Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet Magazine and author of three stunning memoirs, now settles down with an old box of letters and journals. In the process, she learn how little she really knew about her mother, Miriam Brudno.
On what would have been her mother’s 100th birthday, Reichl sits down to finally open and read the diaries of a bored housewife. Her mother, Miriam, wanted to be a doctor, at a time when people thought that was a ridiculous ambition for a young woman. So, other than a stint as a bookstore owner, she lived most of her life as a bored housewife, in the era of bored housewives. This small book gets to the heart of the time in America when stay-at-home wives lived mostly in service to the family: meals, laundry, boredom, followed by meals, laundry, complaints, and more boredom.
Reichl’s mix of memoir and reflection in Not Becoming My Mother conveys the sadness of spirit many of our Moms likely experienced in the 1930s and 1940s: “… the women of her generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born at what seems to me the worst possible time to have been a middle-class American woman.”
From Miriam, her daughter clearly learned the spirit of independence and self-acceptance her mother taught her, but never knew in her own life. Reichl went on to become editor of Gourmet, and the restaurant critic for The New York Times, as well as author of several other best-selling memoirs.
As always with memoir, the author addresses the risk of telling true stories she wouldn't have shared if her mom was living.
“She did not have a happy life, but she wanted one for me. And she made enormous emotional sacrifices to make sure that my life would not turn out like hers,” Reichl writes.
With the equality women enjoy today, it may be hard for younger readers to comprehend how few choices women had 50 years ago. Women were pressured to marry, then criticized if they didn’t handle marriage and motherhood well, or if their husband was less than perfect. If Miriam’s marriage made her happy, that wasn’t good enough for her family. Her own mother wrote to her “People are still breathless over your sudden departure and fatal decision.”
Later regretting she did not have a career, Miriam writes: “In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we are made for.”
As we read of Miriam, who by age 77 eventually comes to accept herself, after a life of obedience, anger and rebellion, we also sense a difference in Reichl’s tone, as she comes to understand her mother so much better, through the exercise of writing this book. It is a gift to us, but perhaps also to the author herself.