I worked with a fellow who was very quiet. He had a job reviewing plans in a quiet office near mine. We had many pleasant conversations over the eight years we worked together.
His mom died in her late 90s and her obituary was carried by major news outlets.
She had been a revolutionary in Northern Ireland in her teens, had shot a British soldier, was sentenced and imprisoned, escaped by extraordinary means, stowed away on a boat to America, immigrated to Seattle, became an upright citizen and raised nine children.
She was a hero in her homeland.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
I asked my quiet friend why he never mentioned his mom’s history. “She was my mom.” he said. “I sort of knew her back story, but I most remember her as a great mother who gave me guideposts along the way.”
Many of us have a passing understanding of our mother’s background. It is two dimensional, at best. It’s her role as mom that we know well. Besides, who has time for mom history?
After my father died, until her passing, my mom lived alone or in a nursing home in North Carolina. I called her every day for the next nine years, right until her last day.
After a few days, “How did your day go?” got boring for both of us, so I compiled a list of questions.
What was your favorite place to live? Name all your pets. Who was the most famous person you ever met? What was the strangest thing you ever ate? When were you most frightened?
What was your biggest challenge with my dad? What technology most changed your life? Which of your four sons was your favorite?
Suddenly, my picture of her had color, depth and movement. I went from having a fuzzy stick-figure understanding of her other life to the richness of a Fellini movie.
I learned that she sat in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. She saw the Hindenburg. She worked at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. She was a cigarette girl at a charity event where she met Sara Roosevelt, the first Mother.
She had gone through school with the “Cheaper By The Dozen” children and had attended parties at their mansion. She admired Grandma Moses paintings at a service station before fame made prices skyrocket. Her landlord accompanied Edison, Firestone, Burroughs and Ford on their Vagabond camping trips.
She wrote a column for the local paper.
She had dark stories. As a young girl, she was assaulted in her home by a neighbor. Her best friend died in a plane crash on her honeymoon.
She had miscarriages. Her migraines and the drugs she took for them erased days.
The way my mom told these stories of her other life reflected her character, her worldview and her values as much as the stories themselves.
She radiated optimism and hope. She told them with love and forgiveness.
She recalled a line in the old song, “A Perfect Day,” by Carrie Jacobs-Bond:
For memory has painted this perfect day with colors that never fade…
Every day, she painted for me. I wish I had nine more years, but I know I got more than most.
So here’s my suggestion for your Mother’s Day on May 13. If she’s still around and you are still on speaking terms with your mom, work up some questions. Use mine if you like.
Use those “Pivot” questions that James Lipton asks each guest on his “Inside The Actor’s Studio” program. Clean up the “Pulp Fiction” questions that Uma Thurman asks John Travolta in her home.
Or make up your own. If you’re still stuck, there are internet sites dedicated to this exercise.
At worst, even if your mom has a life full of regrets, heed the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt. “Learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
At best, you’ll learn as much about yourself as you do about your mom.
Chuck Kleeberg, a Tacoma resident for most of the last 40 years, recently retired from public service. He’s one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2018. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org