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Senior Momentum - June 2016 - Zoë Tummillo


The Things We May Never Know 

by Zoe Tummillo

The curiosity – the drive – to find out about one’s predecessors I believe is different for each of us. I have known some who were not a bit curious about personal ancestry in the shadowed past, yet others burned with the enthusiasm to know. 

There is distant past for each of us, cloudy and obscured by stories not told and re-told thru the generations, or not learned because of the absence of written history, logs of births, deaths, marriages, travels and significant family incidents that weave the web. We may wistfully long for the distant romance of our own family migrations, immigrant bravery, imaginings and speculations – but not quite enough “longing” to actually search and find

For amateurs, just plain folks, who have become curious, not knowing about one’s distant past connections seems to me much less tragic than the loss of what is within our personal reach, but is not offered or asked for! 

We all, already have some of our unique personal family story – our “live“ past history – right in our midst! It too often remains unshared and withheld for unexplained, and perhaps fragile, reasons. And then it dies with the deaths of our elders. 

Recently, CNN’s Anderson Cooper presented a fascinating documentary he made with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt (Stokowsky, Cooper), presently in her 90’s. The film was a moving and sensitive dialog in which they explored her unique life experiences and how she chose to live those experiences with her children – all the while, sorting and filtering, withholding or sharing. He, like many of us, probably realized he knew his mother as she wished him (as her son, and forever one of her children) to know her – in her role as mother, and in certain other very selective roles. Anderson, the adult, explained that he wished to gain more information in order to complete the puzzle of his very complex, very gifted mother, and, thereby, more fully learn and interpret his own life-path as well.

The project informed, in quite a tender and moving way, the importance of filling out their picture while there was still the opportunity to do so, face to face, while life still gifted the son and mother. These two unique people embraced the importance of caring enough to fill in the blanks and to see each other’s many confidential dimensions through open eyes; and, they were willing to take risks that go with trust.

Inspired by the Coopers, I thought about unanswered questions from my own life – stories untold then sealed away by untimely death.

After my own parents died, my siblings and I sorted through their many remaining possessions. As the process wound down, I was saddened to realize how much I didn’t know about my mother! She had withheld much of who she was in life. In death, in various illuminations no longer her choice to hide, she became revealed in unfamiliar fragments that came with unanswered questions. 

 We knew she had been a five-year-old Roman Italian immigrant child, a Catholic school then Ryder College-educated business manager (in the 1920’s)! She was a wife, a gracious hostess, a mother of sons and daughters, an antiques expert and a superb homemaker. She shared what she did, but not who she was, and I believe she decided, somewhere along the way, that “most of her” was enough of herself to give away. The rest would be her own. 

In the years following her untimely death at 57, I tried to re-frame my memory of my mother, and forgive her for things not shared, confidences not trusted and, for leaving so many puzzles. In truth, her death and the mysteries only made that breeze seem colder; it was too late for answers, and there were so many questions...

I thought it was a brave and risky project that Anderson and Gloria set out to accomplish. Some of what they revealed to each other was surprising; other parts revealed long held secrets, and conclusions or beliefs that were not correct. It’s easy to see how impressions made on a child can be very different than the real dynamic playing out. I believe that Anderson and Gloria acknowledged that phenomenon before it was too late.

Zoë Tummillo is a Business & Marketing Consultant, Trainer, Commercial Writer, dba COMMUNICATION CONCEPTS, in private practice since 1974. In addition to Commercial work, she writes “Senior Momentum: A Series of Situations”; “Pieces of My Path”©, essay memoirs of growing up first generation Italian American; and Senior Momentum: Front And Center!©. To contact her: email: