MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I share some thoughts in my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay. Tomorrow's a tough day for me and my family and I'm going to tell you a little bit more about that in a few minutes.
But, first, Mother's Day is this Sunday and I bet a lot of people have been racking their brains trying to think of just the right thing to show love and appreciation for Mom, but recently, a group of distinguished women flipped that script and spent some time thinking about the most important and profound gifts their mothers gave to them. Their essays have been collected in a new book. It's titled "What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts that Mattered Most."
We're joined now by two of the contributors. Writer Elizabeth Benedict both wrote an essay and edited the collection. Thank you for joining us.
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: Thank you.
MARTIN: We're also joined by Cecilia Munoz. She is a Latina activist. She's also a winner of a so-called MacArthur Genius Grant. She contributed another of the 31 essays and she's here with us, also. Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.
CECILIA MUNOZ: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Elizabeth and Cecilia, I hope at least one of you isn't a crier because I don't know how we're going to get through this conversation without crying. These are some extremely moving stories, so hopefully, somebody's going to stand tough here.
Elizabeth, I think you said in the book that it came out of the intense feelings that you had about a scarf that your mother gave you.
BENEDICT: Yes, that's true. And, actually, I'm wearing the scarf right now and it's a black scarf with a beautiful embroidery - pastel embroidery - and it was the last gift my mother ever gave me. She bought it at the assisted living facility where she lived. And, as soon as I began wearing it, people started commenting on how beautiful it was. And after she died, I wore it all the time in the winter, and I was literally confused by how I could feel this attachment to the scarf and having felt so much distance from my mother. And I was obsessed with it, and I thought about it often; never spoke a word to anyone, because I didn't have the words.
And, one day, I said to myself, I wonder if other women have a gift from their mothers that means as much to them and that opens up the relationship the way this scarf does for me.
MARTIN: So, with that, do you mind reading a little bit from your essay?
BENEDICT: Sure. (Reading) The scarf didn't literally glitter, but it had a glittering effect, or so it felt to me. It caught people's attention often for many months every year, for the next three years, in which my mother declined and then declined precipitously. She was 10 years younger than her sister, but she died a year before. It is painful to remember the years after she gave me the scarf. Her journey from the assisted living building to the nursing home, from the floor of the OK residents to the floor of the decidedly not OK.
I spent a lot of time visiting her and my aunt, who remained on the OK floor until she died. I can't bear to remember the actual names of the floors, the conditions they referred to.
MARTIN: Beautiful and the scarf is also beautiful...
BENEDICT: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...if you don't mind my saying that.
BENEDICT: Thank you.
MARTIN: Cecilia Munoz, what about you? What did you want to participate in this collection and write this essay?
MUNOZ: Well, I lost my mom about five years ago and it felt like a wonderful opportunity, not just to pay tribute to her, but also to reflect on what she gave to me, what she gave to us. In my case, I come from one of those big, sprawling immigrant families and my mother was very much at the center of it.
It was a great opportunity to reflect on sort of what mattered most, so it was a real gift to me to be able to think about it and a tribute to my mom.
MARTIN: Your essay is lovely because I think people who will know your name will know you as kind of a tough advocate for the people, things that you believe in. You know, you've been in the public sphere for a number of years working in a variety of different positions and, of course, as we mentioned, you're a winner of this very prestigious award and you wrote about something that I think a lot of people have in their kitchens, but it's not something that's particularly fancy. It is a...
MUNOZ: A wok.
MARTIN: A wok. Will you give us a little bit of your essay?
MUNOZ: Sure. (Reading) My mother spent months looking for the right wok for me. It had to be lightweight because of my carpal tunnel syndrome and it had to be well-made because my mother was a connoisseur of kitchen tools, not to mention a world-class cook.
I don't know if the fact that she was so sick made her search take longer. The wok was the last birthday present she gave me before she died in 2008 after 18 years with cancer. The care she took in finding it is one of the reasons it's so special to me, one of many reasons.
