes and I’m glad I did.”  

On work

My mom was such a bad ass working woman. She was one of only a few woman in a male-dominated industry (her and her friend Sophia being the first two female supervisors in their department). Young, fierce, and financially independent thanks in part to her dogged determinism, stellar work ethic, and compassion for people. She worked at GM from the time she was 18 up until her retirement 30 years later. But what she really wanted to do was get a dual certification to teach special ed/elementary education. 

On life

I knew my mom had a very stressful, poor upbringing, but I didn’t know some of the more mundane details like how she would roll my grandpa’s cigarettes and pack his lunches. My mom helped raise three younger siblings when she become the eldest after the passing of my Aunt Chris as a teenager. She recalls how my Aunt Di’s hair was a pain in the ass to wash out, and how her brother would hide his chips and pop in his room and refuse to share. She mentioned how she wished she had been closer to my Aunt Donna growing up but there was a pretty hefty age difference between the two of them. (Not to worry – Di manages her own hair now, Roger has learned how to share, and Donna and my mom are super close).

I heard stories of her favorite toys (Pattty Play Pal), the friday frolic dances held by the youth center, and her reckless teens (laced marijuana and a night on the cliffs). To one question, she responded with “I don’t want to answer that. It’s private.” This, of course, makes me all the more curious about what I had asked, but I respect the want/need to not give all your precious jewels away. 

It only ever leads to more questions (which is pretty awesome)

Life continued in the way that it does, and I forgot about the list and to keep asking the questions that seem to hold more explanation than the ones we fall back on out of habit – Watcha doing? How’s your day? Etc. 

I dug out the question list my sister and I had been using and it looks like we have many more things to ask. I’m looking forward to picking up where we left off. I encourage you to do the same – either start the conversation or continue it. Maybe write down/tape record the answers. I think you and future generations will be glad you did. I know I am. I want to capture both my parents’ voices answering some questions so when they are gone I can always still listen, always still hear.

When we wrapped up this first convo, my mom looked at me and said “I can die tomorrow knowing I had a good life. I may not dance again [fucking Covid], but I had my dancing days.” 

I think in elementary school we often interview our parents/heroes/mentors/idols for the standard school project. It’s a shame we don’t revisit this assignment as adults when we have a better comprehension of the gravity of the questions and a more nuanced understanding of the answers.

Dear Diary

One more “in the moment” question for my mom:

Mom – did you ever keep a diary? If so, one day might you share some of the entries? (So I lied – two questions – but see heading above – that’s what happens)

I found a diary I wrote when I was exactly my daughter Olivia’s age. We have been reading it together at night (although I may want to more seriously consider a pre-screening as I have cringed more than once when I started reading an entry). Olivia is fascinated. Reading my 12 year old words back to myself at 42, I’m reminded that it’s not as easy to heed the parental advice I often find myself giving to Liv – “it’s not that big of a deal,” “don’t worry about what they say,” or “one day you’ll understand.” And paradoxically, her hearing my child’s voice, I think, DOES somehow help her understand “it’s won’t always be that big of a deal” and “there will be a time you won’t worry so much about what they say.” It’s been a way to safely invite dialogue and convey the message “I’ve been there, I’ve got you, you will get you too one day.”

P.S. Mom – two people this week asked if that was me as Miss Alliance. I couldn’t have been more proud that they thought I was you. I love you.

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