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The Mighty Queens of Freeville
A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them
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First my husband told me he didn’t love me. Then he said he didn’t think he had ever really loved me. Then he left me with a baby to raise by myself. Amy, I don’t want to be a single mother. I told myself I’d never be divorced. And now here I am — exactly where I didn’t want to be!
My daughter and I live in London. We don’t really have any friends here. What should we do?
I have an idea.
Take your baby, get on a plane, and move back to your dinky hometown in upstate New York — the place you couldn’t wait to leave when you were young. Live with your sister in the back bedroom of her tiny bungalow. Cry for five weeks. Nestle in with your quirky family of hometown women — many of them single, like you. Drink lots of coffee and ask them what to do. Do your best to listen to their advice but don’t necessarily follow it.
Start to work in Washington, D.C. Start to date. Make friends. Fail up. Develop a career as a job doula. Teach nursery school and Sunday School.
Watch your daughter grow. When she’s a teenager, just when you’re both getting comfortable, uproot her and move to Chicago to take a job writing a nationally syndicated advice column.
Do your best to replace a legend. Date some more.
Love fiercely. Laugh with abandon. Grab your second chance — and your third, and your fourth.
Send your daughter to college. Cry for five more weeks.
Move back again to your dinky hometown and the women who helped raise you.
Find love, finally.
And take care.
Experience is, for me, the best teacher.
—CARL ROGERS, psychologist
Handsome is as handsome does.
—JANE DICKINSON, my mother
I NEVER UNDERSTOOD why writers were always thanking their agents, but now I do. Elyse Cheney helped me to find my voice. Without her help, encouragement, and representation, I would have wound up selling this book out of the trunk of my car at flea markets, along with a twelve-pack of tube socks.
Gretchen Young at Hyperion edited the book with grace, good humor, and Zen-like calm. I am so grateful. Hyperion reminds me of my hometown; it is a quirky community full of characters, and they all have my back. Ellen Archer leads by example, and I am honored to know her.
To anyone who has ever hired and paid me to do a job, I thank you—especially Jim Warren and Ann Marie Lipinski at the Chicago Tribune. I love being an advice columnist. If you hadn’t hired me, I’d also be peddling my opinion out of the trunk of my car at flea markets.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve had a home, professionally and personally, at National Public Radio. I’ve had the time of my life making radio.
Thank you to Jim Dicke, who supports the arts and artists through sustaining friendship.
For my sisters, Rachel and Anne. I look up to you both. My fear that you’ll smack me with a hairbrush has kept me off the streets.
I thank my mother, Jane, and my daughter, Emily. You are peas in a pod—indulgent, funny, and kind. You both helped me to write this book and I am so grateful.
And to Bruno Schickel. Thank you, Bruno, for my happy ending.
ONE DECEMBER DAY in the mid-1980s, I looked out the front window of my mother’s house and watched my soon-to-be husband walking up the road. He was carrying a newspaper and wearing a black chesterfield coat, leather gloves, and a fedora that had been custom blocked to fit his father’s head by a milliner at Wanamaker and Company, sometime in the 1950s. He had left the house an hour earlier hoping to buy a New York Times at the Park-it-Market in the village. I knew that the periodicals rack at our small store held only copies of our local paper, the Ithaca Journal, along with TV Guide, Guns & Ammo, and a periodical that I had never dared to open, the ominously titled Varmint Masters.
My mother came up beside me. We watched as this man, who had never purposely set foot off a sidewalk, delicately picked his way through the ice and snow on our freshly plowed driveway.
“Hmmmmmm,” she said. “He doesn’t look like he’s from around these parts.”
This was true. He was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but now he was in my neck of the woods, five hours north and a world away from Manhattan, in a place of pickup trucks and potbellied stoves and the occasional bathtub dumped on the lawn.
Later during our visit he asked my mother if there was anything that he could do for her. He was nice in that way. He knew how to behave. I’m not sure what he was really thinking at the time, but most likely his offer was one of those empty gestures that soon-to-be sons-in-law throw into the air like wedding confetti, hoping that they will briefly drift and swirl and blow quietly away.
My mother glanced around and then told him that if he wanted to, he could cut down a sapling that was growing in the front yard.
