This year for Mother’s Day, give the gift of … listening

Left Unasked;
Left Untold


My 7th-grade cooking teacher admonished us, “Get those recipes from grandmother, girls; she could be dead tomorrow!”

We laughed.

Now I understand what she was talking about. A few months ago, I realized I had outlived my mother. She was only 63 when she died. That didn’t seem so young at the time, 28 years ago. Now I know she left us way too soon. I think about her often, but especially on her yahrtzeit, the anniversary of her death. On the Jewish calendar, it is the 11th of Iyar, which this year is April 21. The year she died, it was May 13, which was also Mother’s Day.

My mother and I didn’t have a particularly chummy relationship when I was growing up. As the oldest of three children, I was the trouble-maker, the rebel, the big mouth. It seemed we were always at odds. Things improved after I left for college and then when I married at 23. In many ways, my experience echoed that of Mark Twain, who wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Despite the friction, my mother and I were always close in the sense that I never failed to let my parents know what I was doing. In the pre-Internet and cellphone days, when making or receiving a long-distance call was an event, that meant writing actual letters several times a week from summer camp and from college. In return, I would get regular letters from home.

My mother was a great storyteller, but she was very matter-of-fact about the stories she told. “My mother died when I was 6,” she said, of rectal cancer. As children, we just accepted this. Only when it was too late—when she was gone, and my own children grew to be 6 and older—did I want to ask her the important questions: How did you feel when your mother died? What do you remember about your mother? What did you miss about not having a mother?

Her father remarried when Mom was 12, and she always called her stepmother, my grandma, “Mama.” So I never asked her: How did you feel when your father remarried? Was it hard to get used to a new mother? How did your older sister—the one who taught you everything a young girl needed to know when you were growing up—feel about a new woman in the house?

She must have wanted to ask her own mother similar questions. Mom often told us how her father had left Poland for America months before the rest of the family. Before my grandmother joined him, her oldest daughter, 8, died of scarlet fever—and my mother was born. How did her mother bear it? How did she find the courage to tell her husband, when they were reunited, “We lost one, but look, I’ve brought you another one”?

We hear our parents’ stories so often we become bored by them. They become so much a part of us that we don’t think to ask about the missing details, which we might ask of any stranger telling the same tale. Only when they’re gone do we realize how much we forgot to ask.


Bobbie Lewis is a veteran writer, editor and communication consultant. Her website is; she has a recipe blog: This summer, Bobbie will become a more regular contributor to ReadTheSpirit—watch for her columns in June.

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  1. Jane Wells says

    Bobbie, this is so poignant.
    My grandmother is still alive, and I have so many questions, but they’re about things she would never voluntarily speak. So I hesitate to ask, for fear of opening old wounds or causing offense.
    But time keeps marching on. We celebrated her 90th birthday in April… I guess if I’m going to ask, I should do it soon.