MARTIN: Did you know right away what you wanted to write about? Did you know right away you were going to write about the wok?
MUNOZ: I knew right away it would have to be something from my kitchen, because we spent so much time together in the kitchen and so much of our relationship and her relationships with all of us had to do with cooking and food and meals and it didn't take me long to arrive at the wok, and it was the last birthday present she gave me.
MARTIN: Many of the women, as we mentioned, who are collected here are very accomplished in the professional and public realm. But a lot of the things that they're writing about are very personal things, very much associated with kind of the home. I do want to mention that our beloved colleague Susan Stamberg is also represented in the collection, but I'm going to keep her contribution a little bit secret so that people can discover it. And I'm wondering if people are surprised to find out that a wok means that much to you.
MUNOZ: People who know my mother aren't, but maybe people in other aspects of my life might be. And it's a little bit of a meditation on what I think a lot of women, certainly of our generation, go through, which is that my mother was this superb homemaker and we lived in a quite lovely home that she took great care decorating and had spectacular meals every day. They felt like events; they weren't just meals. And, you know, for the next generation, that was a pretty tough act to follow. So the essay is also a little bit of a meditation on - that she gave me that, but the wok is a little bit of a way in which she also was showing that she accepted that my life was different and that it was OK.
MARTIN: Elizabeth, how did you decide what kinds of stories that you wanted to include, what kinds of voices you wanted to include in this collection? And I do want to mention that there are a variety of experiences represented here, a wide variety of experiences and relationships that people had with their mothers, some of them quite fraught.
BENEDICT: Yes, indeed. I started with the idea that I wanted people to write about an object. And if I had said to all these people, write me an essay about your mother, I think I wouldn't have gotten anything, because people would've freaked out. But I think being able to focus on one object and tell the sort of beginning and middle and end of that object and how it radiates and reverberates, really allows people to get to the core of the relationship.
BENEDICT: I wanted, of course, all the people to be very accomplished, all the women to be very accomplished in their fields, and most of them are writers. They are poets, journalists, and fiction writers, but I wanted them all to be accomplished essayists as well. And I wanted a real range of experience so this really felt like the world that we live in.
MARTIN: There have been times when I've asked people to reflect on an experience and they just can't do it; it's just too raw. And I wondered if there's anyone whom you approached who just said I just can't do it.
BENEDICT: There was one woman whose mother was sick at the time. I think she was just a little too close to those feelings, which is exactly what you're saying. And there was another woman who had had such a difficult relationship with her mother and her mother was alive and I think she felt she couldn't really be candid about it.
MARTIN: Did you see any through-line as these essays came in, that bound them all together in some way, other than that you had asked?
BENEDICT: Sure. I come to this from having had a mother who had a very hard life and was very unhappy and I had to sort of navigate and negotiate whether I wanted to be unhappy like her or happy and leave her behind, if you will. But I was very pleasantly surprised and happy to see that a lot of women had happy mothers. But even when people had very happy mothers, there was still so much real serious, interesting, complicated emotion even in all the happiness. That was the through-line. And even though that seems self-evident: of course, you're going to have a lot of feelings about your mother - there was something profound about it, to be - in that it was repeated in essay after essay.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the book "What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most." Our guest is editor, Elizabeth Benedict; she also contributed one of the essays. Also with us, activist Cecelia Munoz, who contributed another.
Cecilia, was there any other essay that - I know this is such a terrible question, but in addition to your own, was there any other essay that really stood out for you?
MUNOZ: Well, I was taken by several of them. And I guess when you come to this book, when you think what it's about, it is easy to assume that it's going to be just a sentimental book. And while the sentiment is really very deep, as Elizabeth says, it's also really quite a complex book. I mean, the range of experience that's reflected in this book is really quite vast and some of the essays are really very sad. Some of them are, read more like tributes. I feel like mine is a little bit of a tribute to my mom, that's how I intended it. But there's also, you know, elements of it that reflect on things she was sad about in her life or things that she wished she had done that she didn't do.