He climbed into his overcoat, pulled on his gloves, patted his hat into place, glanced in the mirror by the front door, and after a moment of reflection, took off his hat but decided to add a scarf. I ran out to the barn to retrieve the saw. I picked my way through the snow shovels, axes, rakes, hoes, and various other antique farm implements that were leftovers from our failed dairy farm, glanced at the old buckboard and carriage gathering dust in what used to be the stable, located the saw behind an old chest of drawers, and excitedly brought it to him.
Ten minutes later, he came back into the house, ruddy and triumphant, as if he had spent the afternoon splitting kindling and shoeing horses. “I love being in the country!” he exclaimed. Out in the yard, the sapling lay toppled on the ground, right where it had fallen. Next to it stood its mighty trunk—four inches in diameter and three feet high. Half of the tree was still sticking up out of the ground, like a lone fence post in search of a fence.
He said that he didn’t want to bend over.
Later, gloveless, hatless, and wearing my high school sweatshirt for protection against the bitter winter wind, I snuck out and sawed the trunk down to ground level.
In my family, the women tend to do the heavy lifting while the men—well, the men are nice and fine and they love us for a time. Then at some point, it seems that they tire of their indeterminate role in our lives, so they wage a campaign of passive resistance, and then they leave.
I come from a family of women. Nature played its part (my mother is the youngest of four daughters and I am the youngest of three), but so did the tidal outflow of men in our lives. In time, my soon-to-be husband became an ex-husband, leaving me with—yes—a daughter to raise. And it is this daughter, Emily, now eighteen, who one day looked around at her family of women and declared us to be the Mighty Queens of Freeville.
Our realm, the village of Freeville (pop. 458), isn’t much to look at. It’s located on the northern fringes of Appalachia, in the rural and worn-out landscape of upstate New York. It’s a town with one stop sign, anchored by a church, post office, elementary school, and gas station. There’s a little diner called Toads, which seems to go in and out of business roughly on the same schedule as the floods that bedevil the creek that runs behind the village. (Toads and Fall Creek both seem to jump their banks on a regular basis.)
My family has called Freeville home for over two hundred years. We’ve tilled and cultivated the land, tended chickens and Holsteins, built houses and barns and backyard sheds. Most significantly, my family has made more family, and that’s the main reason I continue to call this little place home. My mother, three aunts, two cousins, one of my sisters, three nieces, and a nephew all live in a tiny ten-house radius. My home offers one-stop shopping—family style. Though I’ve lived in New York City, London, Washington, DC, and now Chicago, for me, all roads lead back to my hometown.
My mother and two of my aunts raised their children alone. My two sisters, Rachel and Anne, were also single parents. When I got married, I deliberately tried to reverse the family’s terrible marital track record, but failed. Afterward, I did what I do best—and what I’ve been doing off and on through my adulthood.
I went home.
The women of my family taught me what family is about. They helped me to pick up the pieces when my life fell apart, and we reassembled them together into something new. They celebrated my slow recovery, witnessed my daughter’s growth and development, and championed my choices. The women in my life showed Emily and me in large and small ways that they would love us, no matter what. They abide.
Five years ago the Chicago Tribune announced that after a nationwide search they had chosen me to be “the next Ann Landers.” My hometown paper, the Ithaca Journal, ran a front-page story about it. The New York Times and Newsweek wondered who I was and how I would be able to fill Landers’s legendary shoes. Visits to the set of the Today show and CNN continued the query. Even Bill O’Reilly got into the act, bringing me onto his program in order to hector me about my family values.
In a town so intimate that people still talk about how gas station owner Bob Whyte once danced with Betty Grable at a USO show during World War II, making the front page of the Ithaca Journal is enough to catapult a person into the stratosphere of permanent local celebrity.
Now on my visits to Freeville, when I’m at the post office or at the diner, my hometown neighbors congratulate and kid me about my job. At the Freeville United Methodist Church, fellow congregants take up my column topics during Joys and Concerns, our public forum for prayer requests and blessings. When I’m doing my whites over at the Bright Day Laundromat, Joan, the owner, comments on my published opinions as she hands me my roll of quarters. During the summer, while I’m riding my bike down Main Street, cars pull over or honk and their drivers wave and yell, “Welcome home!”
