How well do we really know our parents? Why not ask them to write their memoirs. I did.

How well do you know your parents? You’ve (probably) grown up with them; lived with them and had thousands of conversations with them, but do you really know them as people, rather than just as your parents?

Parents tend to know what makes us happy or sad or excited. How much do you know about their feelings or their happiness?

Six years ago I asked my mum and dad (now 70 and 87) to write their memoirs. Neither are writers. As close as I am to them, there was much I wanted to know about them outside of their roles as my (and my three brothers and sister, now deceased) parents. How well do any of us know our parents and have questions we feel we can and cannot ask them?

For Christmas 2011 I gave them each a book entitled ‘Between you and Me’ ( and asked them to answer all the in-depth questions within it with honesty and openness. Both were touched and flattered with the gift without realising the task they were about to undertake. It took my mum three years to complete and my dad is still three quarters of the way there. With questions about their childhood, youth, dating, marriage and relationship to me, the books have been a revelation for us. For my mum it proved to be a form of much needed therapy and my dad a timely trip down memory lane. I found out more about my mum and dad than I could ever imagine and remain truly grateful for how honest they both were.

There are some questions you don’t want to ask parents – too personal, too intrusive or maybe too painful. The greatest fear for any parent is to lose a child, to watch a person they brought into this world die before them. It’s a heartache that becomes part of your life and one that only time does ease.

One painful question we felt unable to ask our parents was how it was to lose their daughter (our sister) in 1986 from Cystic Fibrosis. I had seen Una (almost 12 years old) in hospital on the Tuesday before she died on the Friday, with no idea I was saying goodbye. I always wondered what her last few hours were like – was she afraid or even aware she was dying? Were my parents? Those questions weren’t in the book.

However, it turned out my mum had written the answers to these questions one month after our sister died and she shared it for the first time (in 30 years) at the end of her particular book. I won’t share what she wrote but it answered my questions and more. I still can’t read it without crying and I don’t see that ever changing. It is one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever had the honour of reading. My mum isn’t a professional writer (she could be) but her words were poetic, truthful, raw and achingly beautiful.

Everyone has a story, especially your mum and dad. If you haven’t already, maybe it's time to ask them to tell it.