Books: Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl

In Not Becoming My Mother, Ms. Reichl explores her mother’s life history as she reads through a box of her mother’s old letters and diaries. Her journey through the box uncovers important life lessons that her mother strove to share with her.

Ms. Reichl finds that her mother, Miriam, grew up in an era that was less open to women to pursuing careers other than care of the family and household. One of the first letters she finds addressed to her mother, from her grandfather tells Miriam, “She was smart but it did not really matter. She was handicapped because she was not pretty. And she would be a failure if she never married.” Miriam was discouraged by her parents to study medicine and instead was encouraged to and received a degree in music.

After receiving her music degree Miriam instead opened a bookstore. “It was a bold move for the time. The day the shop opened Miriam’s mother’s good friend…sent a note of encouragement and congratulations: ‘I admire the intelligence and courage that you are manifesting in the venture. You are showing what girls can do in this, our age.’”

Her bookstore allowed her to correspond “with some of the most interesting minds of her day. Authors thanked her for critiques of their books.” However, despite Miriam’s independent success and intellectual achievements, her parent’s wished only marriage for her. “’How we pray for you to meet Him;' “’Happy New Year and may you find the Mr. Right. It is our one prayer and hope and we think of it every moment’; ‘There was a new moon last night, and I prayed and prayed for Him. I dream that you will find a mate.’”

In time, Miriam does marry, and “she described the marriage as ‘tempestuously unhappy,’ but women of that time did not walk out merely because they were miserable. And they certainly did not walk out when there were children.”

Miriam remarries around World War II to Ms. Reichl’s father. “The war years were a good time for strong women. Dad was to old to be called up, so he moved into her small apartment…My parents pooled their resources, found an investor and created a small publishing company to produce handwritten literary books.” Fortunately, it is in this second marriage that Miriam has found someone who encourages her intellectual pursuits and entrepreneurial efforts. Together the couple produced “a twelve–volume series called ‘The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia.’”

When they sold their publishing company, Ms. Reichl’s father encouraged Miriam to find other work “but after the war jobs for women were not easy to come by. In fact, women who worked were considered unpatriotic. ‘You women and girls go home, back to being housewives as you promised to do’, trumpeted an army general in a widely televised speech in the background you can hear the men cheering wildly.” “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.”

Miriam “took on volunteer jobs…doing stints at the Red Cross, the Girl Scouts, UNICEF, the Silvermine Guild of Artists, the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library.” Her mother was “still in search of a meaningful career.”

Through the stories of her close friends’ experiences, Ms. Reichl’s mother worked to express thoughts on marriage and the importance of career work to her daughter. One of friends, Flora took over her husband’s business upon his untimely death, and made the company more successful than it was when he ran it. “’The business is four times the size it was when Lou [her husband] was alive. The funny thing is that if Lou hadn’t passed away she would have just been another bored housewife.’” Another friend, Claudia lost her drive to live after her husband died in an accident. In time however, Claudia bounced back, returned to her earlier career, and became “very busy, traveling endlessly around the world.” Her mother said, “’Claudia has a career. She does exactly what she wants and answers to no one but herself’…That was all she said. It was enough.”

In late life and after the death of Ms. Reichl’s father, Miriam “filled her life with all the things that she had always wanted – art, music, people – and freed herself from everything that did not make her happy…For the happiest years of her life, Mom relied almost entirely on herself.”

In the last chapter, “Gifts”, Ms. Reichl sums up the important lessons her mother taught her. “In her own oblique way Mom passed on all the knowledge she had gleaned…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. She tried to make me see that a job was not enough; she wanted me to have the meaningful career that she herself had yearned for.” On marriage her mother taught her “it works only when it is based on mutual respect between to people who encourage each other to live up to the best in themselves.” Ms. Reichl closes with “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.”

Reichl, R. (2009) Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. New York: The Penguin Press.