But mostly when people see me, they ask the same question. They want to know how I know what I know. They want to know where my point of view comes from. I’m not a psychologist, therapist, or member of the clergy. I’ve never been the kind of person who has all the answers, though I do know where to get them. I’ve always been more likely to ask for counsel than to dole it out.
But at some point during the last five years, the balance tipped. My e-mail in-box now contains thousands of messages. My desk in Chicago is piled high with the last several days’ servings of postal mail. The envelopes, crowded and tumbling, threaten to take over. I will open each and every one of them—eventually. I’ve turned in over two thousand columns now. On the job I’ve seen five years’ worth of seasons come and go. I’ve fielded a basketful of queries from anxious brides and grooms, depressed fetishists, and long-distance lovers. I’ve communicated with kids, the elderly, baby boomers, and empty nesters.
The mail that pours in brings so many secrets, so many intimacies. In exchange for honoring me and trusting me by revealing their inner lives, my readers get my full attention, a lot of research and reporting, and a fair amount of quiet pondering. That’s one reason people write to me—they need someone to do some thinking on their behalf. They need someone to be on their side or to talk them off the ledge. They want someone to hear them and to recognize that life can be a struggle. I do. But research and reporting don’t answer the question of how I know what I know. That goes back to my family and this small town where I come from and to the fact that I—like most people actually—have had a life blessed with incident.
My family has been marked by our many losses. My brother, Charlie, has slipped from our lives, and I haven’t seen him in ten years. My father is a distant memory. He walked away from our family and a barn full of livestock in 1972, and aside from occasional sightings, he is as gone as a person could be. My sisters and I all have ex-husbands who have exited from our family’s life. We seem to be less than successful on many superficial levels. We don’t have money. We aren’t upwardly mobile. We aren’t naturally thin or beautiful. We don’t have advanced degrees, long-term career goals, or plans for retirement.
When talk about “family values” circles around and when politicians, religious leaders, and societal watchdogs trot out their examples of what a proper family is or should be, they’re never talking about us. We are the “broken” ones. We are deep into the second generation of divorce. We are single women raising children. We are working mothers with kids in day care. And yet, when I think about actual family values—not the idealized version, but the kind that families like mine demonstrate—I realize that this highly imperfect and complicated family is quite functional. If it isn’t perfect, then it is certainly good enough, and obviously very useful—certainly to me, since I make my living from drilling into the heart of other people’s problems.
So when people ask me how I know what I know or how I get to do what I do, I have the answer. I got here the hard way, by living a life and making my share of mistakes. I took the long way home, driving the back roads through marriage and divorce and raising a child on my own. But I got here with my family watching my back, with my hometown community influencing me and accepting my choices and enfolding me in their prickly embrace.
The Mighty Queens is the story of my family. Most especially, it is the story of my daughter, Emily, and me and of how we raised each other. In almost two decades of mothering her, I’ve made my share of mistakes. My daughter has watched me start and lose new careers and optimistically dab on mascara for yet another doomed blind date. She has caught me blowing fugitive cigarette smoke out the window and seen me wipe away my own tears with a paper towel while sitting, defeated, at the kitchen table. She has also witnessed the myriad and complicated joys of being in a family such as ours. And we taught each other how to have fun.
In my worst moments I fantasized about running from motherhood—but at the end of Emily’s childhood, when it came time to say good-bye to her as she left home for college, I realized that mothering her had been the making of me. I am the product of my own upbringing, living in the shadow of my father’s sudden departure during my childhood—but also witnessing my mother’s surprise late-life success. I watched my own mother prevail, and my daughter has watched me prevail too. Fortunately for us, Emily and I have grown up surrounded by the women who helped raise us.
My sisters and I get together now and then and go through our boxes of old photos—some are daguerreotypes and printed on glass or tin, some sepia-toned on crumbling paper—up through those taken with my mother’s old Kodak Brownie, which are date-stamped with tiny black lettering along the prints’ beveled edges.
There are photos of women wearing starchy Victorian blouses, bird-shaped hats, and lace-up boots; women with pinwheeling arms ice-skating on Fall Creek; women leaning against Chevy Impalas or pickup trucks, smoking cigarettes, with their arms flung around friends; women doing handstands on the lawn—or showing off their new babies, new shoes, or beloved house cats.
These are the women of my world—the Mighty Queens of Freeville—who have led small lives of great consequence in the tiny place that we call home.
