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What My Mother Gave Me

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Benedict opens her anthology on an upbeat note, with novelist and biographer Roxana Robinson's tribute to her generous, trusting mom. A polio survivor with an indomitable spirit, Robinson's mother "believed that children were driven by deep yearnings, and that those should, if possible, be satisfied." She indulged her daughter's "heart's desire" for a horse, buying her a red chestnut mare when she was 12 and trusting her to take care of it.

Ann Hood, whose most recent novel is "The Obituary Writer," recalls a gift she detested: an all-white pantsuit. It was an abomination for a girl who cringed at her mother's predilection for matching outfits and elaborate decorations for every holiday. Yet when Hood finally screwed up her nerve to say thanks but no thanks, her gratitude for her mother's gracious reaction is palpable. By acknowledging their differences, Hood comments, "she gave me permission to go into my own mismatched future. What a gift."

Not surprisingly, several essays focus on clothes. Cultural historian Margo Jefferson is grateful for her stylish mother's example in navigating fashion and teaching her to use it as "armor" to help shield herself from a sense of exclusion and inferiority as a black woman.

Charlotte Silver's mother, a famous restaurateur whom she profiled in her memoir, "Charlotte au Chocolat," dresses in a distinctive, flamboyant mix of tulle skirts, high heels, violet lipstick, and enormous Chanel sunglasses, "her badges of feminine armor against the world." Silver says that hand-me-downs – including lots of leopard prints, her mother's "favorite neutral" – make her feel empowered, protected, and close, "as though I were wearing my mother's skin."

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