In 'Strangers Tend To Tell Me Things,' An Advice Columnist Comes Home
Amy Dickinson says her hometown of Freeville, N.Y, is mostly a town of leavers and stayers — and she managed to be both. Dickinson went away to college and lived in Chicago, New York, London and Washington, D.C. Eventually, as her mother was nearing the end of her life, Dickinson returned home.
Dickinson is the author of the syndicated Ask Amy advice column and is a regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! Her new memoir, Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things, chronicles marriage, parenthood, divorce, single-parenthood, being on your own, moving back, saying goodbye, saying hello and starting over.
"I'm right back where I started, surrounded by people I went to high school with," Dickinson says. "I don't know if I could have done this at another phase in my life, but it just feels right."
On the influence of her mother and father
I was very fortunate to have been raised by my mother, Jane, who was really just a great parent — she was fun, she was lively and she really seemed to enjoy being a mother. My father, on the other hand, old Buck, was like a world class abandoner. He left us, he left subsequent families, he left women, he left people in his wake. I think of him now as like an old restless cowboy ... [which] is being kind.
On how her relationship with her father influenced her relationships later in life
It's like he was this lynchpin I measured all other men against and I was often over- correcting. ... I veered back and forth. My very first husband ... [was] as unlike my father as I could find, but that also meant that he and I didn't have a lot in common.
On her current husband
I've known him most of my life. I think we met when I was 12. Bruno has never lived any more than 5 miles away from where he was born. ... He is a very well-known local builder and I came home and I wanted to renovate my little house and everybody said: Oh, you should call Bruno ... and I finally called Bruno and he came to my house and he opened the door – it was fall. ... You know that scene in The Quiet Man when John Wayne opens the door to Maureen O'Hara's little cottage ... he filled the doorframe. And these leaves were kicked up behind him. And it was this incredibly dramatic moment in my life when Bruno blew in my door. We just fell in love immediately.
On her mother's death, and not believing in "closure"
If you love someone fiercely, you're not going to close the book on that. Honestly, I felt that the whole closure concept ... delayed my healing from this loss. My mother was frail. She suffered. I was with her. I helped to take care of her. No one could have been more prepared for someone's death than I was. I just had no idea that the loss would have such magnitude for me. It was very, very tough. ...
[Being present for the death of a parent] puts you in a whole other life phase. It's incredibly profound ... it really did feel analogous to the birth process, like this really potent, very powerful life process. I was glad that I was there.
On her mother, who always said "life is a memory"
She told me once that she wanted that on her tombstone. My mother had a very dreamy, introspective quality and I think she always lived in her head to a certain extent. And I loved that about her. We were very different in that regard, but I always really treasured that about her — the idea that there was a lot going on that she wasn't necessarily revealing.
On being affected by the letters she receives
When I run a letter in my column, for instance, about someone who has been sexually assaulted and is suffering, or has been abused by a parent, I will then hear from dozens — sometimes over 100 — other people who have had a similar experience. And the magnitude of that will really, really weigh me down sometimes. And yet, that's exactly what this column is all about — it's just about our commonality. I feel very, very connected to the people who write to me.
Radio producer Oliver Dearden and web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.
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