In the Finger Lakes of New York, four hours east of Chautauqua, is Freeville, a tiny village with a population of around 500.
It is the hometown of Amy Dickinson, whose extended family has lived and farmed there since the Revolutionary War. After years away from Freeville working as a successful journalist, she returned, heartbroken, after a divorce and set about getting back to her roots.
“Despite living all over the country and the world, for me, all roads come right back here,” Dickinson said.
She details her homecoming in the memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, A Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them. It is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Five, the theme of which is “21st Century Women: The Road to Social and Economic Growth.” Dickinson will speak at the CLSC Roundtable lecture at 3:30 p.m. today at the Hall of Philosophy.
Dickinson’s name should be familiar; she is a distant relative of Emily Dickinson and also the author of the syndicated advice column Ask Amy. She was chosen as the replacement for the late Ann Landers in 2003.
Before that, Dickinson wrote a column for Time magazine from 1999 to 2001, and her other articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Esquire and O magazine. She also has been heard on NPR as a contributor to “All Things Considered” and a panelist on the game show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”
Despite a career doling out advice to others, she decided on a memoir to try to write about herself.
“Here’s what I say in my advice column: the two hardest questions for any of us to answer are, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want?’” Dickinson said. “I realized that at that juncture in my life, I needed to answer the question of ‘Who am I?’ by describing my family.”
She was born on a dairy farm in Freeville and was one of four kids. Her father left the family when she was 12 years old, and her mother in turn was forced to sell off their land and work long hours as a typist to scrape by.
Dickinson recounts in her book how the rest of the women in her family were the same way: Many were single or also had been through divorces. Yet they still had to raise their children and tend to the farm, chickens and cattle.
“Talk about self-reliant; the women in my life really are, truly,” she said. “You know, to grow up basically with no men around during the ’60s and ’70s, the feminist movement, with no man to sort of dictate the conversation — it was really amazing.”
Yet after high school, she had to make a choice. Freeville is a place made of two groups, Dickinson said — those who stay and those who leave. She finally left on her mother’s advice.
“She said, of all of you kids, the four of us, you’re the one that really needs to go,” Dickinson said. “I took that as I was so attached to my hometown that if I didn’t go (then), I never would.”
So she took off to chase her ambitions, attending Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where she wrote a letter to her mother, excited about her first escalator ride, she said. From there, she attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
It was in D.C. that she once worked as a lounge singer before a few of the bar’s patrons helped her find a job at the Washington bureau of NBC-TV. Not long after, she moved to New York City and worked as a receptionist at The New Yorker, then went back to NBC before getting married and moving to London.
The Mighty Queens of Freeville starts off here in 1990 after her divorce with CBS news correspondent Anthony Mason. She was a single mother on her own in London with no support network.
After living in the U.K., Washington, D.C. and Chicago, she decided to return to her tiny hometown, but it was not an easy decision. Freeville is a place where everyone knew her from childhood, and no one was impressed by her fame as they were elsewhere, Dickinson said. She had mixed feelings about retreating back.
“I don’t think I realized that I was in the midst of a second chance… I felt really bad about my situation for a long time,” she said. “That’s, of course, a real waste of time, but you can’t help it.”
Yet she did not have many options. That was where her family lived. On weekend trips and stays during the summer, she reconnected with these women, whom her daughter nicknamed the Mighty Queens, and the small-town values that helped her get back on her feet.
Dickinson’s memoir is like a series of essays, going back and forth between her upbringing and her daughter’s, and how her family raised them both.
“My family, we are really, really good at not telling each other what to do,” she said. “I can’t think of one time where any family member has offered up unsolicited advice. But I have always been someone to ask for advice.”
The memoir also details the career changes that came about after her divorce, including how she became the Chicago Tribune advice columnist and met up with a childhood acquaintance, Bruno Schickel, who she would later marry. The New York Times even covered their wedding in 2008.
It was around then, three years ago, that Dickinson moved full time to a house in Freeville to take care of her mother and be closer to her family. She renovated an old house in town and now splits her time between there and Chicago.
“I’ll tell you, two of the women I write about in that book are now gone,” Dickinson said. “I’m so glad I chose to write that book with my mother’s help and guidance before she died. I really feel like this book for me is a real legacy now. It didn’t start out to be a legacy project, but it really turned out to be a legacy to these people I adore.”
Amy Dickinson is an American newspaper columnist who writes the syndicated advice column, Ask Amy.
Dickinson succeeds the late Ann Landers (Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer) as the Chicago Tribune's signature advice columnist. Before joining the Chicago Tribune, Dickinson (a distant relative of the poet Emily Dickinson) penned a column on family issues for Time and had been regularly featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. A weekly column, carried on AOL's News Channels, frequently drew from her experience as a single parent and member of a large, extended family. In addition, she has appeared as a social commentator on ABC's Good Morning America.