What My Mother Gave Me

Edited by Elizabeth Benedict

What is the most meaningful gift that your mother ever gave you?

Whether it’s an old family recipe, an heirloom, or something less tangible, most people have an answer to this question. Here are the answers of some of your favorite women writers (captured in photos) based on the new book, What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.

Please submit your own photo by clicking on the link below and add to the collection. Every gift, no matter how modest, tells a story--we want to hear yours!


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Mother’s Day is this Sunday and we want to celebrate all of the #UnforgettableMoms! Send photos of you and your mom, grandmother, and/or children to lauren@workman.com for a chance to win a copy of The Unforgettable Photograph, the source of our inspiration!

What did your mother give you? One special moment captured in a photo can say it all. Share yours!

Elizabeth Benedict with her mother, Sara, and newborn sister, Nancy.

Elizabeth Benedict’s mother gave her a scarf:

“The years of caretaking softened my hard edges and rubbed away a lifetime of distance between us, and the scarf, the beautiful scarf that everyone notices and asks about, does a motherly job year in and year out: protects, warms, and reminds me, as though I could forget, that she is taking care of me.”

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

My Expatriate Mother

My father was a international businessman, the director of sales and marketing for a large petrochemical company.  We lived in Japan in the early 1960’s, and later in Belgium, the Philippines and Singapore.  My mom was the trailing spouse, usually the one who packed and unpacked our belongings at each new post while dad was off to meetings around the globe. 

 While it was my dad’s job that took us overseas, it was Mom who took me by the hand to immerse me into the new place. She taught me to respect the differences in people, to know and understand their religions and their cultures. She never wanted to stay in the expat “bubble”, but set out to live where there were few westerners around. She forced me into uncomfortable situations to learn that it wasn’t All About Me. She made me look outside myself and to walk in others’ shoes. (She also taught me the value of a good pair of those shoes - as long as they were on sale- .. Ferragamo is her middle name). Her excitement about being in a new place was palpable. (Even though we begged & pleaded for a nap to shake off the jet lag). I can still remember her saying, “We’re in LONDON! You can’t SLEEP when you’re in London!”

 Even though we moaned and groaned and complained when she did it, Mom insisted that we all have good grammar. I am a stickler for proper grammar, and I can thank Susanna for that. It is both a curse and a gift, believe me. She also gave me the gift of words … always making me look up big words in the Oxford Dictionary (you know the one that weighs about 50 pounds?) Susanna has always done the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, and I aspire to be like her. I can’t do Friday or Saturday though, and I solve it on the iPad. My how times have changed.

 I was recently sitting out on my back patio watching Buddy (my cat) watching a little bird. The music of “Peter and the Wolf” was playing in my mind. I had a flash of appreciation for my mom who introduced me to so many wonderful things, like classical music, ballet and opera. Yes, I sat bored to death (and often fell asleep) during “Swan Lake” but today I look back and am so thankful.

Mom taught me the value of a good book. I remember very early on, going to the book fair in Westport, Connecticut, at my “little red schoolhouse” Saugatuck Elementary School. At the book fair was a famous children’s author, Hardie Gramatky, of “Little Toot” fame. I still have my copy of “Little Toot on the Grand Canal” signed and illustrated for me by Mr. Gramatky. Later on I came to love the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and one at a time, Mom gave me each book in the series for birthdays and Christmases. When I was 11 years old, living in Brussels, I was in a fairly serious car accident and was hospitalized for a week. Mom brought me a copy of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” which I devoured to pass the time. I can’t thank her enough for my love of literature … even though there are still too many books out there to read, and not enough time.

Food… my mom introduced me to all kinds of unusual food choices. We are the only two in my family who adore foods of all types: Indian, Middle Eastern, Morroccan, you name it. I remember eating dried squid as a child in Japan, escargot as an 11-year old in Belgium, and caviar with chopped egg and onion in Singapore. I will pretty much eat anything put in front of me. You can only imagine my frustration when my kids would only eat macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets. Thanks mom for my international palate.

Mary Morris’ mother, Rosalie Zimberoff Morris (Dec. 29, 1912-Dec. 10, 2012).  In this picture she is about 24 years old.

Mary Morris’s mother gave her a passport:

“I didn’t want a passport. I didn’t even know what one was really. My summer would revolve around only these things: learning to touch type and spending every free afternoon at the beach and in the arms of the boy I loved. But my mother had other plans for me.”

