TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — What I Wish I Knew

My friend, Nancy Palmer O’Malley, has written a lovely and quietly provocative book, which she intends as a gift to relatives and a small number of friends. But when she shared it with me a few weeks ago, I sense immediately that her wisdom and yearning would resonate with a much larger audience.

“My family never wanted to discuss delicate subjects,” Nancy writes in her forward. “I’m not talking about the big topics of money and religion and embarrassing relatives. Of course they weren’t going to talk about those things. They didn’t even talk about the little things. Like when a pet died, the body just went away. There was no funeral or any mention of how sad we all were.

“That’s just one example, but there are many others. The topics weren’t necessarily life-shaping issues, and they wouldn’t matter to anyone outside my family, but a few subjects really are important, at least to me. Because I never asked the questions of my parents and other relatives, the answers remain a mystery. My attempts to fill in the blanks with research are incomplete, but they are my best attempts to imagine and understand the worlds my parents and grandparents inhabited.”

The cover, featuring Nancy's mother, Roseadair Elizabeth Palmer.
The cover, featuring Nancy’s mother, Roseadair Elizabeth Palmer.

The title of her book: “What I Wish I Knew.” Don’t we all wonder about that same thing?

For years, Nancy has been in the business of family stories. With her partner in My Life Media, Bob Walker, she videotapes life histories, often of older people who want their memories captured for subsequent generations. It invariably is an illuminating, painful and poignant undertaking.

So perhaps it was natural that Nancy would reflect deeply on her own history. She does so in her book in a series of short essays, each of them posing a question.

Some are whimsical:

  • Why did we get a bulldog?
  • Did mother color her hair?
  • Whose idea was it to get tickets to the Beatles concert?

Others cut much deeper.

  • What happened to my grandmother that day in the farmhouse?
  • Why did Grampa dislike Catholics?
  • Why didn’t our parents tell us they loved us?

In each case, Nancy has tried to discover what she can, but her parents are deceased, and answers remain just beyond her reach.

“I wanted some explanations for these mysterious things that don’t make any sense,” she told me recently. “It would have been a lot easier just to have a conversation.”

But that was not the world most of us grew up in. It was too difficult to discuss painful things in our households, as if pain and sorrow and mental illness and struggles were things to be ashamed of, not parts of the human condition we all share. Fortunately, I think that is changing. More and more we are coming to see that “what is most personal is most universal.”

Alas, Nancy’s book is not for sale. But in her profound undertaking, by asking her questions, by courageously indulging her own curiosity, Nancy nudges us along in that process of embracing our humanness, encouraging us to explore our own lives as they truly are, and become willing to share more openly the often-painful aspects of our histories with our children and grandchildren. Those histories belong to them, too.

“When I’ve shared this with friends, they want to start talking about their families, and the questions they have of their own,” Nancy says.

And again, we all have them, don’t we?


To contact Nancy and for more information about her business, visit mylifemedia.net.

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