Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review of "Not Becoming My Mother" by Ruth Reichl

 Show me a woman who has never looked in the mirror and gasped in horror at the sight of her mother looking back at her, and I'll show you a woman who can resist picking up a book called Not Becoming My Mother. I was alarmed the first time my mirror channeled my mom, and mortified when my daughters reported - in obvious panic - that their mirrors were channeling me. Some things a girl just shouldn't say to her mother.

Some things a girl shouldn't say about her mother, either, and for years Ruth Reichl felt vaguely guilty about her three compulsively readable memoirs in which her wacky mother, Miriam, frequently contributes to the hilarity. After the first memoir was published, Reichl writes, "I could not keep from thinking I had betrayed my mother. It was not a good feeling, and I wanted to make it up to her." Two books later, she was "getting deeper into [her] mother's debt." But she still could not bring herself to begin going through the box of letters, notes, and clippings that had been stashed in the basement ever since her mother's death:
Like most women, I decided who my mother was long ago, sometime during childhood.... I had spent many years making peace with her. Her voice was no longer inside my head and it was a relief to have all that behind me. I was reluctant to replace the mother I thought I knew with someone else. Why go looking for trouble?
In the year that her mother would have turned 100, Reichl finally blew the dirt off the box her father had labeled "Miriam's Life and Letters," removed the top, and started to read.

I knew I had to read Reichl's book. This is the year my mother would have turned 100. As it happens, I am in the midst of going through my mother's and grandmother's cedar chests full of collected photos, scrapbooks, letters, and memorabilia - a difficult job mentally (who is the old lady with my great-aunt? how can I get all these boxes back in the chest?), emotionally (so many friends and family members, loved and lost), and physically (would someone please help me up off the floor?).

After my mother died and her friends started sharing their memories of her, I - like Ruth - was powerfully struck with the realization that I hardly knew her. Mother was a major character in my own self-absorbed drama, of course, but who was she to herself? What were her dreams, her disappointments, her joys, her burdens? When Reichl examined the notes her mother left behind, she discovered a flesh-and-blood woman far more complex than the cartoon character in her previous memoirs, and more troubling. "Meeting Mom - the real Mom - was even harder than I had expected," she writes.

Yet the book is by no means gloomy. It starts with a typical Mom story that I couldn't resist reading to Mr Neff (who was bravely trying to read a book on factory farming), and I believe he laughed out loud five times in three minutes. Reichl's mom was a character, and she was not entirely sane. She certainly was not cut out for the kind of life expected of an affluent married woman in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

It's hard, looking back, to realize just how different our mothers' times were from our own. Reichl and I were both born in 1948, so we lived through the tumultuous years brilliantly chronicled by Gail Collins in When Everything Changed. But even though we remember when women's opportunities were much more limited than they are today, it's hard to relate to an era when an intelligent but plain woman was considered doomed to an unhappy life because surely no man would redeem her from spinsterhood, and when a mark of a successful man was to have a wife who did no work outside the home at all.

Reichl's mother and mine were menopausal by the time Betty Friedan described "the problem that has no name,"
a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night--she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question--"Is this all?"
Among the yellowed clippings in my grandmother's cedar chest is a newspaper column by Robert Ruark written in 1953.  Ruark recognized the suburban housewife's problem 10 years before Friedan wrote about it, but he showed no sympathy. After reciting a litany of time-saving devices available to the modern housewife, he sneered:
This gives her ample time to read all tomes and articles on psychiatry, and to fret about the state of her soul. This gives her time for the weekly seance with the soul prober, and four or five hours to change her hair different colors once a week. This gives her and hers so much time for leisure that they have to tear the house apart once a year because it is getting so tiresome, with the same old walls in the same old places, and there are ample 'how to' articles to tell her how to make the living room into an insane asylum. Mama keeps herself busy pinning swatches of things on sissy decorators, while papa is sawing off his thumbs in the basement to keep from being bored.
I don't know if this is significant, but Ruark's wife divorced him in 1963, the year Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. That was also the year President Kennedy was shot, the Beatles began taking first place in the U.K. hit parade, and Reichl and I turned 15. As Bob Dylan well knew, the times they were a-changin' - for us, if not for our mothers.

Reichl's mother was the daughter of a well-to-do doctor. Her parents "were wild for music, books and art (in that order), and they traveled widely." Miriam studied in Paris; her parents entertained Yehudi Menuhin, Fritz Kreisler, Arthur Rubinstein, Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell. Miriam herself ran a bookstore and, with her husband, created a small publishing company. But after World War II, "women who worked were considered unpatriotic." Miriam went back home, as did all of her married friends. "All of those smart, competent women sat at home, twiddling their thumbs and telling their daughters how much they had enjoyed working during the war."

By contrast, my mother was the daughter of a cabinet maker. My father, the son of a poverty-stricken dirt farmer, was a pastor and teacher. Few of the women I knew had the luxury of not working. My mother was an administrative assistant. Her friend Grace ran a chain of nursing homes, Mary Jane was a librarian, Esther worked in the school's finance office, and Nancy was a registrar.

Most of these women had jobs, not careers: this was a time when women were paid less than men, the help-wanted classifieds were divided into "male" and "female" columns, and a woman could not get a loan without her husband's signature, even if she was the family's sole wage-earner. But though my mother and her friends worked hard at jobs for which they were overqualified, never had quite enough money, and were often tired, I believe they were happier than Miriam Reichl.

Fortunately, Miriam's happiness increased as she grew older:
She stopped caring what people thought and started wearing outlandish clothes of many colors. She draped herself with costume jewelry and delighted in her own eccentricity... But most of all she stopped berating herself for all the things she hadn't done - and she switched off the voice inside her head.

"My mother is dead," she wrote. "It's time I stopped letting her tell me how to live."
Ruth Reichl discovered her mother in that dusty old box in the basement, and this book is her unsentimental love letter to the "too reckless, too impetuous, too impatient" woman who raised her. Here is Ruth's final tribute and Miriam's final lesson, a fitting close to this brief but profound memoir:
In her own oblique way, Mom passed on all the knowledge she had gleaned, giving me the tools I needed not to become her.... Work was her most basic lesson: Using herself as an example, she made me see that working is as necessary as breathing. Mom's strongest belief was that "it is what we are made for," and she was convinced that those who are not useful can never be satisfied....

Growing up, I was utterly oblivious to the fact that Mom was teaching me all that. But I was instantly aware of her final lesson, which was hidden in her notes and letters. As I read them I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy. More important, Mom showed me that it is never too late to find out how to do it.
Not Becoming My Mother is now available in a paperback edition with a new title - For You, Mom, Finally - and an Afterword. See my short review here.

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