Brand building through storytelling

The parents you never knew

Maynard FredelleMax OutsideHallYou spent years living under their roof. They signed your report card, paid your allowance, read your bedtime story and came to your bedside when you woke in the night with a fever. They may not have performed these devotions consistently or smilingly, yet your parents were the king and queen of your world. You knew things about them that no one else knew—what made them laugh, what made them yell, where they kept the car keys and how they liked the Sunday roast. You paid precise attention to these details not simply because you depended on them and their good humour, but also because you adored them.

Yet before you came along, they had dreams and fears, adventures and losses that collectively add up to an undiscovered continent of experience. What happened there shaped them for good or ill and everything in between. They may have shared a few stories about their past selves, but there were dramas they forgot to mention or kept to themselves. My mother’s mother used to tell her, “I’m taking my secrets with me.”

My own beloved yet confounding parents had been dead for some years when I sat down to write a memoir, My Mother’s Daughter. To develop my parents as compelling and believable characters, I had to get inside their heads. I had to find my own answers to questions I had never bothered to ask (I might not have received a straight answer in any case).  I thought my way into the lost continent of their youth as best I could. In the process, I came to understand why they became the people who so enthralled and perplexed me. My conclusions are as close to the unknowable truth as anyone can get at this point.

Readers often ask me what they can do to mend a relationship with a maddeningly difficult parent. I don’t hold out any promises. In some families there are chasms in families that cannot be bridged. But I’ve become a firm believer in the power of family stories to illuminate and to heal. “Ask your mother about her life,” I often say. “Who her first friend was. Her favorite pet. Whether she fell in love before she met your father, and why it ended. See if she’ll help you form an image of her young self in your mind.”

My father would never have answered such questions. From what I hear, some mothers are just as tight-lipped. “Mom says she can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in her life,” one woman told me.

I pressed a little. “What if you said it would really mean a lot to you? What about her grandchildren? Wouldn’t she want to leave a little of herself with them?” No. Not a chance. For this mother, “No one would be interested” is code for “I’m not telling.”

Rona Bruser, Young WomanThank goodness most mothers aren’t so secretive. Not consciously, anyway.  But you do have to make it easy for them to share their story. Asking your mother to fill a notebook with her memories isn’t likely to lead anywhere; it’s too much work. You’re better off running a tape recorder while you ask leading questions, as my mother decided to do at my grandmother’s deathbed. Grandma said a thing or two that she’d never said to anyone for a good half-century—things that explained her monumental narcissism, which was to wound three generations of women in our family. She tried to say more, but pain and exhaustion silenced her. Although I wish my mother had started taping earlier, I’m deeply grateful that she captured as much she did.

No matter how much a parent chooses to tell, there will be mysteries left unspoken. They won’t all concern the distant past. On one of my online rambles, I came across a lovely and resonant piece by Ann Banks, an American journalist, about ransacking the home of her recently deceased mother in search of the smallest clues that might reveal this woman’s unknown self. Here’s a snippet:

Forgotten childhood artifacts surfaced as I dug. I was touched to discover that Mom had saved for several decades and through a dozen moves the plaid cocktail napkins I’d sewn and fringed. In the same drawer, I uncovered relics of another sewing project: a set of intricate felt appliques—each symbolizing a different holiday—that she had fashioned for my tenth birthday along with a red felt circle skirt….Discoveries like these made me feel closer to my mother. But I was in dangerous territory, and I knew it. Snoopers find whatever they find, after all, and it’s generally thought to serve them right. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling of shock and betrayal: what was the framed 19th century etching of the Royal Treasury at Petra doing stashed in the back of a closet?

Click here to read the whole piece. And while you’re here at my site, I hope you’ll take a look at the Mother/Daughter Gallery, in case you haven’t already seen it. You’ll find other women’s reflections on their own mothers’ true selves. And if you feel moved to share a memory, so much the better.

Posted by Rona

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