Anthology explores the gifts from mothers, good and bad

ajohnson@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2013 

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    Elizabeth Benedict and Algonquin Books have a site where you can post pictures and stories about the gifts – of all kinds – your mother gave you. Go to

This day, Mother’s Day, is about honoring mothers, maybe giving her a gift as a kind of repayment for what she’s done and all she’s given you.

But have you considered what your mother has given you? And what if that maternal relationship has been difficult? What does this day bring then?

Those questions get explored in “What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most” (Algonquin Books), a book of essays edited by Elizabeth Benedict.

The idea for the anthology came in 2002, drawn from Benedict’s experience with her mother. The last gift Benedict’s mother gave her was a scarf bought from a vendor at her assisted living facility. The beautiful scarf often drew compliments, praise that made Benedict uncomfortable.

The scarf covered her face, keeping it warm in biting cold. It was a kind of protection and warmth Benedict didn’t feel from her mother, she says. “It was perplexing to me that I was so attached to the scarf when my actual relationship with my mother was distant.”

Benedict never talked about her feelings; it was too difficult and she couldn’t find the words. Yet a decade later, she began wondering whether other women had gifts from their mothers that raised similar issues, that “represented a doorway to complexities,” she says.

Her 30 years as a writer offered a long list of women to approach for essays; she wanted a range of experiences, ages and races. Some who she approached said no, often because the emotions were too raw. Benedict’s final list includes a minister and a political activist, among the journalists, poets and novelists.

‘Continuous’ gifts

Joyce Carol Oates writes about a rainbow-colored quilt; former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove tells of her mother’s penchant for whimsically polished nails that she has adopted. Other stories are more somber.

When she asked author Mary Gordon to participate, Benedict says Gordon replied that her mother had not given her anything but money and she had nothing to say. But later she contacted Benedict, telling her the invitation had stirred something. Gordon remembered that her mother once took a day off and took her on a boat ride around New York.

“Her essay starts with bitterness and ends with this special day,” Benedict says. “I haven’t spoken to her about it but it feels like she went through an emotional journey.”

That’s true, too, of Judith Hillman Paterson, whose essay “The Gift Twice Given” is excerpted here. Paterson writes of her mother’s gift, hidden for some 50 years. She pieced the story together, she says, after writing her memoir “Sweet Memory: A Book of Remembering” about her childhood in Montgomery, Ala. It wasn’t a story she necessarily wanted to write, she says, but writing it was important.

“I suppose part of the message is that the gifts from being lovingly mothered are continuous,” says Paterson, who wrote the essay while living in a home on High Rock Lake in Davidson and Rowan counties. “My mother made an enormous effort despite disabling illness. It was not a traditional mothering situation yet there were moments of great beauty.”

Indeed, recognizing all the moments of motherhood, good and bad, is part of what gives “What My Mother Gave Me” its depth.

“The book is about the uniqueness of human mothering addressed in a thoughtful way by 31 writers,” Paterson says. “It’s not a sentimental book in any way. It’s a serious book about a serious subject.”

For Benedict, who contributed an essay, hearing the stories of others, as she tours and talks about the book, has been a balm for her own difficult relationship with her mother.

“I think the project drew me into a community of mothers and daughters I didn’t feel a part of before.”

Johnson Martin; 919-829-4751;

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