Last week marked the date of a landmark birthday for my mother, a birthday she was not here to celebrate. In fact, she has been gone for more of my life than she was alive to see, leaving us far too young. Of her five grandchildren, only one had been born when she died and he was just a year old. Despite the years, her absence is still a void in my life, a void that will never be filled.

To commemorate her birthday I decided that I would create a book for her grandchildren as a way to ensure that she was more to them than a name or the “the person you were named after.” I pulled together what photos I had, gathered others from family members, added some of her handwritten recipe cards and began to put the pieces together. What I realized very quickly was how little I really knew. I had the basics of her story, where she was born, some of her education and, of course, information about her marriage and children. But I had few stories, few details and even fewer descriptions. That’s who she was, someone who held her past close and focused on the present, someone who could find the positive in any negative and who lived by the mot,to “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”

The holes in my story and the gaps in my knowledge surprised me a bit. I didn’t know how little I really knew and, sadly, there is no one left to ask. Having had my own children at a young age, there is little of my life that they don’t know or haven’t shared. But as the child of older parents (my dad was 50 when I, the eldest, was born), there is an entire lifetime that occurred before either my brother or I was part of the equation, a lifetime we didn’t share and was really never shared with us.

I have some random stories, I know some of the moments. I know that my mother’s college education ended abruptly when her father died and she had to come home and help support the family. I know that, as a small child, her older sisters and their friends made a big fuss about her beautiful long eyelashes and that she, never liking to be the center of attention, took a scissors and cut her eyelashes off. But I don’t know what her first job was or whether she had a boyfriend before she married our dad. I don’t know how it felt to be pulled out of high school and sent to another town and another school so that you could help your older sister care for her small children. I never asked and she never told.

And I don’t know what it felt like to be diagnosed with breast cancer at 50. I don’t know if she was afraid or what her last wishes were or whether she had dreams that were unfulfilled. There are so many questions I wished I’d asked, so many opportunities I missed — too young to understand what I was missing, too deep in denial that my mother could ever leave me.

Do you know those stories of your own family? Do you know the anecdotes that really tell you who they are and what they value? They are insights into our past, ourselves and our futures — don’t leave them unasked, untold, unsaid.