Rememberance of Things Past
October 18, 2010 4:40 PM   Subscribe

What do you wish you asked / discussed with your parents whilst you still had time?

I am becoming increasinly aware of my own and my parents mortality and see this as a natural consequence to becoming a father and my parents declining health. My parents are seperated and live in completley different geographical locations to me and as such I see them maybe once for a few weeks every few years. My father sometimes morbidly jokes that he might last long enough to see me again. Whilst I have a semblance of my family history my parents have never really said too much about their own lives. I don't think there is a big secret or anything but I get the feeling they don't consider their own lives to be interesting enough to discuss. Whenever I have asked questions I have always got a response of 'its better to look to the future than to replay the past' which I understand to an extent. I understand why the past is painful as the seperation occured 5 years ago and I guess talking of the past reminds them both of what they had.

Given the declining health of both of my parents and the geographical (and to some extent emotional) chasm that exists - I am haunted by the idea that they will pass away and there will be this big hole of questions that I will never be able to have answered. For those who understand where I am coming from on this - what do you wish you had asked / said / done before it was too late?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 115 users marked this as a favorite
"its better to look to the future than to replay the past"

Sometimes I got that from my Dad, too - you have to trick them a little. Say something like, "Hey Dad, I read a story about this tv show from the 50s, did you ever watch it?" No matter what he says, you still have a conversation started. Bring up famous events, songs, whatever.

As to what to ask - everything. Call him up and talk to him about things going on in your life, and maybe ask for advice - that may trigger some memories of his own where he was in similar situations. Especially parenting stuff.

I never realized how much I was like my Dad until he started sharing more stories about his adult years, and I wish I had sat down with him and asked him about things more often. Try to make a point of calling your parents at least once a week, say on a Sunday, and just chat.
posted by HopperFan at 4:48 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

More details on their everyday life: what games they liked to play, what books they liked to read, what kind of chores did they have to do etc.

I also would have loved to know more family history.
posted by francesca too at 4:50 PM on October 18, 2010

Wow. I have this thought a lot. Slightly different situation...I have a grandfather who is getting up there and I can see his energy for life declining rapidly, although he's still totally with it (and driving!).

There's all these big questions I'd want to ask but I have never been all emotional and open like that with my family EVER--its just how I am. But I keep wondering if I'll just get a call one day and find out I've lost the opportunity for good.

I guess you just have to come out and ask those things. Here are some big ones that I've wanted to ask...

- What is it like to get really old?

- How do you face your mortality? Are you scared?

- Do you have any regrets in life?

- How can I be as financially secure as you were?

- Will I regret having kids if I've fantasized about living a life abroad in my late 20's and 30's?

- What do you think I should do with my life?

- What was your proudest moment with me?
posted by Elminster24 at 4:55 PM on October 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

My dad passed away last year. I was with my mom visiting my aunt--his sister--this summer, and my mom had brought along a couple of photo albums that his mother (my grandmother) had kept.

My mom is very attentive and has a good memory for these things, so she was able to reconstruct who most of the assorted cousins and aunts and uncles and whose dog that was in front of whose house.... Still, I wish I had had a chance to go through those albums with my dad and hear more about his actual memories of those times/places.
posted by drlith at 4:56 PM on October 18, 2010

"Where's dad buried?"
posted by griphus at 5:00 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Say "I love you" and give hugs, even if you aren't that kind of family.
Ask for stories about when they were children and what their parents were like. Speaking about their earlier lives might avoid bad memories of the separation.
Label photographs. You may never know who some of these people are without your parents help.
Make a family tree with the information your parents have. Even if you aren't into this, someone else in the family may eventually be interested.

If your father has already brought up the "I may not be around much longer" topic, ask if there are things he wished he knew about his own parents that he never learned?
posted by Agatha at 5:07 PM on October 18, 2010

Ask them to talk about old photographs. What they were doing, what was going through their mind at the time. Where they were, who the other people were, etc. When your parents tell the same story for the 8th time, listen. Hearing them again and again is a bit annoying sometimes, but the stories I'm hearing from my dad (again and again) are the kinds of stories I wish I was able to hear from my mom, who died nearly 20 years ago when I was 10.