Don’t Throw Your Ring in the Creek
Surviving the Breakup
ONE DAY I looked out my front window and saw two big moving vans parked outside my house, pointed in opposite directions. Inside the house, two separate crews sifted through our family belongings according to color-coded Post-it notes.
That’s when it dawned on me that I really was getting divorced.
Granted, the day my husband showed up at our marriage counseling session wheeling a suitcase, having just come in from a trip to Europe with his girlfriend, was a clue that our marriage was in trouble.
Other clues were when he told me that he no longer loved me, followed by him saying that he didn’t think that he had ever actually loved me. Followed further by comments he made about how after twelve years he had decided that we were too different and that we didn’t want the same things in life and that, by the way, though he liked certain members of my family, he didn’t like every member of my family. And how, since my father had left unceremoniously many years before, surely on some level I expected it to happen again?
These are the sort of conversational atrocities that stick with a person, and the thing about getting divorced is that you tend to spend a lot of time going over every single word that has ever been said pertaining to your relationship. Breaking up and getting together have that in common.
When I was first falling in love, I’d sit in the bathtub, slowly soaking, reviewing the events of the night before. What he said. What I said. His crinkly eyes. How I made him laugh. Did he say “I love you” or was it “I’m in love with you”? God, which was it? When I was falling in love, decoding the difference between those two statements was a full-time job.
When my marriage was ending, I’d sit in the tub quietly sobbing, hoping that I didn’t wake the baby and wondering if secondhand smoke would seep under the door and get into her baby lungs. I’d just taken up smoking again, because if I was going to get divorced, then I might as well be a smoking, blowsy divorcée, a Joan Crawford divorcée.
We lived in London at the time, or as my mother used to call it, “London, England.” Living in a foreign country while you are getting divorced must be worse than living in your home country while you are getting divorced. Living in London, with its alienating plumbing and bowlegged furniture, was the worst of all.
I wanted two things when I first learned that my marriage was ending. First, I wanted it not to end. And second, I wanted for others to share a complete and interior knowledge of my heartbreak, followed by demonstrable grief. While there might be tiny streets tucked away somewhere in London where this sort of behavior is both possible and tolerated, they remain like Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter novels—attended by witches and warlocks and mysteriously hidden from view for the rest of us.
Like most Americans who live in jumping-off overseas posts, my husband traveled a lot for work, and he was gone much of the time. I lived in London because he lived in London, but unlike him I didn’t have a job there. When I was asked what I did, which was infrequently, I said that I was a housewife. But I was less a housewife than a woman living on my own in a foreign country for no apparent reason.
We lived in a rented flat with rented furniture until I became pregnant and freaked out and then we bought (he bought) an apartment and furniture. And more furniture. And paintings. And rugs.
Shopping was my husband’s favorite sport. He frequented galleries and stores the way the other husbands I knew hit golf courses. Our place quickly filled with his purchases—items bought in souks and bazaars and galleries all over the hemisphere. Unfortunately his suitcase was more heavily used than our dining room table, which had once graced a farmhouse in France.
He would return from one of his many trips and I would catch him looking at the baby and me as if he were trying to place us. Had we met? Was it Vienna or the Ural mountains? Perhaps we had crossed the English Channel aboard the same hovercraft? He never learned the rhythm of our home. He didn’t remember that our baby, Emily, took her long nap in the morning or that she liked to swing with the other babies on those little swings at the park—the ones that look like little buckets.
The traveling and frequent absences became the most obvious reason for the death of our marriage, but I thought the real problem was that my husband didn’t know how to be in a family. He grew up in a tiny family that was silent and alien. His parents had gone through one of those ugly New York City divorces when he was little. He told me that when he was still in grade school, he and his older brother had been compelled to testify in court, each speaking for an opposing parent.
Having grown up on a failed dairy farm in rural poverty of the ugly, muddy sort, I envied his material polish and his Walter Pidgeonesque charm, some of which came naturally, supplemented by years in boarding school, and yet I felt sorry for him on the family score. He had one brother and only one cousin. He and his brother and their parents and stepparents floated in separate orbits, sometimes intersecting briefly around the holidays. When he was a boy, he would travel by cab on Christmas morning from his mother’s house in the East 60s to his father’s apartment twenty blocks away. Ever since learning this, I imagine New York City on Christmas morning as being full of taxis occupied by depressed shuttling children adhering to court-ordered holiday visitation.
