NOT BECOMING MY MOTHER & OTHER THINGS SHE TAUGHT ME ALONG THE WAY
By Ruth Reichl
Penguin, $19.95, 110 pages
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
From the title of Gourmet editor-in chief and food writer Ruth Reichl’s latest memoir, you might think that this is another baby boomer’s indictment of her mother. After all, we’ve have had so many of them now, running the gamut from anguished through plaintive to defiant. But the subtitle “& Other Things She Taught Me Along The Way” gives a hint of the book’s true nature: a deeply felt, profoundly sympathetic insight into Miriam Reichl’s thwarted life and the invaluable counter-example it proved to be for her only daughter - “how she helped me to become the person I am.”
In her earlier writings, Ms. Reichl was content to use her mother as a figure of fun, mining her appalling housekeeping skills for material invaluable to a food writer. Mim Tales, she called them, after her childhood nickname for Miriam:
“I’ve got Mim Tales by the dozen, and I’ve used them for years to entertain my friends. As a writer I’ve always known how lucky I was to have so much material, and my first book opened with Mom accidentally poisoning a couple of dozen people at a party. … Although I omitted the most embarrassing tales, the first time I held the printed book in my hands I winced. I could not help thinking that I had betrayed my mother. It was not a good feeling, and I wanted to make it up to her.”
Although Ms. Reichl cannot resist putting into this book stories as good as her mother’s making a snack for her Brownie troop from ancient moldy chocolate pudding, stale marshmallows, pretzels, prunes and strawberry jam (they loved it) or fashioning an hors d’oeuvre out of canned asparagus, mayonnaise, Marshmallow Fluff and leftover herring, this book does indeed make it up to her. And it does so in large measure because finally, a century since Miriam Reichl’s birth, her daughter understands why her mother was the kind of housekeeper she was, and the kind of parent, and the kind of woman.
“Not Becoming My Mother” is an intensely personal book but it is also a valuable sociological snapshot of a particular group of women in a particular era. Sandwiched between mothers who were new enough to female emancipation to grab opportunity with both hands (Miriam’s mother ran the Sol Hurok Organization in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio) and daughters who were beneficiaries of the feminism that burgeoned from the 1960s onward, these bored 1950s housewives were frustrated by the societal norms that kept them from fulfilling their potential:
“I have never known so many unhappy people. They were smart, they were educated and they were bored. Some of them did charitable work, but it wasn’t fulfilling. Their misery was an ugly thing, and it was hard on their families. It was a terrible waste of talent and energy, and watching them I knew that I was never going to be like them.”
Ms. Reichl does not flinch from the unpleasantness in what flowed from these thwarted existences, some of which she details, but she is forgiving nonetheless towards them. Gaining this crucial apercu into Miriam Reichl’s generation enabled Ms. Reichl to put her mother into a context and thus to understand what made her such a difficult parent: “I had not known the enormous burden of pain that she carried with her … [but] in her own oblique way Mom passed on all the knowledge she had gleaned, giving me the tools I needed not to become her.”
Part of Ms. Reichl’s insight into her mother’s nature and what shaped it comes from thoughtful, probing cogitation by someone uniquely attuned to her mother, even though they were so different. But other parts are the result of actual things she discovered about her mother, once she found the courage to read the pathetic, anguished jottings her mother had written down throughout her life and never thrown away. These amounted to a veritable cri de coeur and of course were as much so at the moments she wrote them in the white heat of her anger and frustration as they were when they were discovered after her death.
But her daughter probably wouldn’t have reacted as sympathetically back then. She had to be in the right frame of mind to take them into her own heart if she was to see what they actually meant and now time and distance have enabled her to exactly that.
The central lesson Ms. Reichl learned watching her mother was that the “key to happiness” at home with one’s family was to have a satisfying occupation elsewhere, and she is aware that, for all the Sturm and Drang between them, this was Miriam Reichl’s great gift to her:
“My mother was a great example of everything I didn’t want to be, and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I am not her. Grateful, in fact, not to be any of the women of her generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born at what seems to have been the worst possible time to have been a middle-class American woman … And so today, when people ask, ‘Why do you work so hard?’ I think of my mother, who was not allowed to do it and say, because I can.”
This penetrating little book is about as far from a Mother’s Day card or a Hallmark moment as you can get. It’s no “Mommie Dearest” either. It is as good an illustration as you will find of the old French adage, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” that if you understand something completely, your forgiveness too can be all-encompassing. And so “Not Becoming My Mother” is Ms. Reichl’s posthumous but nonetheless heartfelt gift to the mother to whom she owes so much.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.