Strangely, I was thinking about this question earlier today with regards to my mom. I was thinking I wish I could have asked her what mad her laugh when she was young. What made her ache in pain from laughing too hard, what made her wide eyed and still with curiosity and excitement. I'm not close with her side of the family, but man, I'd give anything to know these simple things.

And make a family tree with them, with as much information they can provide.
posted by raztaj at 5:12 PM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would tell each that I was writing a family bio for my self and for my children and would love to have them give me more details about his and her past etc.
In my case, I have very poor memory but was lucky in having an older brother whose memory was (he died a year ago) was incredible. So any questions I asked, he was able to fill in for me.
posted by Postroad at 5:13 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you ever seen those journals for mom or day that let them answer questions about their past in their own time? I gave my Mom one and she said she would fill it out and I could have it when she was gone. I don't know why that is, but I will have something very personal from my mother when that time comes.
posted by sandyp at 5:13 PM on October 18, 2010

One of the best things I did was to interview my mother about her life. It was an assignment for a sociology class in college. I interviewed her as if I were a reporter just trying to find out about someone--the high points of her life, what her childhood was like, her marriage, her divorce, her highs and lows. It brought me a new insight into her life not just as my mother, but as a person--an insight I really valued when she passed away several years later. It was definitely an awkward experience at the time, but I look back fondly at the notes I made from that interview. I only wish I had done the same with my father.

My advice is to make a list of questions and do an interview--record it if you can--and force yourself to do it.
posted by Kafkaesque at 5:14 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

My dad and I were mostly estranged after my parents split when I was 7. He died 9 years ago, and I don't know much about him at all, other than he was fat, he had sleep apnea, he was an alcoholic and kept a bottle of Jack Daniels in his sofa, he smoked three packs of Winstons a day, he designed trusses for a living, he was a pretty decent carpenter, he grew up on an apple farm in central Washington, and he willingly joined the Army and went to Vietnam rather than being drafted.

That sounds like a lot to know about a stranger, but not a damn thing to know about a parent. My mom and I were chatting about soda this weekend and I learned that he preferred Pepsi to Coke.

Ask your parents everything. What they like, what they don't, what they dream about, what they wish for, hope for, what's their favorite soda, etc. Nothing is too trivial once they're gone.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:23 PM on October 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

When my mom made it clear that she had a "best if used before" date, I arranged to meet with her with one brother and and questions from another. We sat down for an hour with a DV camera running and I recorded the session a la Story Corps. It was amazing. My mom claimed her memory was awful, but she recalled some things in terrific detail, most importantly about her parents and how she saw them.
posted by plinth at 5:23 PM on October 18, 2010

This is one of those situations where it really helps to have family gatherings, especially informal ones. Most of my extended family remains in my home town, along with my grandparents before they died, and there'd be stories of the 1930s and 40s about trivial everyday things that cropped up from random conversations among them that felt incredibly fresh, and I don't think I'd have heard them if I'd been asking direct questions, because I didn't really have a starting point. In lieu of those kinds of conversations, where the stories just emerge organically, photographs and old possessions are going to help.

It's tricky, though. There are parts of my parents' past that I've decided belong to them and not to me. I might regret that choice, but for the moment, I'm comfortable with it.
posted by holgate at 5:36 PM on October 18, 2010

My parents were both born in 1927, so they were young children during The Great Depression. I once asked them what it was like growing up then, and if their experiences had anything to do with their choice of a frugal lifestyle as adults.

They both said they were quite fortunate because their parents never lost their jobs during the depression. Financially at least, their families were able to remain self-supporting throughout those turbulent times. They did remember, however, how there were frequently guests at the dinner table. These were usually young men, most of them migrant, going from town to town looking for work. Apparently it was quite common back then for local families to offer dinner to the homeless and jobless. They would only see these guests only one evening, but apparently it was at least a weekly thing with different guests. Sometime between then and now, I think there developed a disconnect... the homeless became someone else's problem.

As to their adult frugality, they said it really had more to do with WWII than The Depression. They were coming of age during the war years. The government had asked everyone to cut back on consumption to aid the war effort. Like the depression years, it was a time of significant uncertainty about the future. They practiced minding their pennies and it simply carried forward throughout their adult lives, even during boom periods. Not to paint with too broad a brush, but it seems to me that their generation were more savers and investors than my generation has been.