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

The “If it can happen to Leon Klinghoffer” pillow.

When I was in college, in the 1980s, my roommates and friends would occasionally get care packages from home—chocolate-chip cookies, an Easter box, a scarf, earrings, a new coat, or whatever it may have been.  But my mother, who is deeply loving and irrepressibly creative, has an ironic sensibility (which she transferred to me in my tenderest youth) and is also a workaholic, so I never expected to receive a box of maternal Rice Krispie treats from her; and I never did.

Back then, she and my father were overwhelmed with responsibilities at home in Oklahoma: team-teaching a course at Oklahoma State University on the  United States and the Soviet Union, chauffeuring my younger brothers to their high school classes and practices, and struggling to make my tuition. Our long, roving, hilarious weekly phone calls were all I needed as proof of love.

But in my sophomore year, unheralded, a package slip arrived for me at Yale Station.  Going to the pick-up window, I found a brown cardboard box.  In it was a throw pillow, on which my mother (who sews, knits, cooks, and plays piano and violin) had embroidered a quote that had convulsed her from that autumn’s evening news.  In lavish colors, and in a highly ornamental script, it read, in full: “IF IT CAN HAPPEN TO LEON KLINGHOFFER IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE.” —MEMENTO MORI - TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS - OCT. 9, 1985.”

Many of you may not remember this tragic incident from the warmup days of the current, prolonged  “War on Terror,” but on October 7,1985, Palestinian hijackers took over a cruise ship called the Achille Lauro that was sailing outside of Alexandria.  The next day, one of the hostages, a wealthy wheelchair-bound man named Leon Klinghoffer, was shot by the hijackers, then pushed overboard. (One news report claimed he bit the thumb of one of his captors, but I am not sure that was true. Other reports said he was singled out because he was Jewish.) Reporting this event on the 9th, Tom Brokaw had delivered the line in his such a grave, rueful tone, that my mother felt it needed commemoration: in red blue and green embroidery thread. 

This relic is precious to me. It has traveled with me from dorm rooms to three different New York apartments, and is now faded, stained with paint marks, and slightly flattened from the attention of various cats. My friends who have never met my mother, look at that pillow, and feel they know her to the core. 

My mother and father moved out East in the 1990s with my brothers in tow, and now are retired, living in the Shenandoah Valley.  Though she’s been retired for almost a decade, Mama still routinely does all-nighters, feverishly painting basset hounds and small animals for Virginia art fairs, and writing a humor column for a regional paper. The remains tirelessly inventive, hounded by the desire to create. My father has been co-opted as her manager, which is kind of a full-time job. 

Last year, Mama and Papa visited me in New York, bringing my six-year-old nephew with them, to indoctrinate him in love of NYC.  Seeing how besmirched and pale the Klinghoffer pillow had become, Mama, I later realized, hatched a plan.  Five years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and she can no longer do embroidery—even though she painstakingly paints, hour after hour, in the sunny studio she and my father built for her (it’s  hexagonal, in loose imiitiation of the octagonal studio of the Russian painter Ilya Repin). Threading a needle is just too hard for her these days, given the motor skills inhibition caused by her disease.

But this spring, in Virginia, at Easter, Mama surprised me with another unexpected care package. In it I found  a newly embroidered version of the Klinghoffer pillow. On Etsy, she had found a craftswoman who could do what my mother no longer could, and give her gift a longer life. The woman could not transmit the whimsy of Mama’s lettering, but the words were brilliantly there, clean, bright and fully legible. 

Today, both pillows are on display on my battered sofa in my sunny living room. They still make visitors marvel, and they still make  me laugh, and shake my head at my mother’s dauntless energy, and capricious spirit.

Liesl Schillinger

Eleanor Clift with her mother, Inna Josine Jappen Roeloffs.

“I can’t remember exactly when I got her jewelry because there was no fanfare. But by the time she died at age 69 with her mind fogged from Alzheimer’s disease, I was grateful to have these tangible symbols of a heritage and a culture that Mom had feared would be lost in America.”

Eleanor Clift on the necklace her mother gave her.

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

Marge Piercy at age 7 in Rouge Park, Detroit, with father Robert Piercy and mother Bert Bunnin Piercy. Bert wrote on the back that she is wondering what life holds for her.

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