The essay anthology, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, got me thinking about the royal blue business suit my mother gave me as a college graduation gift.
At the time I received it, the outfit, with its ruffly, fussy white blouse, filled me with love and broke my heart simultaneously. It was a vessel of my mother’s hopes for me, yes, but it also made me feel like my mother and I had become strangers since the corporate ambitions suggested by the suit weren’t at all part of my plan. It also felt like I was letting her, and everyone who loved me, down.
I never wore the suit, of course. Not once. But it’s nonetheless something I’ve held on to and hung up in every closet I’ve had since.
Elizabeth Benedict, author of five novels, including the bestselling Almost: A Novel and Slow Dancing, which was short-listed for the National Book Award, faces a similar moment. In her book’s introduction, Benedict writes about the panic she felt when she lost the scarf her mother had given to her: “If this one gift meant so much to me, if it unlocked the door to so much history and such complicated feelings, might other women have such a gift themselves?”
That question inspired What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, which features 31 short essays by an accomplished list of female writers, including Roxana Robinson, Ann Hood, Lisa See, Margo Jefferson, Katha Pollitt, Mary Gordon, Rita Dove, Susan Stamberg, Joyce Carol Oates, and Marge Piercy.
Some of the mother-to-daughter gifts are abstract – the habit of writing a thousand words a day, permission to speak one’s mind – but many are tangible items like a horse, a photograph, a cake pan, a quilt, and a cracked vase.
Many gifts come to these women in their youth, and generally, the writers do a good job of candidly re-visiting their younger, often more self-absorbed selves. Jean Hanff Korelitz, in “My Disquieting Muse,” for instance, discusses how, as a young woman, she had a passion for Sylvia Plath’s work, but hadn’t conceived that Plath might also mean something to her mother.
"I had never conceived of (Plath) as being remotely like my mom. It had not dawned on me that my mother and Sylvia Plath were almost exact contemporaries, or that the two children left behind by Plath’s suicide were almost exact contemporaries of … me. I know, I know. Even all these years later, it still amazes me.”
The intimate honesty of moments like these not only draw you in, but inspire you to trust the author, since she’s willing to reveal herself in a less-than-flattering light.
And while several essays in What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most are full of tenderness and deep affection, family mystery haunts a few of them too, as some authors try to find answers to questions about their mothers’ past and a handful of pieces explore mother-daughter relationships that are thorny and complicated.
In “White Gloves and Party Manners,” for example, Karen Karbo explains that although she was anything but a “girly girl” while growing up, her mother gave her an etiquette book one Easter. Initially off-putting, the book nonetheless stayed in Karbo’s possession throughout her life, and after gradually learning more about her mother’s difficult youth, Karbo decided that the book “was more about my mother than it was ever about me. She’d known from the time she was small that she had to be good, pretty, neat, cheerful, and polite, or be cast aside.” Karbo’s essay thus demonstrates that even a poorly chosen gift can yield useful insights; and that over time, a daughter’s annoyance can mutate into compassion and sympathy.
Thankfully, the essays in What My Mother Gave Me cover a broad range, both in terms of the gifts received and the background of those writing about them – I loved reading each essay’s succinct description of the author’s mother – and the quality is consistent.
Yet even so, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most is a book best sampled in medium-sized bites. Despite the robust variety of essay styles and structures on display, it’s hard to escape a niggling sense of redundancy if you blow your way through in a mere sitting or two – particularly since Benedict deliberately pairs together essays about similar gifts (clothing, books, boat rides, kitchenware).
The anthology’s order thus slightly undercuts the impact of the whole. But in terms of engaging with each individual essay, the act of unpacking the meaning of a mother’s gift is a compelling, often revelatory experience.
Indeed, Benedict’s unifying idea works well precisely because the relationship between any mother and a daughter is too loaded and complex to explore in a broad way. Only by viewing it through the prism of something specific, like a mother’s memorable gift, can we start to get a clear glimpse of the whole.