I've had less interest in the philosophical questions of life as it relates to my parents. Perhaps it's because we have quite different philosophies, politics and spiritual inclinations. When we talk about the past, which is frankly quite rare, it is usually more about living experiences—practical experiences—how was it different for you questions. Invariably the main differences? Technology.
posted by netbros at 5:42 PM on October 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

I miss both of mine. I usually want to share jokes with them, or ask what they thought/think of a book, movie, TV show, or plan a trip with them . . .

But here's the mystery in our family, still. My mom left her wedding album and other family albums, and we still can't figure out who is who in them. My dad left less photos, but the ones we found of his own family are largely a mystery to us.

I'd ask if your folks have albums and pictures. It is very informative to go through those with them. You'll find out about relatives you never dreamed you had.

I also suggest asking if your folks have any of their own writings from earlier in their lives. We found my mom's detailed account of my birth . . . and my dad's autobiographical essays from college. I and all my siblings would love to have read these things when my parents were alive, and chatted with them about them.

Most of all, as everyone has suggested before me, just talk to your parents about their own lives and family backgrounds . . . the times that preceded the era they were parents.
posted by bearwife at 5:43 PM on October 18, 2010

From a slightly different standpoint, it would be good to make sure that you know your parents' wishes when it comes to end-of-life care. Have they made a living will? Have they discussed it with you? Do you have a copy? For that matter, have they made a will? Is it easily accessible? Do you know where to find it in case something happens?

Last year, my father went in for surgery, and everyone expected it to go smoothly. He never regained consciousness, and we had to scramble to get copies of the living will from the lawyer, who for some reason a) didn't carry a cell phone, and b) was clearly not very interested in helping us. When my father passed away, we found out that she only had a copy of the will, and even then, it wasn't signed. Five days of searching through a house that my father hadn't really lived in in five years later, we had the will, but by then, the problems that would continue between us, the lawyer, and the executor had already started, and were only finally resolved by having a judge remove the lawyer and executor for refusing to do their jobs. The horrific snafus that began literally the night my father died, and continued for another nine months compounded the pain of his loss, and I'm still dealing with it.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:45 PM on October 18, 2010

I was not close to my father after he left my mom, and our relationship was always tenuous, at best, for a variety of reasons I don't need to go into. I remember having someone who knew him tell me "You're a really funny guy. Like your dad. You're dad was the funniest guy
I ever knew.". I did not know my father as funny, and it seems I missed a lot for that.

I don't know how one would ask a parent that. But as mortality creeps into my own life, I try and make sure my daughter sees the funny, light part of her dad.
posted by kjs3 at 6:01 PM on October 18, 2010

Storycorps actually has a Great Questions List which may offer some sparks.
posted by mykescipark at 6:01 PM on October 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

Based on my experiences with my grandparents, I desperately wish I would have
A) written down several recipes from my grandmothers (which were staples that they made all the time, and thus had never written down)
B) clarified a few things about out family tree (names, immigration years, etc.) and old family photos
C) asked my grandfathers more specifically about their wartime experiences. I don't know if they truly didn't want to talk about it (I suspect that might have been the case with my mom's dad), or the fact that we were girls and so the topic didn't really come up much, but I could kick myself for not knowing more.

These are all lost to my sister and me forever, and it breaks my heart.
posted by scody at 6:03 PM on October 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Even though I am older I was fortunate in having the opportunity to ask my parents many questions about our family history. It has been an amazing journey for me. I have traced my ancestry back to the 1700's. My wife has done likewise to the 14th century. And my children appreciate the connection to our earlier generations.

So I would suggest you sit down with your parents and learn what you can about previous generations and then begin a lifelong hunt for more information. It has been a great comfort to know my family background.

