What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most

What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most

by Elizabeth Benedict

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In What My Mother Gave Me, women look at the relationships between mothers and daughters through a new lens: a daughter’s story of a gift from her mother that has touched her to the bone and served as a model, a metaphor, or a touchstone in her own life. The contributors of these thirty-one original pieces include Pulitzer Prize winners, perennial bestselling novelists, and celebrated broadcast journalists.

Whether a gift was meant to keep a daughter warm, put a roof over her head, instruct her in the ways of womanhood, encourage her talents, or just remind her of a mother’s love, each story gets to the heart of a relationship.

Rita Dove remembers the box of nail polish that inspired her to paint her nails in the wild stripes and polka dots she wears to this day. Lisa See writes about the gift of writing from her mother, Carolyn See. Cecilia Muñoz remembers both the wok her mother gave her and a lifetime of home-cooked family meals. Judith Hillman Paterson revisits the year of sobriety her mother bequeathed to her when Paterson was nine, the year before her mother died of alcoholism. Abigail Pogrebin writes about her middle-aged bat mitzvah, for which her mother provided flowers after a lifetime of guilt for skipping her daughter’s religious education. Margo Jefferson writes about her mother’s gold dress from the posh department store where they could finally shop as black women.

Collectively, the pieces have a force that feels as elemental as the tides: outpourings of lightness and darkness; joy and grief; mother love and daughter love; mother love and daughter rage. In these stirring words we find that every gift, ?no matter how modest, tells the story of a powerful bond. As Elizabeth Benedict points out in her introduction, “whether we are mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, or cherished friends, we may not know for quite some time which presents will matter the most."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616202682
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 04/02/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 356,426
File size: 995 KB

About the Author

Elizabeth Benedict is a graduate of Barnard College and the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost and the National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing. She is the editor of the anthologies What My Mother Gave Me, a New York Times bestseller, and Mentors, Muses & Monsters, and has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, and the Huffington Post, the Rumpus, and Tin House. Two of her essays have been selected for Best American Essays collections. She has taught widely and works as a writing coach and editor. 

Read an Excerpt

What My Mother Gave Me

Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most



Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Benedict
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61620-135-7


Heart's Desire


Growing up, I was horse-crazy.

I thought about little else.

At school, I drew pictures of horses and wrote stories about them. At recess we all played horses, all the girls in second grade. Each day we described ourselves: "I'm a mischievous bay filly with a white star on my nose." "I'm a curvetting chestnut mare with four white socks." Then we trotted off, tossing our heads.

When I was in the car with my parents, I looked out the window and imagined myself racing alongside on horseback, keeping up with the car as I jumped over fences and obstacles. I imagined myself the rider and I imagined myself the horse: I watched for good pasture; thick, juicy green grass looked delicious to me. I watched for horse barns and riding rings. When I saw a horse in a field, I waved, covertly.

No one else in my family was so afflicted. My mother had ridden, as a girl, but she hadn't been horse-crazy. My father's father had been a polo player and foxhunter, but my own father had never taken up riding. My brothers and sisters weren't interested in horses. It was only me.

I was besotted. I had a map of the world showing the breeds and their origins. I knew that Przewalski's Horse came from Mongolia. I knew it was the oldest known breed, endearingly big-bellied and short-legged, dun-colored, with a thick black mane and tail, and no forelock. I knew the sturdy Norwegian Fjord Horse, and the American Trotting Horse, descended from Rysdyk's Hambletonian. I knew the heavy draft breeds, the huge gentle Clydesdale, the thick-necked Shire, the Suffolk Punch. I knew the Thoroughbreds, who were all descended from three Arabian foundation sires: the Godolphin Barb, the Darley Arabian, and the Byerly Turk.

I especially loved Arabians, with their delicate bones and dished faces and arched necks, their fiery natures and flowing tails. Swift and sure-footed, they galloped across the burning sands under an azure sky. They were romantic heroes, and besides, I was related to them.

The Godolphin Barb was a small Arabian stallion given as a present by the Bey of Tunis to the king of France. Somehow the little Barb (a horse from the Barbary Coast) wound up in England, owned by the Earl of Godolphin, who had a famous racing stud. At that time, the early eighteenth century, English racehorses were big and heavy-boned. The slight, light-boned Arab — only fifteen hands high — was not considered suitable breeding stock. But the Barb was high-spirited and fiery, and more forceful than anyone expected.

A well-bred brood mare at the stud was meant to be bred to a big stallion called Hobgoblin. But the mare refused him, decisively: she preferred the Barb, and finally she was allowed to accept his advances. Their first foal, a colt called Lath, won the Queen's Plate nine times, and so began the Barb's history as one of the greatest racing sires of all time. His offspring were phenomenal runners; one of his descendants was Seabiscuit.

The name of the mare was Lady Roxana.

This was my tribe.

I read every horse book in the school library. I saved my allowance to buy my own horse books. The stories usually began with a young girl who longed for a horse, and finished with her owning one: National Velvet, Silver Snaffles, A Pony for Jean, The Ten-Pound Pony, The Horse of Hurricane Hill, Tam the Untamed.

