Family Legacies

Things have been so hectic here in the run-up to the festive season that I am way behind on my reviews. It hasn’t helped that Mister Litlove, who usually takes a hand in the preparations, has been crippled by work demands or by his own idiosyncrasies. I don’t know who Santa’s little helpers were, but I’d put money on them not being married to him. I rallied the troops on Friday evening for a final push to get all the presents that needed to go in the post, or be delivered to various parts of the family, wrapped and packaged up while I was writing the cards. It was only after they had been sent or passed over that I questioned my husband more closely and found that my instructions to him had been lacking a vital component. I had neglected to mention the need for gift tags, and so the presents had gone to their destinations without any indication of which was for whom. ‘Oh it doesn’t matter,’ he said, airily. ‘They’ll sort it out once the presents are open.’ I am planning some emails along the lines of ‘the flat, square one is for you, the cylindrical one is for…’ etc.

So it is in the midst of some chaos that I will try to assemble my thoughts on one of the most outstanding memoirs I’ve read this year, Ruth Reichl’s Not Becoming My Mother; And other things she taught me along the way. I call it a memoir, but Reichl is careful throughout to make this book primarily her mother’s story. It’s a small thing, a mere 112 pages, and those not full-format either, but it packs the punch of a narrative three times its size and goes to show that concision really can be a virtue. It’s also a book that Reichl had been ambivalent about, recognizing that writing it would be a gift to her (now deceased) mother, who had longed to write the story of her own life and never did. But she feared the Pandora’s box she might have to open in doing so. And this was a quite literal fear – the box sat up in the attic, filled with her mother’s letters and diaries and jotted notes. ‘I had spent many years making peace with her,’ Reichl writes. ‘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?’

But eventually, the box exerted its fatal pull and what Reichl found inside was as disturbing as she had anticipated, but enlightening and comforting too. Understanding her mother brought her the unexpected joy of seeing what she had really given her over the course of a difficult childhood: the right to be her own person, to not follow in her mother’s footsteps or live out her unfulfilled dreams. Reichl’s mother knew all about the damage that could be done by a child taking on her parent’s ambitions. It had been her situation and it had foreclosed any real happiness of her own. Reichl’s grandparents were the kind of immigrants who immersed themselves in culture, her grandmother in particular had been a musical prodigy who had been awarded a study scholarship in Switzerland that she was not allowed by her parents to take up. Reichl’s mother, Mim, found herself studying musicology in Europe, not because she had any interest in the subject whatsoever, but because she was a good girl who wanted to please her parents.

She had had it drummed into her that she had a lot to make up to them for, as well. Over and over they told her that she was ‘homely’ and that finding a husband would be hard. Her mother wrote to her in 1931 ‘Happy New Year, and may you find the Mr. Right. It is our one prayer and hope and we think of it every moment.’ Her father joined in: ‘Every woman needs to be married, and my dearest wish is that you will find the deep happiness that comes from having a partner to love and guide you.’ Reichl is justifiably furious on her mother’s behalf. How unfair to belittle her mother’s looks at the same time as insisting that marriage was all that mattered. Could they not appreciate Mim for herself, for all the talents she undoubtedly did possess?

Inevitably, Reichl’s mother made a disastrous first marriage that lasted two years, and proved only that she was not cut out for domesticity. ‘Did you really try?’ Mim’s mother wrote to her accusingly. Reichl’s mother moved to New York with her baby boy and adventurously started a bookstore, which she ran successfully for almost a decade before meeting and marrying Reichl’s father in a whirlwind romance. The marriage was a little happier, but domesticity was Mim’s downfall. She simply loathed it, and was unhappy without work. She was particularly notorious for her Lucretia Borgia style of cookery. The memoir opens with the young Ruth being forced to help her mother prepare a ‘snack’ for her Brownie group, out of a chocolate pudding growing blue fluff (‘my mother is a firm believer in the benign nature of mold’), pretzels, prunes, stale marshmallows, a can of peaches and a jar of strawberry jam. Once, Reichl tells us, she managed to concoct hors d’oeuvres for a dinner party using canned asparagus, mayonnaise, Marshmallow Fluff and some leftover herring. It was Ruth’s unasked-for task to try and prevent her mother poisoning people whenever she could, and so it is intriguing to think that she grew up to be a food writer. Children so often become the successful products of their parents’ failures.