And in turn my parents did enjoy thinking back to earlier times and provided many anecdotal stores.
posted by JayRwv at 6:11 PM on October 18, 2010

I recently sat my mother down and asked here to give me a timeline of her life. The most interesting factual topics to me where the cities in which she lived and why - particularly before I was born. To learn that the love of her life left her when she was 20, which lead her to join the Navy, where she met my father. I knew they met in the Navy but I never knew what put her there.
posted by shew at 6:12 PM on October 18, 2010

As shew suggests, ask your parents about their lives before they met one another. That will help avoid the unpleasant memories of a recent separation, and it will give you a sense of who they were when they were young. I wish I had done more of that with my dad, especially since he spent his last year and a half of life unable to talk. It's helpful to bring a digital recorder. And if there are any artifacts that you want to know about, bring them along and use them as prompts.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:59 PM on October 18, 2010

Nthing label, label, label the photographs. In as much detail as possible. Gram had a big box of antique photos in her attic, none of which she could identify. My mom decided to take them to a cousin for ID, and if that could not be done, she was going to pitch them. I don't know what happened, but I am always saddened when I find such photos at the flea market.

One of my aunts on the other side of the family used to label possessions, especially if they were gifts or had been handmade. For example the little cardboard box she kept her pearls in (now my pearls) says inside the lid "cultured pearls [husband] gave me after we were married. Had been his first wife's. Wore today, 8-15-97." And that's just for starters! A painting a friend's mother did led her to write on the back of it.

We joke about it in the family, but I am very glad she did that.
posted by jgirl at 7:00 PM on October 18, 2010

"I love you."
posted by thejoshu at 7:19 PM on October 18, 2010

I got one of those books that people fill in that ask a bunch of questions about their life, for my grandfather. A bunch of questions I wouldn't have thought to ask, and some of the banal ones elicited the best answers. I think my favorite was about his first crush, which he answered with a ton of detail about the fashions and customs of the time, about "sweater girls" and where people went on dates and what it was like to be an adolescent in the late 20s and early 30s and what it cost to get a soda and all kinds of things.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:28 PM on October 18, 2010

There isn't really anything that I wished that I asked my dad, but I'm glad that I did ask what he was like, and what the world was like, when he was a kid. Stuff like spending entire Saturdays riding bikes for miles and miles through 1950's Boston with a pack of other freckled Irish boys to buy baseball cards. What he got detention for. What he didn't tell his mom. Who his best friends were.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:43 PM on October 18, 2010

My Mom died over ten years ago and I'm still thinking of things I wish I had asked. Good for you for taking the initiative now, while you still have the possibilty of getting answers. Here's a link to a book (Grandmother Remembers) that I've seen and wish I had found years ago. There's also suggestions on that page to other similar books.
posted by nelvana at 8:03 PM on October 18, 2010

As my body ages, I wish I'd talked more with my mother about her experience of aging.

I also wish I'd talked with her more about her experience of the earlier years (from initial meeting to right before having kids) of her relationship with my father and her life in a broader sense at that time. I have my father's perspective - he's been quite prolific in documenting his perceptions of the past and the genealogy of his side of the family and I would like to have a better idea of hers - which of course is not going to happen beyond what I already know which at times feels like a strange mythology detached from my existence.

It already feels to me like time is passing so quickly that I don't want to get too caught up in the past, especially a past that isn't really mine - which I guess points me towards letting go and accepting what I just can't know. So, I guess I agree with your father mostly.

Holes are inevitable. I knew my mother very well, I think, but I still wonder some times about what she would have said, thought, remembered. Make your peace with that and then enjoy whatever might come up when visiting with your folks now.

It surprises me how hard it is to write about this.
posted by nnk at 8:23 PM on October 18, 2010

Things only they would know. Their childhoods. Their families -- the whole tree as far as they can remember it, with anecdotes attached to each person. All the stupid details that don't matter on their own but that collectively delineate our actual lives. What they ate. What they wore. What they played. Everything they used to do because they had to or because it was fun. The schools they went to and what they did there -- other students, teachers, activities. First cars they remember riding in or driving. First places they went swimming or bicycling. Jobs they had, who they worked with, what they did. Get out some books and page through them to jog their memories. For example, popular books, songs, and movies of their childhoods. Get old maps (things change, entire neighborhoods disappear) of where they lived, enlarge them as needed, and take virtual walks through town. What was on this corner? Where was the cinema, the grocery, the school? Who lived here? What was this empty area? They'll remember where they used to go for fun, who lived where, etc. Contact local history departments to see if you can get information (maps, pictures, books) about these areas during their time.

