It's been seven years since my mother passed away and I still have questions I want to ask her. Sitting at my desk, I glance at a photograph next to my computer. It's a wrinkled black and white snapshot of my mother and me, lying on our backs, sleeping peacefully in her twin bed. The year is 1953, and I am six months old. I am dressed in baby bunting, and look like a Kewpie doll with my brown hair twirled into a single curl on the top of my head. Mom is thirty-three. Her face is shiny, and her arms are folded up over her head. She's wearing a sleeveless nightie and a thin gold bracelet around her left wrist. Her painted nails shimmer, and she looks as beatific as the Madonnas she used to collect.

What memories that photo evokes.

I am fourteen years old and excited because I have just found this picture of myself and Mom that I had never seen before. I show it to her, and she reminisces about how jubilant she felt after I was born, because she'd been told she would never be able to have children.

Fast-forward ten years, to the night of my grandfather's funeral. Mom and I are rummaging through old photos, and I happen on that same lovely snapshot. Once again, I show it to her, and this time she shares some gossip.

"Mary, you know you were named after my mother. Thank goodness, though, that both grandmothers had the middle name Louise or there would have been even more competition between them than there already was." Ooh, I hadn't heard that before.

Now, at the age of forty-five, I am troubled by questions that never got asked, and frustrated by half-understood information that leads me up blind alleys because Mom's not here to help me make sense of it. For instance, after she died, what can I make of my father's saying, "I don't know why your mother was seeing a psychiatrist all those years." She never told Dad why she was seeing a psychiatrist! Come to think of it, I can't remember her telling me either. What was she going through? What turmoil? What was on her mind? Like most other daughters, I took for granted that I knew everything there was to know about my mother. Consequently, there is so much that I will never know.

Over the years, each time Mom and I revisited the old, white Gimbels department store dress box in which she kept our photos, fascinating pieces of information were revealed. My mother was an open book. I could ask her anything and if she knew the answer, she'd tell me. Whether we were shopping, going out to lunch, taking a walk, doing jigsaw puzzles, or, later, lying together on her hospital bed, she had a story to tell.

Mom chatted about our family history and revealed her dreams. She also told me what I should do with the rest of my life, which, of course, drove me mad. Crazy making as it was at times, I look back on our life together, now that time has softened my disappointment in her human frailty, and I realize what a gift my mother was. I see how important those question-and-answer sessions were to both of us. My questions gave her permission to be more than a mother -- permission to be herself. Her answers shaped my success and, more important, my sense of self and the memories that fashion my future.

always the beautiful answer who asks a more
beautiful question.
E. E. CUMMINGS, in "Collected Poems"

How can a daughter begin relating to her mother in new ways? How can she begin to share confidences and leave behind unsuccessful ways of communicating? How can a daughter get the answers she needs to questions she is afraid to ask -- or hasn't thought to ask -- that will affect both her mother's current and future well-being and her own?

Two simple words will begin answering these questions: time and friendship. Let's look at time first, because that has the greatest impact on how you perceive your mother. You won't want to hear what I'm going to say, but as my mother used to say, "It's for your own good." One day you will no longer be able to hug your mom. One day, if you aren't close, you'll no longer be able to hope for a better relationship. You won't be able to say, "I'm sorry. Let's try again." The sooner you let this sink in, the easier it will be for you to know her better, enjoy more of what you do share, and help both of you live with more meaning and love.

Buddhists believe the way to happiness is to keep death over your shoulder because it reminds you to live in the richness of the moment. This is what I think we need to do with our mothers: pin this notion of the preciousness of life on to our shoulder to keep us from withdrawing or getting distracted when things with Mom aren't going the way we planned.

The second word to keep in mind is friendship.

Consider this idea for a moment. We form friendships for many reasons, but there is one common denominator: we choose our friends because we feel safe to be ourselves with them. Think of your best woman friend. What makes your friendship work so well? You feel free to tell her everything. She understands. You accept that she's always eight minutes late because whenever you are PMS-ing, she lets you whine about things you know you shouldn't be whining about. You ask her what she'd do. She commiserates. She tells you that you'll get through it. She brainstorms solutions with you. You laugh together. When you're sick, she brings you jelly doughnuts with your chicken soup. You talk about your mothers and how they drive you crazy and how much you still love them. She's your friend because you know you'll feel better after being with her.

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