Although this collection of essays about mothers came out in time for Mother’s Day, What My Mother Gave Me would make a great gift any time of year for a mom who likes to read. The essays are all by adult daughters who are also well-known writers – novelists, journalists, essayists, and short story authors– most of whose names you will probably recognize. With 31 essays in all, there isn’t a dud in the bunch, although some will resonate more with different readers than others.
Novelist Elizabeth Benedict, the editor of the collection, wrote the introduction and the final essay for the book. Her complicated feelings for her mother and history with her seemed connected to the scarf her mother had given her as a gift, and which, in the years after her mother’s death, she felt terrible at the thought of losing. She wondered if other women had similar attachments to gifts from their mothers. In the introduction, she writes:
“What My Mother Gave Me is the affirmative answer to the question. Each of the contributors describes a gift from her mother – three-dimensional, experiential, a work habit, a way of being, a way of seeing the world – that magically, movingly reveals the story of her mother and of their relationship. The pieces run from short and sweet to long and wrenching, from hilarious to mournful, from heartwarming to heartbreaking.”
Of the humorous essays, I particularly liked Emma Straub’s Three-Hour Tour. When she was in graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, her sophisticated New York mom sent her a gift certificate for two tickets on a “Betty Lou Cruise”, tours that the author had laughed at the idea of, thinking it could only be people absolutely desperate for something to do that would want to go out on a three-hour tour of a smallish lake with nothing much of interest to see.
“My mother long ago stopped buying me clothing, or jewelry, or anything remotely girly. Instead, we look at art together, or she springs for ‘experiential’ presents, which she claims last longer in the memory. In theory, I agree, and think such presents are wonderful. In practice, I had zero desire to spend three hours on a lake the size of the Central Park reservoir.”
Some of the mother-daughter relationships described in What My Mother Gave Me were unhappy, and some of the mothers were sick for years or died young, but each writer describes something her mother gave her that is meaningful and that she is glad to have. Readers of writers’ memoirs might especially enjoy glimpses into the lives of these women during formative periods or their reflections on their own mothers’ lives from the vantage point of being their mothers’ ages themselves.
The list of the writers who contributed essays includes novelists Caroline Leavitt, Ann Hood, Mary Gordon, Elinor Lipman, Mameve Medwed, Joyce Carol Oates, Sheila Kohler, Mary Morris, and Lisa See.
What My Mother Gave Me
Benedict, Elizabeth, ed.Algonquin, March 2013