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?
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: 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!
HALLIE: Can you tell us a little about your essay that's in the book?
LIZ: 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.
HALLIE: You have an incredible lineup of authors. Was there a piece that especially surprised and delighted you?
LIZ: 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.
HALLIE: 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.
HALLIE: Tell us where you will be appearing in the weeks to come.
LIZ: 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.
HALLIE: And here on Jungle Red, share: What's one gift your mother gave you?