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Authors: Elizabeth Benedict

What My Mother Gave Me

BOOK: What My Mother Gave Me
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What My Mother Gave Me

hirty-one Women on the Gifts
hat Mattered Most

Edited by




For my mother and my sister Nancy

For Emily and Julia



Heart's Desire,
Roxana Robinson

e Missing Photograph,
Caroline Leavitt

Mess Up Your Mind,
Maud Newton

My Disquieting Muse,
Jean Hanff Korelitz

e Unicorn Princess,
Katha Pollitt

White Christmas,
Ann Hood

My Mother's Armor,
Margo Jefferson

ree-Hour Tour,
Emma Straub

e Circle Line,
Mary Gordon

e Gift Twice Given,
Judith Hillman Paterson

e Last Happy Day of Her Life,
Cheryl Pearl Sucher

Never Too Late,
Abigail Pogrebin

e Broken Vase,
Reverend Lillian Daniel

e Wok,
Cecilia Muñoz

ey Do It in France,
Elissa Schappell

White Gloves and Party Manners,
Karen Karbo

Her Favorite Neutral,
Charlotte Silver

Right at My Fingertips,
Rita Dove

Midnight Typing,
Luanne Rice

Julia's Child,
Elinor Lipman

e Deal,
Martha McPhee

e Plant Whisperer,
Dahlia Lithwick

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

Truths in a Ring,
Susan Stamberg

Joyce Carol Oates

Finding the Love Child,
Sheila Kohler

Marge Piercy

e Silver in the Salt Air,
Eleanor Clift

She Gave Me the World,
Mary Morris

ousand Words a Day and One Charming Note,
Lisa See

ere Must Be a Story
Elizabeth Benedict




It is said that all books begin with an obsession, and this one is no exception.

In this case, it's a beautiful winter scarf my mother gave me toward the end of her life, probably the last gift I got from her. After she died in 2004, I became more attached to it.
e times I thought I'd lost it, I went into full-blown panics. It was only partly that I didn't know where to find a replacement for this embroidered wool scarf whose label said
. Mostly, it was feeling that I'd lost my connection to my mother—a connection that was restored as soon as I found it.

e intensity of my feelings about the scarf surprised me, because I had felt so distant from my mother for most of my life. But because she was kind, loving, and needy, my feelings for her were layered with guilt, and the guilt so thick it sometimes felt like torment. After she died, I just felt sad and intensely aware of the scarf, which I wear around the collar of my coat all winter long, every year.

I lived silently with this welter of feelings year after year. I didn't know whom to talk to about it, or what to say; the scarf was attached to a free-floating, inchoate grief. Or was it something other than grie
? For years, the feelings were beyond any words that I could summon. In 2011, my brooding gave way to curiosity, and I began to wonder about the experience of other women. 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?

What My Mother Gave Me
is the affirmative answer to that question. Each of the contributors describes a gift from her mother—three-dimensional, experiential, a work habit, a habit of being, a way of seeing the world—that magically, movingly reveals the story of her mother and of their relationship.
e pieces run from short and sweet to long and wrenching, from hilarious to mournful, from heartwarming to heartbreaking. And the treasured gifts shimmer in their variety and uniqueness: an etiquette book, a plant, a necklace, a horse, a passport, a trip on the Circle Line boat around Manhattan. One woman received from her writer mother the habits of writing a thousand words a day plus one charming note. Another got the gift of taking the impossible in stride. And one was given a few bottles of nail polish that changed her life.

Singly, each piece is a gem to me: a gathering in of
memory, affection, and gratitude, however tormented the relationships once were. Taken together, the pieces have a force that feels as elemental as the tides: outpourings of lightness and darkness; simple joy and devastating grief; mother love and daughter love; mother love and daughter rage; the anguish of suffering mothers and daughters powerless to help them—and the spoken and unspoken weight of missing all the mothers who are gone.

Having had an unhappy mother, I found myself astonished—feeling a mixture of envy and disbelief—by the stories of happy mothers and daughters. At first, I thought it was the younger writers whose mothers were happy, those whose mothers had more control over their lives and their finances than women of my mother's generation. But as essays arrived over a period of months, I saw I was wrong: there are happy mothers from all generations in this collection. Such mothers—it's clear from these pages—raise more lighthearted offspring than unhappy ones; or do I mean only that the absence of torment is palpable in their pages?

As essay after essay reveals, a single gift can easily tell the story of an entire life. Yet for all the richness here, it's striking how modest almost all of these gifts are. A used cake pan, a homemade quilt, a wok, a Mexican blouse, a family photograph. It just might be, after all, that it's the thought that counts—and the packaging, too. I don't mean the paper and the ribbons, but the emotional wrapping, the occasion for the gift, the spirit in which it was given, and everything that happened before and after.
is is another way of saying that, as gift givers and recipients—whether we are mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, or cherished friends—we may not know for quite some time which presents will matter most.

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.”
en 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
oroughbreds, 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.
ey were romantic heroes, and besides, I was related to them.

e 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.
e 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.
eir 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.

e name of the mare was Lady Roxana.

is was my tribe.

I read every horse book in the school library. I saved my allowance to buy my own horse books.
e 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,
e Ten-Pound Pony,
e Horse of Hurricane Hill, Tam the Untamed.

In these stories the horses were bold and loving companions.
ey were strong and powerful, beautiful and fleet, partners in a romantic narrative.
ey 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.
e 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.
e 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.
e 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.

e 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.

is 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.

at 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.
e first time I jumped bareback I fell off and had to have four stitches under my chin.
e 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.
e moleskin softness of her muzzle, her loose muscular lips, the polished summer smoothness of her chestnut flanks.
e sweet grassy scent of her breath, the deep calm of her sigh.
e 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 hoo
) 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.

BOOK: What My Mother Gave Me
8.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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