Although Mim was signaling loud and clear that domesticity was not her forte, no one moved to take it away from her. There was a natural descent waiting for her; from years of therapy she moved onto an alarming array of prescription drugs; this was the fifties and then the sixties, when such measures were held in unquestioned esteem, although neither did a bit of good. The atmosphere at home was terrible, and Reichl writes, guiltily, that she and her brother kept away when they could and moved out as soon as possible. But she recognized her mother’s saving grace was her honesty. ‘This is no way to live,’ her mother told her. ‘I don’t want you to think that this is normal. Remember this: just because I am this way, it doesn’t mean that you will be.’ Such statements must have cost her greatly, Reichl muses, because all parents long to retain dignity and respect in the eyes of their children. ‘She loved me enough to make me love her less,’ she writes, and recognizes what an immense sacrifice this must have been.

There is a surprise redemption waiting for Reichl’s mother at the end of this narrative, but I won’t tell you what it is. Instead, I’d urge any reader who likes memoirs to give this one a try. It is written so clearly, so directly, so unpretentiously, with candour and endearing tenderness. Reichl was so sensible to wait until the right moment to put this account together, until she had reached a place of great understanding and forgiveness – for the one naturally begets the other. It’s a book that demonstrates the difference between exercising sympathy, and embodying compassion and that’s something that not only feels quite beautiful and uplifting to read, but offers the reader a rich and valuable lesson, especially at this time of year when our loved ones might be trying us with their inability to stick gift tags on presents, for instance… For all her ostensible failings, Reichl’s mother clearly did a good job.

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16 thoughts on “Family Legacies

  1. I loved Reichl’s book Garlic and Sapphires , which I cannot recommend highly enough; if you have read it, you will already know why it appealed to me so deeply. I’m popping over to Amazon to order this one right away.

  2. You’ve convinced me. Given my passion for good food writing, I can’t believe I have yet to read any of Reichl’s books, although I do have a copy of Tender at the Bone. This one sounds like it’s not-to-be-missed.

  3. Wouldn’t it be a good exercise for us all to write a short book on our mothers?! Very therapeutic I’m sure (although most of us would never ever publish). I like the sound of Ruth Reichl’s memoir. As for the tag-less presents, I’m sure that was quite stressful (although amusing).

  4. Ah, holiday stress. Only one of you are supposed to be feeling it at a time so one can ground the other. At my house it’s mostly me who feels it. Somehow my husband manages to be quite nonchalant about it all. The Reichl memoir sounds good. Perhpas I will try to read it before I go visit my parents in California in the spring.

  5. I do love memoirs,and – thanks to you – I will read this one. Your story of Mr. Litlove’s tagless presents reminds me so much of my Mom. My brother and I were laughing not too long ago about Shorty’s penchant for wrapping gifts and storing them away without tags (she shopped very early for Christmas) and then forgetting who the gifts were for. My dad might unwrap Lego Blocks, and I’d be sitting with a box of cigars on my lap. Not only are those memories grist for laughter now, it was hilarious at the time as well. There were even gifts under the tree that didn’t make any sense at all – like the squeeky dog toy when we didn’t have a dog. So, tagless presents can turn out to be a happy error.

  6. That looks fantastic. I love memoirs. We are still unpacking and figuring out life here, but I will add it to my list so that I have something waiting for me.

  7. LL, I think we both know men require LITERAL and COMPLETE instructions for any and all domestic chores, including wrapping and tagging of Christmas gifts. “But you didn’t *say*…”

    I’d be fascinated to read this memoir for so many reasons.

  8. I love this: “the difference between exercising sympathy, and embodying compassion and that’s something that not only feels quite beautiful and uplifting to read, but offers the reader a rich and valuable lesson”–what a wonderful tribute to this book.

  9. Oh, this sounds really good! I’ve never read Reichl, but Hobgoblin has great respect for her writing, and I loved hearing her talk a month or so ago about her new cookbook. She seemed like a very smart, very insightful person. I do like good memoirs, and so should hunt down this book.

