Friday, May 10, 2013

Elizabeth Benedict's "What My Mother Gave Me"

HALLIE EPHRON: Just in time for Mother's Day comes a wonderful collection of essays, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most (Algonquin paperback) edited by Elizabeth Benedict. It's all about the presents our mothers gave us that have served as a model, a metaphor, or a touchstone in our own lives. The 31 essays range from funny to poignant to heartbroken, and on through a gamut of emotions.

For me, there's no doubt that my mother's gift was books. She doled them out to me and my sisters the way other mothers might give out toys or candy. And, whether it was intentional or not, they almost always featured strong female characters.

From little Madeline who was not afraid of the lion in the zoo, to Dorothy Gale who faced down the wicked witch of the west, to Eloise who turned the Plaza Hotel into her own personal playground, these were characters who provided a model for the women we could be... and also, it turned out, for the women we could write about.

Sadly, though she was a writer, she never shared her own story -- what it had been like growing up, being a woman screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood -- and she died much too young. So the books and those characters that she loved, too, are my placeholders.

Welcome, today, to Elizabeth Benedict! Liz, what was the inspiration for this anthology?

It began with a beautiful scarf, the last gift my mother gave me. She bought it from a holiday vendor who came to the assisted living facility where she lived before she moved to a nursing home. 

I began wearing it on my winter coat, and wherever I went, people often said, “What a beautiful scarf. Where did you get it?”

I longed for a simple answer
– say, “Bloomingdales” – but there was nothing simple about this story, especially after my mother died. 

I had had a loving but distant relationship with her, but because I was so physically close to the scarf, wearing it around my neck and wrapped around my face when it was cold, I was baffled by my attachment.

I spoke to absolutely no one about this, even my husband, because I didn’t have the words to articulate these conflicted feelings. 

One day I wondered if other women have a gift from their mothers, a gift that opens up into the entire relationship the way the scarf does for me. It was my way of finding people to talk to about this!

Can you tell us a little about your essay that's in the book?

 My essay goes over some of my history with my mother, and how my relationship to her changed in the last few years of her life. I wrote it after receiving and editing the other 30 essays in the book. I only had a few days before I had to hand in the entire manuscript, and I knew the only way for me to write the essay was to give myself this tight deadline – and to be as candid as the other writers had been in their essays. I don’t think I could have written the same essay if I hadn’t had the examples of the other contributors.

You have an incredible lineup of authors. Was there a piece that especially surprised and delighted you?

I was thrilled by each essay, because of the incredible variety of gifts – and the stories and
revelations that come out of them. But as far as delight, I’ll mention Rita Dove’s piece about getting a box of usual-colored nail polish when she was 15. She had to beg her mother to buy her the green and blue polishes, and her mother finally relented, not thinking they would lead to anything serious.

In fact, her elaborately colored nail have become Rita Dove’s signature, and a symbol for her of her mother allowing her to move into adulthood in her own way.
Another kind of delight is from Lisa See’s essay about her mother Carolyn See giving her the gift of writing. Carolyn passed on the lesson to write 1000 words a day – no matter what – and a charming note to someone who intimidates you.

Some of the essays have a dark side, too. An example?

LIZ: Judith Hillman Paterson
’s mother died of alcoholism when she was 31 and Judith was nine. The gift she wrote about was a year of sobriety that Judith remembered decades later and that she revisits with aching tenderness in the essay. 

Mary Gordon
’s mother only used to give her money as gifts – sometimes checks - when Mary barely knew what money was. Mary was bitter about this, even as an adult. In the course of the essay, I can see some of the bitterness dissolve as she remembers the day her mother took off from work and took her daughter on the Circle Line boat around Manhattan.

Tell us where you will be appearing in the weeks to come.

This coming week, as it leads up to Mother’s Day, is the last week of the formal tour.

  • Tues. May 7th 6.30, New York Society Library, 53 E. 79th St., NY NY, RESERVATIONS REQUIRED - Margo Jefferson, Martha McPhee, Roxana Robinson, and Liz.
  • Thurs. May 9, 7:30pm, Greenlight Books, Fulton St. Brooklyn, Join Mary Morris, Maud Newton, Elissa Schappell, Emma Straub, and Liz.   
Visit the book's tumblr site to see photographs of the gifts in the book and photos of some of the mothers and daughters – and to submit a photo of a gift from your mother with a brief story about it.

HALLIE: And here on Jungle Red, share: What's one gift your mother gave you?


Joan Emerson said...

What my mother gave me? Unconditional love . . . .

Edith Maxwell said...

What a lovely story, and set of stories.

My mother taught me to sew, and in her later years she made beautiful quilts for every family member and then some. My own sons received two each. So her gifts live on, keeping us warm and lighting up every bed they cover.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

This sounds like such a lovely book!