In these stories the horses were bold and loving companions. They were strong and powerful, beautiful and fleet, partners in a romantic narrative. They allowed girls to enter a story about achievement. On horseback, heroines could gallop across the countryside, save people from fires and floods, leap enormous obstacles, win races, capture burglars or dognappers, raise money for a raffle, teach someone to be brave, do whatever needed to be done.

Horse books were girls' versions of superhero comics, horses our source of superpowers. And a horse offered more than a mere physical transformation; a horse offered an emotional bond. A horse was your trusted friend, your beloved companion, as well as the source of your powers.

When I was ten years old, we moved to a house with a small barn. The barn was a long building with a two-car garage in front and a roomy two-stall stable behind. Outside this was a small fenced field. It was all waiting for a horse.

We lived out in the country, and I was like a horse-seeking missile. I knew every horse for miles around, and I rode as many of them as I could. Anyone who owned one found me hanging around the barn, skinny and hopeful, in my scuffed thrift-shop boots. I went anywhere there were horses, and finally I found my own.

I had persuaded my mother to take me to a local horse show, where I spent the day staring and yearning. In the afternoon I noticed a dark-eyed boy, slightly older than me, struggling with his horse. He was holding it by the reins, trying to keep it from grazing on the lawn, and at the same time trying to get something from his trailer. I offered my services and he handed me the reins. The horse went on trying to graze, snatching greedily at the grass, her bit jingling. I fell in love. When the boy came back, I told him she was beautiful. He told me she was for sale.

Our families gathered for a meeting at the boy's house. The boy's name was Jeff. His father was handsome in a dark leathery way, and his mother was tanned and glamorous, with a ragged blond ponytail, a white sundress, and worn red leather mules. Jeff was handsome, too, with dark soulful eyes, but he was pigeon-toed.

The price of the horse was $250. His father told Jeff he'd forgive him a debt if Jeff dropped it to $200. (I was amazed that you could owe money to your parents.) My parents had told me at home that I could pay for half with the small inheritance I'd received from my grandmother and that they would pay the other half. It all depended on Jeff dropping the price to $200. Everyone in the room looked at Jeff. He nodded solemnly at his father, and Blakewell Babe was mine. My mother smiled at me.

I was twelve years old.

This was all my mother's idea, I knew.

My mother believed that every child should receive a heart's desire. She called it that, a heart's desire. She believed that children were driven by deep yearnings, and that those should, if possible, be satisfied. My older brother loved trains, and his heart's desire was to ride them, anywhere, everywhere, across the country. My parents let him. He was nine when he took his first long-distance train trip. He charted it carefully beforehand, with maps and timetables, and never missed a connection.

My mother was small and compact, with fine dark hair, aquiline features, and a square beautiful face. She had a generous heart, and she believed in taking children seriously. When she was three years old she had polio, and for a time she was paralyzed from the waist down. She recovered, mostly, though for the rest of her life her legs and feet were troublesome. She never let this slow her down, though. She played tennis, and danced, and climbed mountains, and traveled, and had five children, and lived the life she wanted to live. But I think the polio made her particularly attentive to the dreams of children. I think she remembered not being able to walk.

That day, after the meeting, I rode my horse back home, cross-country, clopping quietly along the roads and the edges of fields and finally turning up our gravel driveway and into the wide pasture gate. I had a horse of my own.

Blakewell Babe was a small red chestnut mare, about fifteen hands high. She was a purebred American Saddle Horse; I was proud of her breeding, and I still have her papers somewhere. She was short-legged and straight-necked, not much of a beauty, but she was good-tempered and willing, and I loved her. She became the center of my life.

At feeding time I taught her to pick me up. She came down from the barn to where I sat on the fence by the house. She sidled sideways so I could jump easily aboard, then carried me up to the barn. Inside, she took me to the ladder leading to the hayloft. I climbed up it to pour grain into her bucket, drop hay into the stall. Sometimes I sat on her back while she ate her hay. Not while she ate grain—then she was testy, and might lay back her ears at me. But while she ate hay she was quiet and peaceful, and I could sit on her. I liked the steady sound she made, and the smells of sweet hay and clean horse.

I never learned to ride properly—I didn't take many lessons. But I didn't care about this: most of my riding took place in a wild romantic dream. I liked riding bareback, because that seemed most authentic. She was one with her horse, I would think. I learned to jump bareback, starting a lifetime of bad riding habits. (To this day I can't seem to put my weight in my stirrups, which means I am hopeless at dressage.) I rode badly but everywhere.

We jumped chicken coops and split-rail fences, we scrambled up banks and across creeks. We trotted on winding trails through the woods, we cantered through open fields. We galloped at full speed up dirt roads, Babe's ears flattened, her hoofs beating out a hard clattery tattoo, her long red tail streaming behind.

