Our relationships with our parents are funny things— ultimately the product of several different relationships with the same person over time, each one fashioned differently based on the demands and direction of age, ours and theirs. Stylized fact, mixed with myth, moments of revelation and truth, intense feelings, deliberate withholding (on both sides)… It all comes together in a potpourri to create the current dynamic of our relationship with “Mom” or “Dad” and our current understanding of *who* that person is.
A lot about the nature of the relationship means that children rarely fully know their parents. No matter how many walls crumble as you get older, no matter how many stories are recounted, how much missing information is filled in, there will be gaps— gaps because they lived a large portion of their life before us and another large portion of their life before we could be anything approximating peers, gaps because memories and stories we tell ourselves (and, as a result, the ones we tell others) change as time goes on, gaps because certain dynamics of the relationship may always create barriers.
And, that’s the way it is, and that’s OK. But, if we’re not conscious about asking questions sooner rather than later and, where possible, building our “new relationships” with our parents into deep, rather than shallow, ones, we may miss getting to know them better.
My mother often wishes she had spent time “interviewing” her mother before her death, recording it for herself and her children. She has questions still that she wishes she had asked. And, this is even after decades of closeness and knowing her mother quite well.
A few years ago, I spent 1:1 time with my grandfather for the first time, as an adult. There wasn’t the hubbub of a family get together, there weren’t any distractions, and I wasn’t a child. We sat next to each other on a patio and talked. He told me about parts of his life that I didn’t know anything about.
A few years before she died, because of shifting relationships, I became the person who spoke with my grandmother every day. Through all our conversations, I got to know my grandma very well as a person, and not just my grandmother. I will always value having had that time with her and getting to know her in a different way.
I’ve taken from all of these things that: life is short and we have a way of taking for granted the people in our lives that stay in our lives the longest, it is in the twilight of life that we often put more effort into learning about someone we know we may lose soon, almost like pushing a project until right before the deadline, and there will always be things we wish we had asked, wish we had learned sooner, about the people who are dear to us.
So, this weekend, while I was home— I started. I asked my mom if I could interview her and ask her some questions about her life. We just talked for a few hours this first session and I recorded it. I plan to do this again with her, and also with my father when I'm home again.
It felt awkward at first. I felt nervous about asking and she clearly felt nervous about answering and sharing things with her daughter that she hadn’t previously shared.
At the end of it though, with hundreds of questions still to go, I knew my mom better. I know a little bit more about who she was before me and the things that made her who she is today. And, that feels good. I’m looking forward to doing it again and being more deliberate about learning more about my mom and dad in the years to come.
While relationships with parents might be some of the more complex of our lives and the only ones where across the board there is a general (accepted) amount of withholding and an imbalanced dynamic for a significant amount of the beginning of it, similar issues in *knowing* a person often play out with siblings, long-term friends, and romantic partners. We all know people change over time, but in long-term relationships, it can be easy to take for granted that you already know the person standing across from you. We often fail to be deliberate about holding space and making the effort to get to know the evolving person, the new person in front of us five years, ten years, thirty years down the road.
These long-term connections are important on so many levels. We should be mindful of being deliberate about tending to them, deepening them, and doing our best to see the person currently standing in front of us more completely.