Off the top of my head, I'd say my best gift was Tigger the tiger cat, when I was 13. He was the gift that kept on giving--and loving animals was something we shared.

Jerry House said...

My mother gave me the secure knowledge that charcoal was good for my digestive system. At least that's what she told me every time she burned the toast.

Hallie Ephron said...

Jerry House - LAUGHING!!!

I wonder what my kids would say I taught them... scary thought.

Hallie Ephron said...

Joan: the perfect gift.
Edith: That's a gift and an heirloom... quilting is a lovely art but I haven't the patience for it. My double bed quilt turned into a quilt for my baby... which happily I've just given to her baby. (I never saw my mother with a needle or a dishcloth in her hands.)

Edith Maxwell said...

Hallie, when did you become a grandma? Is this recent (and you've been keeping the news quiet) or did I miss it? Either, way, I'm jealous!

Anonymous said...

My mother gave me the gift of what I would call financial awareness. As a high school graduate in 1960, working full-time in an office, I was required to give my parents one-fourth of my pay check to prepare me for budgeting for rent when I eventually lived on my own. I was encouraged to buy my own set of bedroom furniture on a time-payment plan in order to establish a credit rating in my own name. Mom and I went to the bank, where we opened a joint account, her lesson being to have a family member able to access funds if you were incapacitated. Again, this was 1960, before women's lib took off.

Karen in Ohio said...

Anonymous, what a great gift. And Elizabeth, how lovely for you that you could find peace through this project. What an unexpected present for you.

My mother taught me to read when I was four, before there were many other children in the family to distract her. It was the last time she spent any protracted time with just me, but it was the best possible gift. I took it from there, and hope to be able to say I made the best of it.

Recently, I gave it back to her, in a way. For Christmas and her birthday we gave her a Nook loaded with books. She dearly loves to read, but holding books and reading small print has gotten to be more difficult for her over the years. Now she is able to read to her heart's content, books of her own choosing, and books she "borrows" from my Nook library. It's been a treat to introduce her to so many of the JRW writers, too.

Kelli Jo said...

My mother gave me the strength to be whomever I wanted to be. It didn't matter if it was choosing a college major or on whom to date, my mom always told me that she didn't care as long as I was happy. :)

Elizabeth Benedict said...

Thanks to Hallie for asking me to participate, and thanks to everyone who has shared their favorite gifts from their mothers! This has become such a wonderful project for me and, I think, everyone who contributed an essay - and now, for people out there (and here!) who can post gifts on this site. I can't tell you how much it means to me that this conversation is continuing. In talking to a group of seniors the other day, a woman said that she came into the talk believing that her mother had never given her anything. But as she listened to us, she realized that her mother had come to her wedding in NYC - a big deal, a big trip she had never made - and THIS was a gift. Even though this woman was in her 70s, she had never seen it this way. I think everyone in the room was touched.

Jan Brogan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan Brogan said...

his sounds like such a terrific book - I have been working on an essay about my mother's most important gift to me for years and still can't find the right words.

Her sobriety. Twelve years before she died, I got the mothers that I had always wanted.

There really is no better gift.

Deb said...

Elizabeth, what wonderful stories. And very poignant for me, as I'm going to the Mother's Day Tea at my mom's nursing home this afternoon.

My mom never doubted that I could do anything. You couldn't ask for a bigger gift.

Denise Ann said...

Carole King sang it: "to turn twelve boring hours into a fascinating day."
My mother loved to set up projects and trips -- we picked grapes and then made juice and jam.
Best trip ever -- once a year, we took the Day Liner from Poughkeepsie, NY to Newburgh and then a ferry from Newburgh to Beacon, and then a train from beacon back to Poughkeepsie! With a packed lunch, shared with another family from the neighborhood, this was such a great day!!

Elizabeth Benedict said...

@Jan Brogan - Your writing about your mother's sobriety & saying it's hard to find the words makes me want to tell you that a shorter period of sobriety is the gift one of our contributors writes about in the book. The essay, "The Gift Twice Given," is by Southern writer Judith Hillman Paterson, and it is one of the most moving in the collection. Perhaps it will give you some help in writing your own piece! Thanks so much for sharing this.

Elizabeth Benedict said...

Deb - Thanks so much for mentioning that you're having tea with your mother today! I have been amazed by reactions from seniors about the book. One woman wrote me from a senior center in CT. She is the director and said that her members had been discussing my book (I'd never met them or visited), and though some found it difficult to talk about their mothers, all were very engaged. She said that some of the older women have few or no occasions to reflect on their mothers at this point in their lives, and they were happy to have the chance. Hope you Enjoy your day with her!!

Deb Romano said...

I don't know where to begin; my mom was a lovely and loving person, compassionate almost to a fault. She had complete and total faith in me, valued my opinions, passed on to me her love of reading, her love of nature, especially birdwatching and seashell collecting(most of my siblings and the grandchildren "inherited" this from her), and taught, by example, the importance of giving back to the community. She was doing volunteer work up until the minute her final illness began-she was taken by ambulance from the place where she was supervising a volunteer project for the church, and died a week later.

