Asking Ask Amy About Her New Memoir on Love and Loss: Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things
Ask Amy advice columnist Amy Dickinson’s wonderfully wise and witty new book is Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home. It was a very great pleasure to get a chance to ask her about it.
You have as many homes as pairs of shoes: four of each. What does that tell us about you?
Honestly, I think this tells people that I am a homebody, in every sense of the word. And — I do actually have more than four pair of shoes, but not many more. But basically my surplus of houses has to do with how I acquired them — through family, through inheritance, through marriage, and through relocation because of work. I live (most of the time) in the small village of Freeville, NY where I was born, and where my family has lived since 1790. In small, isolated places, house and property tend to flow through families, passing back and forth. For instance, my house on Main Street in Freeville was once owned by my grandparents — my great aunt Jane lived there when I was a child. Then, 20 years ago, I bought this house. Now, although I still own it, my cousin lives there. So that house has basically been passed back and forth within our family since probably 1940. My other little house in Freeville was passed down to me after my mother’s death. I use it as an office and as a sweet, quiet space. I wrote much of my memoir in that house. My husband Bruno and I live together on a farm about 5 miles outside the village. And I own an apartment in Chicago, which I am reluctantly putting on the market.
You say that coming from a tiny place makes you feel “known.” That can be comforting or it can be claustrophobic. What do you like best about it and what, if anything, creates problems for you?
I am definitely a known quantity, at home and elsewhere. People tend to recognize me from the headshot that floats over my newspaper column in 150 papers across the country. This is mainly a pure pleasure, by the way. But it can be isolating, too. In my hometown, I feel very nourished and protected by my relationships, which all extend way back to childhood. It is nice for me to be around people who knew my parents and grandparents. The only challenge it ever brings to me is when people basically lay their problems at my feet and challenge me to solve them, or when strangers want to insert me into issues that I know should be handled personally and privately. Strangers really do tell me things!
How exactly do you fall in love with an elbow?
My husband Bruno and I crash-landed into a very passionate love story late in life. I was 48 years old; I had just left Chicago and moved back to my tiny hometown to be near my mother at the end of her life. I had been single for almost 20 years, and I had very much given up on finding a partner (I hadn’t tried that hard to start with, frankly). Connecting with Bruno was really visceral for me. I had known him since childhood — we grew up on neighboring dairy farms — and had consulted with him to renovate my house (he is a very talented builder). Before I confessed my feelings to him, I was at a large holiday party at his mother’s farm. Bruno has 12 siblings, so every gathering is huge. Dozens of people were swirling around, and at one point, I looked into the adjoining room. I was scanning the room for him, looking through the crowd, and suddenly spied his elbow. And I thought, “Oh no — I’m in love with that elbow. What am I going to do…?”
You write, “Small everyday graces make the bad things bearable.” How have you tried to build grace into your day?
I love this question. During my childhood, after my father abandoned our family, my mother struggled to make ends meet. But my mother Jane excelled at finding the humor in situations. Every awful thing that happened was eventually turned into a wry story. She also always kept a beautiful home. I mean, we lived in a drafty, falling-down farmhouse. But it was full of beautiful old things, always filled with fresh flowers (during our short growing season), always tidy and lovely. I’m like my mother in that way. I like pretty things. I love flowers and plants and growing things. During tough times I’ll take a drive and look at the landscape. I’ll dig in my garden. I will let a pretty sky make my day. Choir practice makes me happy.
It’s a way of calibrating my experience in order to be open to common things, to be reminded that we are surrounded by grace (a good cup of coffee, a smile from the bus driver, a sweet memory). Grief and depression after my mother’s death robbed me of this perspective. And I knew I was feeling better once I was able to let a little beauty back in.
What was it like to record the audio version of the book? Was it a different experience of reliving your stories than writing?
Narrating your own work is a singular experience. For me, recording the audio version of my book was a profound way of being IN the story. The producer, audio engineer and I all cried during the three-day recording session. My story contains many painful aspects, but also a lot of joy. It was exhilarating to read and relive it.
Did you and your mother and aunts really diagram sentences for fun?
Yes. I come from a family of word nerds. Mainly we were testing to see if we remembered how to do it. We did.
You and your husband had an unusual but in some ways old-fashioned courtship. From that experience and the experience of reading thousands of letters about dating or whatever it is that passes for dating these days, what have we lost?
Mainly, what we have lost is the luxury of time. I had always conducted my relationships in break-neck fashion; acting on physical attraction quickly. I think that if you are sexual with someone quickly, you are creating an intimacy with that person that sort of bonds you. But — you haven’t figured out yet if you should be bonded to this person.
Bruno and I decided to wait — to get to know one another personally and intimately before being sexually intimate. We had five adolescent daughters when we first got together. We wanted to demonstrate to them (and to ourselves) a true courtship. We decided to act on Bruno’s suggestion — early on — to “do everything differently this time.”
Is there really such a thing as Dairy Day in your town or did you make it up out of our Norman Rockwell/Gilmore Girls fantasies?
Yes, we do have Dairy Day. The second Saturday in June, we have a parade featuring homemade floats celebrating Holsteins, followed by rag tag marching bands, little girls twirling batons, fire trucks from surrounding towns, and the county Dairy Princess and her court of dairy maidens riding down Main Street on a hay wagon. Then we gather at the village park and listen to the high school jazz band, and there are milking contests, and church-sponsored cake wheels, and quilts and pies to buy.
But it is not Stars Hollow. And it is not Norman Rockwell. I live in a place with a lot of poverty. We are not attractive extras filling in an idealized picture of what small town life should be. Most of us are lumpy and tired. Dairy Day, for me, is one of those “everyday graces.” I absolutely love it.
You wrote about one of your two most viral columns, about the father who did not want his son to be gay. What was the other?
Basically, both viral columns were examples of me sort of telling someone off. People love that, but I don’t particularly enjoy doing it.
Based on the letters you receive, why do weddings drive everyone crazy?
I think we all overlay our own fantasies onto weddings. But any time you bring two unrelated clans together, challenges mount. People tend to focus on the material aspects of weddings, rather than deal with the personal challenge of actual living and breathing people. Weddings are too high stakes. Brides and grooms all want the day to be “perfect.” But a day can’t be perfect that has other people in it. Because people are messy. Add alcohol, and honestly a wedding is sort of a perfect recipe for potential disaster.
The chapters about your mother’s illness and death and your grief in losing her are very moving. What would you say to comfort someone dealing with the loss of a parent?
I’m not sure I say anything in particular. But — especially after experiencing the depression and isolation of grief in my own life — I have gotten good at reaching out. I am a giver of hugs. I know to say, “I’m so sorry.” I know to say, “There are no words.” I don’t tell people about my own experience unless they ask. I don’t tell people that what happened was “God’s will.” I don’t tell them that it was for the best. If I knew their loved one, I will make sure to share a good memory of the person. I try to be present so they can tell their own story if they want to. Bruno’s advice to me and other family members after a tragic death in our family was to lay his giant hands on our shoulders and say, “Please — be gentle with yourself.” Grief can make you brittle and angry. It can hollow you out. Gentleness is called for.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 5, 2017.