How well do we know our parents? Where we came from? How well do we understand the circumstances and situations that swirled around them at the time of our conception? And not just our individual conception, but the conception of our siblings, the creation of our families?

How many of us have ever sat down and told our parents we want to listen to it all, however long it takes…to the stories of their lives, their own birth families, the joys and pressures of their childhoods, how they came to be who they are in the world.

Do we know how and why our fathers chose their lines of work? Did they feel free, or constrained in some way, pressured, perhaps, by war, economic circumstances, a domineering father, an insistent mother? Or did our fathers go their own way, carve out their own paths, free in their hearts and souls, the red wildflowers in the center of fields of mostly yellow and purple and white?

And our mothers? What were their dreams and aspirations for themselves? Did they get the education they wanted? Did they do what they wanted to do with their lives? Do they have any regrets, any unmet desires, any wishes, wants and hopes to which they have never given voice? Did their lives turn out the way they wanted? Was there a trimmed path through the forest, or did they have to bring a machete, clearing a step for each foot as they went?

Do we know how and where and when our parents fell in love? Did they choose one another, or was it an arranged or an expected marriage? Was it love at first sight, or did it smolder slowly? Was it expected, commanded, natural or cast in ambivalence? Was it destiny or fate, a choice, or simply the thing everyone does….eventually…like a clock ticking onto the next second, minute, hour?

Did they meet when they were young, or find one another long after they’d begun their lives’ journeys?

Do they have secrets they have never shared with anyone…ever?

Do they share the same religious and political beliefs, the same pastimes and hobbies? Do they crave one another’s company, or do they lead independent lives, yet remain deeply entwined, like the ivy climbing up the latticework to the side of the house?

Do they laugh, or are they on automatic pilot? Are they partners, enemies, competitors, lovers, friends or strangers? Is life a joy or a hardship or many indescribable things in between? Are they funny, witty, dry humored, meant to be together, a mistake?

Are we like them, or different? Do we understand our own personalities and lives…our souls…or do we simply accept it all as DNA, as genetic, as something unquestioned, unexpressed, unexamined.

Many years ago I took this photo of an elderly woman in Cornolo, Italy, one of the tiny hamlets in the mountains outside of Parma where I have ancestral roots. There was a fabulous tin airplane weathervane across the street from her home and I pulled my car over to take some pictures.

She came outside, glowing with charm, wearing a bright periwinkle sweater and she asked me if I would join her for a cup of tea. We sat at the table in her kitchen and talked about my father’s family…about her family…and she told me what it was like to live in that physically beautiful place, a place that was so remote and so hard to get to in Winter that during the War a letter could take six months to arrive from Parma.

She talked about the harshness of the times, the lack of food, sitting around the wood burning stoves for warmth, waiting for Spring and the roads to thaw and for life to begin again, and I asked, “Was there nowhere else you could have gone?” and she replied, “Life was not about choice, it was about surviving.”

Chickens and roosters pecked at the grass growing outside her door, wind chimes tinkled on the porch and homemade weathervanes spun atop the mailboxes. I asked if I could take her picture and she smiled easily for me. I left the photo uncropped, the background blotches on her kitchen wall unretouched. When I look at it now, I remember that day as though it were yesterday.

My memory of sitting with this lovely and kind woman, who was almost 90 when I met her, survives, and I am glad I made the choice that day to pull over and take a picture of a tin airplane weathervane, which morphed into a random encounter with an elderly woman who offered me a cup of tea and shared with me her memories about life in the mountains in Italy during World War II.

NOTE: I published a previous version of Where do we come from? on my Writing Personally blog on February 10, 2016 on Google+.