'Mighty Queens' Dickinson's secret weapons

By Rita Papazian
Posted: 02/13/2009

No one was more surprised than Amy Dickinson when toward the end of her talk, before at audience of National Public Radio member station WSHU listeners, the nationally syndicated advice columnist's voice cracked and she paused to get control of her emotions. 

What stopped the writer of "Ask Amy" and a regular on NPR's game show, "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me!" was the dollop of praise she had just begun to give to "The Mighty Queens" of her hometown of Freeville, N.Y., population 458.

The audience had come to Sacred Heart University Sunday afternoon to learn about these "queens," who became the inspiration for Dickinson's book, aptly titled, "The Mighty Queens of Freeville," a memoir about a mother, a daughter and the town that raised them.

Dickinson's talk is part of WSHU's lecture series, "Join the Conversation," which puts noted speakers together with public radio listeners, for engaging, thought-provoking discussions.

The "mighty queens" is a term affectionately applied to Dickinson's "family of women," who have helped raise her and continue to support her. She describes these women as her "secret weapon." Her mother is the youngest of four daughters; Dickinson is the youngest of three daughters and the mother of one daughter, Emily, now 18. This teen penned the name for the family because as the author noted in her memoir, "nature played its part" along with "the tidal outflow of men in our lives," including Dickinson's own husband who left her when their daughter was a toddler.

Dickinson apologized to her audience for her overt emotion as she exclaimed she did not know what had gotten over her as she cited tribute to her mother, aunts, sisters, daughters, nieces and cousins.

In ending her talk, Dickinson said she had thought about all that the "queens had done for me and what they had taught me." The queens, who have "led small lives of great consequence in the tiny place we call home," have been witnesses to her life. Now more than ever, with the country going through the economic downturn, the author said, people need people like her own "queens" to be there for them and to support each other.

In prepared promotional materials, Dickinson states: "I think a lot of us have Mighty Queens in our lives these are the women who prop us up, give us an occasional dose of reality when we need it, talk over our choices in curtains, diets, and men, teach us how to roll out a pie crust or angle for a promotion, and hand us a Kleenex when we cry."

When she concluded her talk, she told her audience to "go home and call your mother." Even on a Sunday, Dickinson was still doling out advice and her audience loved it.

Phil Perschbacher of Cheshire, an engineer with Sikorsky, and his wife Pam Golden, a therapist, read Dickinson's advice column, "Ask Amy" daily in the Hartford Courant and then discuss the advice. Perschbacher finds her columns entertaining and informative and at times, he said, "you just have to laugh at them." But, others, he noted are really emotional and he finds the columnist's answers 'interesting. He had been a fan of Dickinson's predecessor, Ann Landers, who died in 2002. He praised Dickinson's frankness in her columns, which appear in more than 150 newspapers nationwide and are read by more than 22 million readers. To date, she has written more than 2,000 columns in which she draws from her research and her small-town values growing up in Freeville in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is a town that people go through to get where they are going, she said.

Dickinson grew up on a failed dairy farm. He father left the family and eventually married five times. She left town to attend college, and met her husband, who became a network news correspondent. During her marriage, she eventually would lose track of where in the world he was and began to refer to him as "Johnny Assignment." When he left her for another woman, Dickinson packed up her belongings and daughter and moved from Washington, D.C., where they had been living, to Freeville in a little house on Main Street where all the Queens of Freeville lived within 10 houses of each other.

"The marriage," she said, "had a shelf life of a wheel of brie."

Each Wednesday morning she and the queens would gather for breakfast at the local diner where the aunts made sure they each received separate checks and individually pile up their tip in coins next to their plate.

In her book, as well as during her talk, Dickinson shared a surprise moment in her life when after 17 years of being a single parent and despite the fact that a friend told her, "Get out there! You'll never meet a guy in your living room!" Dickinson did indeed meet a man, a local builder whom she invited to her house to discuss a renovation. They had been childhood friends and had lost touch. With both divorced, and yes, as fate would have it, they fell in love and married last summer.

While her agent had urged Dickinson to write "a giant advice book," the columnist, who in the past had also written a parenting column for Time magazine and had been a network news producer, found it difficult to think about writing an advice book after spending her days writing an advice column. Instead, she began thinking about a memoir. Yet, she pondered its success given, "the age of the edgy memoir." She questioned her judgment. "Who's going to read this story where nothing's happening?"

That may very well be the point.

"The Mighty Queens of Freeville" is, as it turns out, "a celebration of the ordinary life," Dickinson said. "It's the coming together in the community. It wasn't my intention; but that is what it's come to be."

Publishers Weekly describes the memoir as "irresistible" and reads "like a letter from an upbeat best friend Dickinson writes with an honesty that is at once folksy and intelligent, and brings to life all of the struggles of raising a child and the challenges and rewards of having a supportive extended family."

USA Today described the memoir as "a witty account of divorce, single motherhood, professional victories and navigating a sea of suitors with help from the women of Freeville, N.Y."

Stephen Wing, a landscape architect from Milford, sat near the front of the room waiting for Dickinson to begin her talk. He said he has begun reading the book because he is a fan of "Wait, Wait .Don't Tell Me," when he had that proverbial driveway moment sitting in the car listening to a conversation about her book. Thus far in his reading of 48 pages, Wing offers a good review: "I like the family relationships. She speaks very frankly."

That she does. Dickinson told her audience, "The queens taught me it's OK not to know what to do next. Sometimes, you won't be happy. Sometimes, you just have to abide."

Incidentally, her family never says good-bye, but always, "See you later."

"One thing my family and I are good at is seeing one another later."