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What My Mother Gave Me

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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."

Coming at maternally provided security from another angle, Joyce Carol Oates declares, "There is nothing so comforting as wearing clothes your mother has sewn or knitted for you." She notes that many of her book jacket photos were taken in blouses, dresses, and jackets made by her mother. Poet laureate Rita Dove recalls how, in letting her paint her nails "my own way" – in the stripes and polka dots she still favors – her mother helped her become her own person.

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