I fell off a zillion times. I was bucked off, or I slid off over her head when she put it down suddenly, or I was jolted off over a jump. The first time I jumped bareback I fell off and had to have four stitches under my chin. The day of my first date I fell off and broke my pelvis, and spent the next six weeks flat on my back.

In the spring I rode bareback, with a halter and lead shank, out into a neighbor's field, where the grass was thick and juicy. I sat on her back while she grazed. She took one slow step after another, her head moving in a tugging semicircle as she reached for the new grass. Sometimes I sat backwards, brushing her smooth back. Sometimes I lay on her, my arms hanging down on either side. Her beautiful body was my landscape. It was the place I knew best: its smell, its shape, its textures. The moleskin softness of her muzzle, her loose muscular lips, the polished summer smoothness of her chestnut flanks. The sweet grassy scent of her breath, the deep calm of her sigh. The beautiful liquid darkness of her eyes.

In the barn I was on my own. I learned everything myself: how to get the bit into a horse's mouth on a cold day (warm it first in your hand), or what to do if the frog (the soft part of her hoof ) turned mushy and foul (it was a fungus called thrush, and you painted it with gentian violet). I learned how to clean tack, and when to call the vet and the blacksmith; I learned the sweet charring smell of the forge. I learned from books, or from watching other people.

I didn't mind doing any of this alone. I remembered that day at the family meeting, my mother's smile of trust and complicity, and her certainty. She'd given me a whole world, and she trusted me to enter into it. Looking back, I'm amazed that she had so much confidence, that she felt so certain that a twelve-year-old girl could look after a horse. But she did.

I think this had to do with her generosity, her willingness to believe in other people and let them go their own ways. She believed in independence, and she trusted people. She trusted them to do the right thing, whatever that meant. She rarely criticized anyone; she believed in seeing the best in them. Growing up as her daughter, that felt like a gift.

In tenth grade I went away to boarding school; my parents took care of Babe. It wasn't so much work, after all, if you weren't horse-crazy. She was never shut inside her stall, she wandered in and out at will, so there wasn't much cleaning to do, only the daily feedings. Whenever I came home I took charge again, going out to the barn to feed and brush and ride her, arranging for whatever she needed. When I called home I always asked about her. "Babe is fine," my mother always said, and gave me the news: she'd grown a thick winter coat, or she'd just been shod. In the winter she took to lying peacefully in the pasture, curling up like a dog in front of the barn, where the warmth was reflected off the walls.

After that I never lived at home again. I went on to college, then to other things. Who comes back to live at home once you've left?

I always asked about her, but over the years I stopped riding her when I came home. She was too shaggy, the saddle was too dry, my interests were elsewhere. But still I never wanted to sell my horse, and my parents never asked me to. She had been my heart's desire. She would always be at the center of that romantic passage in my life, when she was my partner in the wild, dangerous, and beautiful ride across adolescence.

My horse stayed on, growing old and stiff, ambling quietly about our small pasture, dozing in the sun. She died at the age of thirty-one, which is ninety-three in horse years. It was my mother who found her, one day in early March, stretched out in the muddy field.

Excerpted from What My Mother Gave Me by ELIZABETH BENEDICT. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Benedict. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Heart's Desire Roxana Robinson 1

The Missing Photograph Caroline Leavitt 11

Mess Up Your Mind Maud Newton 23

My Disquieting Muse Jean Hanff Korelitz 33

The Unicorn Princess Katha Pollitt 45

White Christmas Ann Hood 53

My Mother's Armor Margo Jefferson 61

Three-Hour Tour Emma Straub 73

The Circle Line Mary Gordon 79

The Gift Twice Given Judith Hillman Paterson 85

The Last Happy Day of Her Life Cheryl Pearl Sucher 99

Never Too Late Abigail Pogrebin 109

The Broken Vase Reverend Lillian Daniel 119

The Wok Cecilia Muñoz 129

How They Do It in France Elissa Schappell 137

White Gloves and Party Manners Karen Karbo 143

Her Favorite Neutral Charlotte Silver 161

Right at My Fingertips Rita Dove 171

Midnight Typing Luanne Rice 177

Julia's Child Elinor Lipman 183

The Deal Martha McPhee 189

The Plant Whisperer Dahlia Lithwick 199

Wait Till You See What I Found for You Mameve Medwed 205

Truths in a Ring Susan Stamberg 213

Quilts Joyce Carol Oates 219

Finding the Love Child Sheila Kohler 223

Betrayal Marge Piercy 233

The Silver in the Salt Air Eleanor Clift 239

She Gave Me the World Mary Morris 245

A Thousand Words a Day and One Charming Note Lisa See 257

Then There Must Be a Story Elizabeth Benedict 265

Acknowledgments 275

Contributors 277

What People are Saying About This

Margot Livesey

"With such a wonderful group of authors I knewWhat My Mother Gave Mewould be a moving and deeply intelligent book. What I hadn't expected was that it would also be so suspenseful and so revelatory." --Margot Livesey

Cathleen Schine

"As varied and unexpected and eloquent and moving as mother love itself,What My Mother Gave Meis a gift to all of us."--Cathleen Schine

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