My family is large and loud and abnormally weighted down by women. My mother and her three sisters all live in my tiny hometown, along with my two sisters, their children, and several cousins. He always said that he loved that about me—that I was part of a package overflowing with people who could populate his piddling world.
Though divorce runs through my clan like an aggressive chromosome, I had never been exposed to family ugliness of any sort, partly because my parents’ divorce happened after my father simply and suddenly walked away from our home. I never saw my parents argue before, during, or after their split. One advantage to actual abandonment is that it cuts down on marital discord. In order to fight with my father, my mother would have had to locate him first.
After my father left, my mother spent about a year telling her four adolescent children that everything was going to be OK, as we lost and lost and then lost some more. Even though he drove away in his pickup truck with only his clothes wadded up in a paper bag from the IGA, my father managed to take everything with him. It turned out that his life—and our little dairy farm—was leveraged to the hilt. Though my mother was able to hold on to our house, we lost everything else, first in a rush and then in a Chinese water torture trickle of receivership. Even our small herd of cows was repossessed.
It’s an old-fashioned notion to even try to maintain one’s dignity in the face of outrage, but I watched my mother do her best. Exercising her only marketable skill, she got a job as a typist in an office. She was forty-two and had been a full-time farm wife and mother for twenty-two years. At night she would come home from work and lie down on her bed still wearing her coat, holding her purse across her stomach.
“I just need twenty minutes,” she would say. Then she would hoist herself up, walk into the kitchen, and start cooking supper. After years of preparing large meals featuring homegrown produce and homemade breads and preserves—always followed by a baked dessert—my mother stepped down to hot dogs served on buns pulled from plastic sleeves, accompanied by potato chips.
My father had limited interest in his children, so there was no question of custody. My mother never pursued him for any sort of financial support—and he didn’t offer it.
She simply prevailed. Prevailing is underrated. People have the idea that unless they win, they lose. But sometimes surviving is enough. My mother knew this, and I learned it by watching her.
Before he left, my husband was grouchy for about a week. He had always been extraordinarily nice to me, so I jumped through hoops of decreasing circumference trying to get him to be nice again. But then he picked a fight with me about Benazir Bhutto—who in the late 1980s was Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister—and I knew that we had turned a corner and wandered into the volatile Middle East of our marriage. Granted, in general I think that looking to Pakistan for common ground in a relationship is probably a sign it is ending. The State Department should be called. Diplomats should get involved. I realized that my husband was amassing troops along his border. It would only be a matter of time before a trigger-happy infantryman fired the first shot that would start the war.
Despite my efforts, the week before he left me, my husband drifted into a slumber state. He went to bed very early and then slept until noon each day. Emily was going through a phase of waking up at 5 A.M., and I would get up with her, get breakfast, drink two pots of coffee, play with her in her room, put her down for her nap, get her up again, take her out for a walk, and then wander around, looking at our tasteful apartment until he finally emerged from our bedroom.
On the day he said he was leaving, it was 2 P.M. and he had just come out of the shower. I got mad at him. I told him that I had lived an entire lifetime while he slept and bathed and carefully groomed himself. I said that I was worried about him because he seemed depressed. (Though honestly, he looked great. He had recently lost weight and was working out at a fancy gym on Fulham Road.)
Then he said that he was leaving. At first I thought he meant he was leaving the house. Then I realized he was leaving the marriage.
After a full day and night of crying interrupted by sobbing, I called my friend Betsy—the one friend I had in London—and told her that my husband was leaving. She didn’t believe me. It is fairly awful to have to assure someone that one of the worst things you can think of happening has actually happened. People who wish you well can’t believe your bad news any easier than you can. Betsy instantly loathed my husband, who she had always liked and admired, and called him bad words because I couldn’t.
I learned early on in my divorcing process that I could not say bad words pertaining to my husband. Yesterday I had loved him deeply. Today when I woke up I still loved him deeply until I remembered that he was leaving me. Then I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I just wanted to stay married. Marriage was an assumption I had made about my life and I couldn’t simply undo it. Even though I had had a short career as a journalist, marriage and motherhood were the jobs I thought I would do best. Marriage and motherhood were my life’s work.
- On Sale
- Feb 3, 2009
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Books