In 'Strangers Tend To Tell Me Things,' An Advice Columnist Comes Home

Mar 11, 2017
Originally published on March 11, 2017 8:32 am

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."


Interview Highlights

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Amy Dickinson says she grew up in a town of leavers and stayers - Freeville, N.Y. - but she may be the only person to leave then return. The author of the Ask Amy advice column that appears in newspapers across the country and regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! has written a memoir of marriage, parenthood, divorce, single parenthood, being on your own, moving back, saying goodbye, saying hello and starting over. Maybe I just should have said life. Her new memoir - "Strangers Tend To Tell Me Things: A Memoir Of Love, Loss, And Coming Home." And Amy Dickinson joins us from Ithaca, N.Y. Amy, thanks so much for being with us.

AMY DICKINSON: Oh, thank you, Scott.

SIMON: So what's a sophisticated urbanite like you doing in Freeville, N.Y.?

DICKINSON: Oh, not much, you know. I mean, just today I was at the Queen Diner with my aunts because that's what we do once a week. We meet at the diner. You know, I live in my hometown. It's - I'm right back where I started surrounded by people I went to high school with. And I don't know if I could have done this at another phase in my life, but it just feels right.

SIMON: It's interesting reading this book. You learned a lot from the example of both of your parents, but they were substantially different lessons.

DICKINSON: (Laughter) Right. I was very fortunate to have been raised by my mother, Jane, who was a 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. And he just - you know, I think of him now as, like, an old restless cowboy.

SIMON: That's being very kind.

DICKINSON: It is being kind (laughter) actually.

SIMON: With the advantage of a certain amount of hindsight now, did that make love more difficult for you?

DICKINSON: Oh, yeah, definitely. It's like he was this linchpin I measured all other men against, and I was often overcorrecting, may I say. So (laughter) yeah, I veered back and forth. My first husband very, very, very unlike - as unlike my father as I could find, but that also meant that he and I didn't have a lot in common.

SIMON: So you get back home where you started in Freeville, and you meet all over again a guy named Bruno.

DICKINSON: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, I've known him most of my life. I think we met when I was 12. Bruno has never lived any more than five miles away from where he was born. And I came home. 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, call Bruno. And I finally called Bruno, and he came to my house and he opened the door - it was fall. And, Scott, it was just - you know that scene in "The Quiet Man" when John Wayne opens the door to Maureen O'Hara's little cottage? And he...

SIMON: Yeah, hello, Mary Kate.

DICKINSON: (Laughter) Mary Kate Danaher.

SIMON: Yeah.

DICKINSON: He filled the door frame and these leaves were kicked up behind him. And it was this incredibly dramatic moment in my life when Bruno blew in, you know, in my door. Yeah, and we fell - we just fell in love immediately.

SIMON: In the course of this book, your mother declines and then dies. And that's very moving the way you trace that in the book. You don't like this term that we've heard so much over the past generation - closure.

DICKINSON: Yeah, really - I mean, do you have it (laughter)?

SIMON: No, no, no, I know exactly what you mean. You don't close it. You go on.

DICKINSON: Right. If you love someone fiercely, you're not going to close the book on that. And honestly, I felt that the whole closure concept was really a - you know, just thinking that I might get closure I think 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. And I just had no idea that the loss would have such magnitude for me. It was very, very tough.

SIMON: You know what I've concluded, Amy? And I hope our children don't hear this (laughter). You don't really grow up until you lose your parents.

DICKINSON: It certainly puts you in a whole other life phase. It's incredibly profound, and the process - and I know you were with your mother and I was with my mother. And to me, it felt - it really did feel analogous to the birth process, this really potent, very powerful life process. And I was glad that I was there.

SIMON: I finished the book and then turned back to the dedication. (Reading) This book is dedicated a memory of my mother, Jane Genung Dickinson, who taught me that life is a memory.

Not a cabaret?

(LAUGHTER)

DICKINSON: Not quite.

SIMON: Why...

DICKINSON: Oh, but I wish, you know?

SIMON: Yeah, but why a memory?

DICKINSON: Well, 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. I liked it.

SIMON: Do other people's problems ever - do you carry them home?

DICKINSON: I do. You know, when I run a letter in my column, for instance, about someone who has been sexually assaulted and is suffering or has been abused, say, 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. You know, I feel very, very connected to the people who write to me. And yeah, I have to work hard sometimes not to take on the weight of some of this stuff.

SIMON: Amy Dickinson - her new book - "Strangers Tend To Tell Me Things: A Memoir Of Love, Loss, And Coming Home." Thanks so much for being with us.

DICKINSON: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.