— For 20 years,

Lori McCarthy's

mother, Doris, grappled with cancer as it waxed and waned. The conclusion was foregone, "yet we never addressed what to do with her things until the day after she died." That's not unusual: As reluctant as families are to discuss an approaching death, it feels even worse to talk about its aftermath.

So when McCarthy's brother matter-of-factly told her that she, as the only daughter, now was the keeper of the china, she realized she also was keeper of the holiday dinners, of the traditions, of the reunions — in other words, of the family.

She began wondering how to intentionally keep a family together when the autopilot routine established by an elder parent, usually the mother, no longer is a given. Curious about how other families deal with this transition, McCarthy devised a questionnaire and began asking friends and acquaintances to fill it out.

Many of the questions are designed to get at the heart of how a family works.

—What were your mother or mother figure's major roles in your family?

—What roles did she truly embrace?

—What roles did you embrace, accept reluctantly, or not accept?

—Would you make different role decisions, if you were given another chance?'

If McCarthy gets enough responses, she'll use them as a foundation for a book about how families remain together after the oldest generation dies, especially as kids have become busier, more far-flung and, in some cases, more splintered than previous generations.

"I'd like to know what supports people going through the transition, and share ideas of what worked for them and the pitfalls to avoid," said McCarthy, who has a degree in psychology and a background as a corporate trainer. She's currently a special-ed paraprofessional at an elementary school in Plymouth, Minn., where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

It's not just settling who sets the table at Thanksgiving, McCarthy said. Mom may be the one who keeps relatives talking when disagreements arise; if she's not there, who provides the counsel? Who makes the time when someone is ill? Who makes sure that everyone draws names before Christmas? Who sends the details of the bar mitzvah to Aunt Hazel in Connecticut?

It's not always Mom, of course. In some families, fathers fill that role, or the motherly work is done by a grandmother, aunt, mother-in-law or another woman who's especially close to the family. In a similar vein, McCarthy is asking contacts in Taiwan, South Africa and Mexico about family transitions in their culture.

For example, she said, it's not uncommon for a job interviewer in South Africa to ask applicants what sort of relationship they have with their mothers. "It's not that you need to say it's a great relationship," McCarthy said, "but they gauge how you express its condition."

While McCarthy and her mother, who died at 67, may not have discussed the set of rosebud-painted china, they were able to talk about how a daughter continues on without her mother. "She called it 'a divine set-up to step up,'" McCarthy said. "She said it was my turn."

McCarthy is seeking more responses to her questionnaire, which may be found at keeperofthechina.com. Responses will be kept confidential, unless otherwise noted. She's also willing to discuss the information by phone or in person.

"Some people have said that answering the questions is cathartic and refreshing," she said. Perhaps because no one's ever asked.