MARTIN: Well, you talk about that. I wanted to talk about that for a minute, the fact that your parents were immigrants from Bolivia; had not intended to stay here, had intended to just come, finish their education - your dad - and then go right back...
MARTIN: ...and never did. But also, the fact that you thought, you know, your mom was very smart and didn't really get a chance to achieve a lot of formal education and was still really successful...
MARTIN: ...selling cosmetics.
MARTIN: You're vague about who she was selling cosmetics for, but I have a guess. But you pointed out that she was really good at it.
MUNOZ: She was really good at it. It's a company that doesn't exist anymore. But she, my mother was terrific at everything she tried to do and worked very hard at it. It's funny because we didn't see her as a working woman at the time because this was like one of those companies where you do makeup parties, essentially. So she would go off and do that in the evenings and we would help her pack bags to deliver. But - she was terrific at it, but she designed it so that she could also be there to take me to music lessons and take my brothers to debate practice and, you know, be a traditional mom in the same way she managed to do all of that. And now that I struggle with a more traditional and quite intense job, and raising kids, I understand things like why she was washing the kitchen floor at 11 o'clock at night or doing loads of laundry at six in the morning. I do the same thing.
MARTIN: Hmm. Elizabeth, you know, it's interesting because your book comes at a time when there's a lot of talk about women and their presence in the workforce and the paid workforce, and whether women are making enough progress and, you know, all this leaning in and what role that, you know, kids are supposed to play at all this. And I'm just wondering if - and you also write about, in your essay, that your own - do you mind? I don't know if it was painful or not - it felt painful and complex - decision yourself about whether you wanted to raise your own children.
MARTIN: So I'll leave people to read what you have to say about that yourself. But do you think there's any message here, any wisdom here that people can draw from that? Or do you think there's some part of the debate that people can get from this book?
BENEDICT: One of the most interesting things here is how modest many of these gifts are, how modest most of them are. They are not diamond rings and cars and houses. And I think the message is really about relationships. So one of the gifts, say, is the wok from Cecilia's mother. Another gift is a family photograph. Another gift is a drawing that a mother made that she kept on her door when she was sick. So these are not gifts that have a lot of financial value, but the value of the gifts accrues over time. The value comes from the relationships themselves and what - how people process the relationships and how people move through their lives with their mothers in life and in memory.
BENEDICT: So as far as, you know, larger issues, I think that if you want to talk about commerce, you don't have to get extravagant gifts for people. Those may not be the ones that matter most, but the spirit in which you give it and everything that comes before and after, are what people remember. So if you're going to be an absent parent but just buy your child fabulous gifts, that may not work out as well in the long run as being present more - however you can do that - and getting more intimate gifts and getting gifts that have sort of emotional value rather than monetary value.
MARTIN: Hmm. Cecilia, before we let you go, and I don't want to spoil anything, but do you have any special wishes for Mother's Day that we can pass along?
MUNOZ: Well, in the spirit of, sort of, some of the lessons from the book, I think that at least for me - at this time, I'm looking at being an empty nester in a few months; I have two daughters and a second one will be going off quite far to college. So for me, my greatest wish for myself - but for other moms in my life - is time, especially with the people you love.
MARTIN: Cecilia Munoz is a contributor to the book "What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most." She's a longtime activist on issues around immigration and other issues. She's also a MacArthur Genius Grant Fellowship Award winner. Elizabeth Benedict is editor of "What My Mother Gave Me," as well as a contributor. She's also written five novels, one of them a National Book Award finalist, and she edited the anthology "Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives." They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MUNOZ: Thank you.
BENEDICT: Thank you having me.
MARTIN: If you want to see photos of some of the gifts mentioned in the book, and even share your own story and photo, we'll have a link on our website with more information. Just go to npr.org/tellmemore.
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