Record everything. Do it in sessions, so you can listen to earlier sessions and think about what you still need to know. If I were able to do it now, I might even secretly record them to make sure they didn't get nervous or hold back, to make sure I got all of the details, and to make sure I still had their voices when they were gone.
posted by pracowity at 11:31 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

If it makes you feel any better, just in case it doesn't work out for you, my father is dead, and my mother hasn't spoken to me for ten years (not connected, I swear), and I can't think of anything I wish I'd asked them.
posted by b33j at 12:33 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

In a twist on b33j's comment: my dad died in July. He was an incredibly erudite man, author of several books, civil engineer, Hindu priest, comparative theologist, philologist, amateur programmer, public speaker, community leader, &c., &c., &c. So sometimes I have, say, a question about Indian history or mythology, and think, "I wish I could ask him about such-and-so." But then I remember that it was never a conversation with him, when he got going about something intellectual, but a dense, digressive, and hard-to-follow monologue. I know that, had I asked, I would have found the answer more unpleasant than edifying, and that he would probably have started to rant about people who disagree with him, who have blocked his projects, and so on. This pattern also showed up, if less, in stories he told about his past; even stories about accomplishments had this negativity that made me wince.

This knowledge gives me a possibly perverse comfort. I know that, while I was an adult and had the power of choice, I interacted with him as was comfortable and pleasant and mind-saving for me while he was alive, and I choose to believe that my past peace-of-mind-saving choices were worth the gaps I have now. (And there were always going to be gaps; we can't be utter completists in how many stories we save from our own lives, much less how many memories we archive from others' lives.)

Huh, I guess I, like your parents, am talking about how I refuse to replay the past in certain ways.

I also have some geographical distance from my mom, and when we get together, she feels more comfortable talking about complicated subjects when we're in the middle of a multi-hour block of sitting together and doing nothing in particular. If you've been asking questions on the phone or during meals or during drives, perhaps consider a more meandering, leisurely approach?

I have, in talking with her, recently asked her about a funny anecdote from my childhood that -- it turned out -- I had completely misunderstood for more than twenty years. I also found out how old I was when I started to read, and what I was like as a baby. That was interesting to learn.
posted by brainwane at 5:46 AM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get a free trial on (I believe it's two weeks), and look for your hometown newspaper. You can search by surname or keyword. Also look for census and military records. Those all will spark conversation. And you will all love the ads! Sometimes that's my favorite part of cruising through PDFs of a vintage Oneonta Star!

You can get a lot done with that two-week membership if you get your ducks in a row and plan your searches.
posted by jgirl at 4:30 PM on October 19, 2010

What was it like growing up? What was it like living through [insert meaningful period here: The Depression, WWII, the Cold War, the Sixties, etc.]? What was it like when you two were first married? What was going on in the year before I was born? Was I a planned child, or an accident? How did my birth change your relationship? What was I like as an infant? As a child? What would you like to tell me that you've never told me before?
posted by exphysicist345 at 9:53 PM on October 19, 2010

Here's the morbid suggestion-- Find out if there are hereditary health problems that you can screen for. Ask how their parents and grandparents died. How old they were. Were there any cousins or near relatives institutionalized in mental hospitals?

I recently filled out Medical History questionaire in Doctor's office. I realized that I did not know cause of death for my relatives [other than driving off a bridge or self-inflicted gunshot.]
posted by ohshenandoah at 4:43 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I strongly recommend: Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History. It's a list of many (>100) great questions to ask a relative as a way of getting to know them (and yourself) better. Organized according to the phases of life from childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, parenthood and so on, the questions are straightforward but bound to result in some interesting answers.
posted by storybored at 7:48 PM on October 20, 2010

Whoops, typo in the number of questions. It's actually closer to several hundred. For a taste here is question 10 of 73 questions that pertain to childhood.

10. Who were your childhood friends and what did you most like to do together? Who was your best friend? How did your friendship bgin? What do you think you were given through this friendship? How did the friendship fare through the years?
posted by storybored at 7:51 PM on October 20, 2010

Maybe a few question ideas:

What were your favorite books when you were a kid?

What are some of your favorite memories of your relatives?

Who were your best friends when you were a kid? Where are they now?

What were the fun things you liked to do with your dad when you were a kid?

When did you and mom first meet?

What are some of your favorite foods?
posted by nickyskye at 10:10 PM on October 22, 2010

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