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Memoir Reveals Where 'Ask Amy' Gets Her Advice

Writer Amy Dickinson has found her voice listening to the voices of the women around her.

In her new memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, Dickinson traces her practical sensibility back to Freeville, N.Y. — a town with a population of 458. It's where the author of the syndicated advice column "Ask Amy" grew up, and where she's gone back to be near the women in her family.

"It's one of those little towns that you drive through and you go, 'Oh boy, who lives here?' " says Dickinson, who is also an NPR contributor.

When she's in Freeville, Dickinson has breakfast every Wednesday morning at a diner with all of the women in her life: her mother, her aunts, her sisters and their children when they are in town.

"We see each other virtually every day, and yet we feel the need to get together in a planned schedule," Dickinson tells NPR's Melissa Block. "They can be pretty noisy — there is a lot of interrupting. Everyone gets separate checks, of course, because no one will let anyone pick up the check. The checks are always like $1.10. We always have the same waitress, and we talk over another, we talk about what's going on, we ask a lot of questions, laugh a lot, it's a lot of fun."

And as the youngest, Dickinson has been on the receiving end of advice from all of the women in her family — the women her daughter Emily started calling the "mighty queens."

"In my family, I'm the plankton at the end of the food chain and the advice flows down," Dickinson says.

Dickinson says she particularly learned lessons from her mother, who was a housewife on a dairy farm that was "always on the verge of collapse." She says her mother "excelled at keeping things together."

When Dickinson's father left the family, her mother got a job as a typist at Cornell University's engineering school — her first office job.

"She would come home at night and she would walk in and go lie down on her bed in her coat and put her purse sort of on top of her," Dickinson says. "Just thinking about it, it's the essence of weariness."

Dickinson tells what she calls "the most amazing story" about how one day the deans called her mother into a meeting and said they thought she should go through college and they would help her. At 48 years old, Dickinson's mother went to school to get her undergraduate degree. She went on to get a master's degree in fine arts and then taught at Cornell.

After Dickinson's father left, her mother "simply prevailed," Dickinson writes.

"There's a lot of prevailing in my family. When I think about what's going on right now in the economy, we live in a cynical age, but we really need one another right now," Dickinson says. "We need to remember or learn to just keep going. That's something the women in my life really excelled at. They just prevailed."

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