  10. I loved Reichl’s looks back at her own life, and this sounds equally fascinating (I think the fuzzy pudding makes an appearance in her first book, but might have that wrong). Poor Mim!
    As for the ‘tagless’ presents, they would just be further proof of the existence of Santa here ;)

  11. I must read this one! I love a good mother-daughter story, and I love Ruth Reichl already–I’ve read and enjoyed Comfort Me with Apples, and Tender at the Bone–in which her mother figured prominently. How did I not even know about this book? Also, I subscribed to Gourmet Magazine, of which she was Editor-in-Chief, until it unexpectedly closed up shop in November. They’re supposedly sending me Bon Appetit Magazine in its stead, but I think it will be a poor substitute…

  12. I’ve never heard of Ruth Reichl, and this sounds interesting. I’ve had mother-daughter books on my radar at the moment, and am slowly making a list of some titles. I know you would have other suggestions along that theme and I’d be curious to see what you might recommend. Happy Holidays to you as well – such a wonderful, but often stressful time of year!

  13. David – funnily enough I found out about Reichl when I ordered Garlic and Sapphires as a Christmas present for one of my relatives. I looked that book over and I can indeed see why it would appeal so much! :) I want to read all that she’s written now – I was so impressed by her style.

    Emily – I’d love to know what you think of her. I’m hoping to get hold of Tender to the Bone shortly, so I’ll read along with you on that one.

    Pete – I’ll happily review any memoirs that bloggers would like to write. :) This was a wonderful book – I’d recommend it to you for the brief insight it gives on psychotherapy in the sixties (as misogynist as everything else). And I have still to sort out the tag issue. Sigh. I’m very glad if it was funny in the retelling – means not all is lost!

    Stefanie – I’ll tell Mister Litlove that he’s to ground me, not wind me up. :) And I loved this memoir – it’s a beautiful piece of writing. In the meantime I do hope California in the spring will be very good.

    Grad – you have wonderful stories and I will picture our friends and relatives having just the same sort of fun. I did laugh at the thought of a squeaky dog toy for a dog-less household; most amusing. And I loved this memoir and rather think you would like it too. I do hope so, if you do get hold of it.

    Emily – I have been over to catch up as the news you had moved again was new to me. I am so glad that this new job should give your husband much more family time. That’s so much what you need. I’ll come back and comment very soon.

    Doctordi – I loved Reichl’s style – so direct and simple and witty. And you are so right about those complete instructions. When I first went to lunch at my husband-to-be’s house, his sister had left instructions for putting the roast on which included opening and closing the oven door. That should have been a hint.

    Lilian – Reichl’s writing made me think of your blog, in fact. I thought it was a lovely and loving book and definitely the memoir of the year.

    Dorothy – I’m glad to hear the Hobgoblin likes her – that’s a big tick! And I’d love to know what you think of her work. That description you have there correlates perfectly to my impressions. How wonderful to have heard her talk!

    ds – you are spot on with that anecdote appearing in another book – Reichl says as much in this one. I’m new to Reichl but will be reading all her work now, I liked her so much. And I love the thought that tagless presents are proof of Santa – that’s a good one. :)

  14. Gentle reader – I would love to know what you make of this memoir – it is gorgeously written and I am certainly going to read everything Reichl has published now. I had heard of Gourmet magazine but have never seen a copy. I wonder why it closed? There’s no mention of it in the book. Hmm, a mystery! But I do hope Bon Appetit turns out better than expected; that would be a nice New Year’s present.

    verbivore – and happy holidays to you! I remember the first Christmas with my son very clearly indeed (even though he doesn’t). I’d love to know what you think of this book. The big mother-daughter book to my mind is Nancy Friday’s My Mother, My Self, which pretty much covers all the pitfalls and pleasures of that relationship. Otherwise… hmm, I’ll think about it and look over all the motherhood books I read and let you know what’s out there.

  15. I really enjoyed listening to Comfort Me with Apples earlier this year. I got the impression from that book that her mother was quite a character. It would be interesting to see how she got that way. (But I want to go back to read Tender at the Bone first.)

  16. I got this book (Not Becoming My Mother) out of the local library and read it right away. I enjoyed it immensely, and it gave me much to think about. Thanks for this post; it led me to this interesting, perceptive author! I have recommended this memoir to women in my writing group who write about the mother/daughter relationship. By the way, you may enjoy “House of Bears”, a novel recently published by my friend Orysia Dawydiak (Acorn Press). It’s a compelling story that has at its heart the tempestuous relationship between a young woman and her immigrant (Ukrainian) mother.

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