Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.

Review: Not Becoming My Mother, Ruth Reichl

A couple of weeks ago we were in the check-out line at the library, standing right next to a shelf of newly released books. As the kids and and I waited our turn we scanned the shelf, picking up books and putting them back. One book – about the size of my extended palm, a black and white photograph on the cover with a middle-aged woman and a young girl, both sitting at a table – caught my eye. The woman’s expression drew my attention as much as the title did – her face is resting on her palm and she is looking at the young girl, a gentle smile creasing her cheeks. The title of the book was Not Becoming My Mother, written by Ruth Reichl, the editor of the newly-defunct Gourmet magazine.

 

I know titles are meant to be provocative and grab the readers’ attention, but it still managed to shock me. I added it to our pile of books and read it at the first opportunity I got – that night after the kids were in bed.

 

The tussle between mothers and daughters, the conflict-ridden relationships that many women have with their mothers, is not new to me. I had a classmate back in college who struggled with her mother’s jealousies. That a mother could be jealous of her own daughter’s good looks or appearance was unfathomable to me. Didn’t all mothers and fathers want their children to be better, to do better, to have better than them? Since then I’ve listened as numerous friends talked about their daily fights with their mothers over trivial matters, about massive disagreements over deeply-held beliefs, about mothers not showing up at weddings, not even coming to celebrate the birth of grandchildren. And I have read about them. With all those women I could sympathize, but I could not empathize.

 

I could wax eloquent about my mom and the post would run ten screens long. It’s not that I did not have disagreements with her, but even in the midst of my teenage rebellion years, I saw her for what she was. She was a mother looking out for her daughter and her best interests. She was a different human being than me – quite simply her DNA make-up is different than mine – so it was an exercise in futility to expect the both of us to react in the same way to a situation.

 

For me, in the grand scheme of things, she was and is an awesome human being with a wicked sense of humor that she turns on herself as frequently as she does on us, with a fierce sense of loyalty to her husband and her children (and now her daughter-in-law, son-in-law and the grandkids), a fantastic cook and hostess, practical to a fault (“if something needs to get done, put your head down and do it and quit whining” is her mantra), very strong sense of knowing one’s place and doing what is expected, especially when it comes to respecting elders. Being a mother myself now, it is mind-boggling to me that somehow she’s managed to impart much of her wisdom to us, without even seeming to try. All in all, she is trying her damnedest to do the best she can. And I love her to bits and respect her all the more for it.

 

Reichl has had a far different relationship with her mother. She writes that her mother was not good at many things and she was not “if truth be told, a particularly good mother. [M]y mother was a great example of everything I didn’t want to be, and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I’m not her.”

 

The sub-title to her book is ‘and other things she taught me along the way’. It gave me an inkling that perhaps the book is not the damning indictment that the title would have you believe, but my initial reaction to the book’s title stayed with me until I made my way through a few more pages and it dawned on me what Reich was attempting to do.

 

At first blush, the memoir is a woman’s effort to draw lessons from her mother’s life. But it is so much more than that. If a child wrote a letter of love, appreciation, respect and deep gratitude to their mother, it would take the shape and form of Not Becoming My Mother. It is an attempt to peel away the layers and layers of hurt that had enveloped the author over a number of years. It is an attempt to put her mother’s actions in context. A mother who was brilliant and wanted to be a doctor, but not that great-looking. In an age where women were expected to be beautiful but not ambitious, it was a double whammy that succeeded in decimating her chances at happiness.

 

It is so easy to give in to hurt, especially when the one person in the world that is supposed to love you unconditionally does not. Which is why it is all the more heartening that Reichl embarked on the journey to figure out her mother at all, to understand her as a woman. With the help of her mother’s writing she finds in shoe boxes, on scraps of paper, on old receipts, Reichl pieces together the portrait of a woman who somehow figured out how to be the kind of role model that her own daughter did not want to emulate. As the sketch fills out and we slowly start to see the flesh and blood and color appearing on canvas, our viewpoint undergoes a change. We are no longer looking at the dark and foreboding image of a bad mother, we are looking at a woman who desperately does not want her daughter to struggle with the demons she did.

Meeting Mom – the real Mom – was even harder than I expected. I never thought her life was easy, but until I read her letters I had not known the enormous burden of pain she carried with her.

There are a few good reasons why it’s worth reading Not Becoming My Mother. It is beautifully written, lucid, introspective and thoughtful. It is a personal memoir, but it manages to capture the life of an entire generation of women. It makes its point and moves on.

But the most important reason of all is the fact that Reichl wants to see beyond the veneer that her mother presented to the world. Some of us might undertake the same exercise and come up empty, but Reichl does succeed in seeing her mother for who she was. She places her actions in context, understands her mother’s own upbringing, learns of her desires and ambitions, her disappointments and failures. And she sees that her mother tried to do the very best she could, given her experiences and her background and her circumstances. She sees that her mother manged to get her to a place where she could be happy. And she gives her mother credit for it.

The only want I see in this story is that I wish Reichl had reached this understanding when her mother was still alive.

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2009 by in Blog, Reviews and tagged , , .
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