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.