Nov. 6, 2009
Ruth Reichl's memoir, Not Becoming My Mother(2009) is above all an ode to defiance, that much maligned virtue, especially when it is attributed to women. Reichl, an award-winning journalist, food critic and author of several critically acclaimed memoirs, has written a beautiful and heart-wrenching elegy, taking the reader through the diary notes and letters left behind by her mother. These messages left in a box and uncovered at what would have been Miriam Brudno's 100th birthday, it turns out, hold the woman's true self and legacy.
Not Becoming My Mother opens on an upbeat note with Reichl recounting zany "Mim tales" out of her childhood, stories about her mother's culinary mishaps and failed attempts to be a typical mother. Miriam was a disastrous cook and totally uninterested in housekeeping, something that constantly frazzled her own mother who expected her to excel at these.
Like many women of the generation of the 1940s in which she grew up, Miriam was stymied by convention -- marriage and motherhood. An intellectual, she aspired to become a doctor, but relinquished her dream, giving in to her mother's expectations to marry, settle down and have children. She did taste independence in her early 20s, when she ventured into the business of opening a bookstore, an opportunity that allowed her to befriend important writers and intellectuals of her day. But, as a wife and mother, Miriam felt burdened, with no outlets for creativity, and became overwhelmed first with boredom, then depression.
Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother: A Memoir (2007), includes portraits of many family members besides Gordon's mother, and many of these are dark and unflattering. Her primary focus is her mother's religious life and her friendship with a few Catholic priests. In younger years, despite polio, Gordon's mother, Anna Gagliano, a deeply devout Catholic and also an alcoholic, managed to be the family breadwinner making a living as a legal secretary, but at 90, in a nursing home, her mind gone, she is the epitome of decrepit old age, with its stench and embarrassment. Gordon compares the scene in a nursing home to a Bonnard painting, but it is evident that she is repulsed by what her mother has become. Gordon, who teaches at Barnard College, has written nonfiction, but is perhaps best known for her first novel, Final Payments (1979), and her best-seller, Men and Angels (1985).
Reichl's account, which focuses almost exclusively on her mother, is rare as it is about a woman who finds herself in old age, that time of life so often associated with waste and decay and so often discounted by our culture. Miriam endured a bad first marriage that ended quickly with divorce; suffered through years in her relationship to a harsh, demanding yet charismatic and talented mother; bore two children whom she taught to be self-sufficient despite her own feelings of insecurity and failure; and finally, survived the loss of her faithful husband of many years. But it is only after finding herself alone, at the end of her life, that Miriam saw who she was and felt free enough to become herself, embracing her independence.
Miriam's gift to her children was defiance -- that surge of the instinct rebelling against obstacles it deems unnecessary -- and a profound belief in the importance of a strong work ethic. She encouraged her children by negative example -- "This is what I don't want you to become," she seemed to say over and over.
Miriam's story is sad and not so uncommon, but it is ultimately hopeful. It's final message -- that one can transform at any age -- is refreshing and important, particularly in our youth-driven culture.