Hallie Ephron said...

Deb Romano - sounds like a life well lived. And, if it makes any sense, a death well died.

Patry Francis said...

Her incredibly benevolent spirit. It is with me to this day.

Linda Rodriguez said...

My mother gave me the example of all the mistakes she made, so I don't have to fall down those holes, and the example of the strength with which she dealt with terrible situations.

This book sounds wonderful!

Austin Carr said...

My Mama taught me to stand up when a lady enters the room, and this one little trick let me fool all the mothers in high school. Ha.

Marianne in Maine said...

Oh, Liz, the story of the scarf made me tear up. My mother is in a senior facility and doesn't drive anymore so there's very little opportunity for her to get shopping. If she ever bought something like this at her facility it would mean the world. She's also suffering from dementia so she doesn't always remember to send cards or gifts these days.

But she was a powerful role model to her four daughters. Besides the love and support she gave us all, she taught me to make a wicked Irish Bread and to knit. I knit constantly so I guess that was the most long-lasting gift she ever gave me.

Reine said...

Yes... well now I can't stop crying.

... my mother gave me Independence.

Baking. She gave me that, too. [Thanks, Roberta, for helping me remember.]

Kristi said...

I wish you all could have known my Mother. You would have gotten such a kick out of her! Picking just one gift from her is so hard, but I'll say "adventures." We had so many adventures! We criss-crossed the country so many times, but even a trip to the mall could be an adventure with Mom -- meeting somebody new, finding a wonderful place to eat, learning about (best of all) a new book to read. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, Mom said, "Well, this will be interesting! We've never known anyone with a brain tumor!" I miss her so much, but, really, she is with me every day, and I am forever grateful for that gift!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, I have a Mom scarf, too. Exactly. I cannot believe you have the same..well, I can. Thank you!

Susan said...

My mother loved to read and instilled that in me. When she was a girl, her own mother had been very critical of how she "always had her nose in a book," so she reacted by encouraging my reading and being very patient when I would get lost in a book. Mom is 89 and still with us, and STILL loves to read, though she needs large print these days.

Deb said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, and all of you who shared your stories. The Mother's Day Tea is a always a difficult thing for me, and you all helped.

My mom has been in an dementia facility for about six years now. She doesn't really speak, but always smiles when she sees me and hears my voice. She had such enthusiasm for life and experiences and adventures, and you have all reminded me of those wonderful things.

Reine said...

And I really do think I need your book, Elizabeth. Thank you.

Reine said...

JRWs... can anyone tell me if comment notifications are enabled.

I haven't been receiving email notifications from JRW today, although I am signed up for them below. I am receiving them for other Blogger comments that I subscribe to on other Blogger blogs. Sorry about the mouthful!

Elizabeth Benedict said...

This is the first chance I've had to check in here for many hours, as I was talking tonight at the Wilton Library in Connecticut. It's great coming back and seeing so many more comments & memories! So many points of confluence here. Scarves, mothers with dementia, and lots of happy memories behind them. I am going to send the publisher this url. I'm sure they will be happy to see the kind of energy around this. Well, they KNOW it by now, but it's still very moving to see how much this has stirred up in all of us. Thanks to everyone who's chimed in. I wonder what kind of conversations will ensue with those of you who have daughters.

A male reader/writer posted a review of the book and said he was giving it to his mother for M's Day, and then arranging to have a conversation with her once she read the book, and he felt that THAT - the conversation - would be the real present. He just tweeted me that his mother received the book. can't wait to hear how their conversation goes!

Thanks again to Hallie & all of you!!! xo liz

Lynda said...

Fabulous topic, marvelous remembrances.

My mom's most meaningful gift to me was a two-parter. For the first 27 years of my life I knew her as an anxious, fearful woman, doing her best to cope with my dad's alcoholism. I didn't always understand her behavior, or have much compassion for her, and I became determined to not live my life ruled by the fears that ruled Mom's.

Then in 1977 she had her limit, hit her bottom, joined a 12 Step group and never looked back. My dad was never able to get sober, but that wasn't the point, Mom was there to better her life, and she sure did.

So when I became aware of my own alcoholism and drug use four years later, I knew what to do, and had Mom's example to follow.

Mom had 17 years in recovery when she died, and her changed way of life was blessing to our entire family and her many, many friends.

Elizabeth Benedict said...

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, and friends. To those for whom it's a difficult day, I hope you find some comfort.

For LYNDA and others with mothers who had substance abuse problems, I wanted to share one of the essays in the book that's reprinted today in the Raleigh News & Observer, by Judith Hillman Paterson. If this link doesn't work, you can find the article on the book's FB page. Please visit & LIKE us and read more about the book.