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Excerpt: 'Not Becoming My Mother'

Chapter One: The Mim Tales

My mother's name was Miriam, but most people called her Mim. She was such a character that as a child I developed a special form of literature; it was known as the Mim Tale. This is one of my favorites.

"Hurry up, hurry up," my mother is shouting as she races through our small apartment, "we're going to be late again!"

This is nothing new; my mother is incapable of arriving anywhere on time. But she has just become the leader of my Brownie troop, and the powers that be have emphasized the importance of punctuality. She grabs a red hat, crams it onto her head, and dashes for the door. I am right behind her. Just as the door begins to close Mom shouts, "Oh, no, I forgot the snack!"

"Mom," I moan. "You can't forget the snack again. You forgot it last week."

"Don't be fresh!" she snaps, inserting herself into the arc of the closing door. "We have no time to shop. Come back in and help me find something delicious."

"We don't have anything," I say flatly.

"Nonsense," she says, striding to the refrigerator.

She surveys the contents with a gimlet eye and gingerly extracts a bowl. It is covered with bright blue fuzz, but she carefully scrapes this off, murmuring, "This must be that chocolate pudding I made last month." She pokes in a finger, tastes tentatively and says triumphantly, "What a good start!"

"There's not very much," I say hopefully. I am aware that any mention of the pudding's antique character will be unwelcome; my mother is a firm believer in the benign nature of mold. "It's not enough for all of us."

"I know that!" she says crossly. "We're going to stretch it. See what you can find in the cupboard."

"Like what?" I ask dubiously.

"Oh, use your imagination," she snaps.

I climb onto the stove so I can reach the cupboard, give the door, which sticks a bit, a firm yank and peer inside. I pull out a box of pretzels, a few prunes, a bag of very stale marshmallows and a jar of strawberry jam. "Perfect!" says Mom.

"Hand them down here. Anything else?"

Feeling it would be unwise to mention the sardines or the tin of liver pate, I pass on to the can of peaches. "Good," says Mom, "give me that too."

As I watch, Mom mixes the jam into the not very moldy chocolate pudding and adds the prunes. "Break those pretzels into little pieces," she commands, "while I chop up the marshmallows and slice the peaches. This is going to be delicious!"

Three minutes later she is wiping her hands. "Let's go," she says.

"Aren't you taking plates?" I ask. "We can't just use our fingers."

Mom sticks a dozen soupspoons in her pocket and cries merrily, "The girls will think it's such fun to eat right out of the bowl!"

I am dubious about this, but to my surprise, they do. While my best friend, Jeanie, and I stick our spoons ostentatiously in and out, consuming nothing, the rest of the girls happily gobble up the goop. "Mrs. Reichl," says Nancy Feld, a dreadful little toady of a child, "you're such a wonderful cook. Could you give the recipe to my mother?"

Mom rewards her with a queenly smile. "Call me Mim, dear," she says, "but I couldn't do that; the recipe is an old family secret." And then she turns to me and whispers triumphantly, "See, I told you. A little mold never hurt anyone!"

I've got Mim Tales by the dozen, and I've used them for years to entertain my friends. As a writer I've always known how lucky I was to have so much material, and my first book opened with Mom accidentally poisoning a couple of dozen people at a party. After the book was published people kept asking, "Did she really do those things?"

She did. But that doesn't mean she wanted the world to know about it. Telling stories to your friends is one thing, but a book is quite another, and I would never have written it while she was still alive. Although I omitted the most embarrassing tales, the first time I held the printed book in my hands I winced. I could not keep from thinking that I had betrayed my mother. It was not a good feeling, and I wanted to make it up to her.

I knew that there was a box filled with Mom's diaries and letters, and I was determined to try and find it. She had always wanted to write a book about her life, and I thought that I should do it for her. I owed her that much.

But when I couldn't find the box I dropped the project, going on to write a second memoir, and then a third, each time getting deeper into my mother's debt. Some day, I kept saying, I'll write Mom's book.

Then last year, on what would have been her hundredth birthday, I sat down to write one of those speeches in which people traditionally thank their mothers. I scribbled words unthinkingly, but when I looked down at the page I found that I had written something like a Mim Tale. But this was in a different voice, more hers than mine, and it was finally telling her side of the story.

"My mother would have been one hundred years old today," the speech began. "And so I've been thinking about her, and how she helped me to become the person that I am."

She did not do it any of the ordinary ways. She was not a great writer, or a great businesswoman, or even, if truth be told, a particularly good mother. I think she tried to be a good wife, but she wasn't much at keeping house, and I don't think I've ever met anyone who was a worse cook.

But my 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. Grateful, in fact, not to be any of the women of her generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born at what seems to me to have been the worst possible time to have been a middle-class American woman.

When my mother was five she answered the telephone by saying this: "How often are the pains coming?" Little wonder, then, that she wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor like her father. But when she announced this to her parents they looked her up and down and said, "You're no beauty, and it's too bad that you're such an intellectual. But if you become a doctor no man will ever marry you." So Mom got a PhD in musicology. The family was musical; her mother would later become an impresario, the Sol Hurok of Cleveland.

My grandmother was, by everybody's estimation, a formidable businesswoman. She brought great musicians to Cleveland, she started a lecture series, and Mom said she could look at any theater and count the house in a second. But when the hard times ended, my grandmother folded her business. As she later explained, her work was just a stop-gap measure, her way of helping out when money was scarce. Good women didn't work if they didn't have to; it would only humiliate their husbands and make the world think their men were incapable of supporting them.

So Mom took her degree and opened a bookshop; it was a ladylike profession, and although it was not the medical career that she had yearned for, it made her happy. She did marry, but not until she was almost thirty, late enough that the word "spinster" was being whispered behind her back. And sure enough, after the wedding everyone expected her to settle down, leave her shop behind and have babies.

There were a few problems with this plan. In the first place, Mom wasn't exactly maternal; babies bored her to tears. Happily, in her time there were nursemaids to care for the kids; I'll bet my mother never changed a diaper. And that is precisely the problem; she didn't do much else either. In earlier times keeping house had been a full-time job, even for those with servants, but by the time Mom married so many labor-saving devices had been introduced that cooking and cleaning just didn't take that long. My mother, like most of her friends, literally had nothing to do.

I have never known so many unhappy people. They were smart, they were educated and they were bored. Some of them did charitable work, but it wasn't fulfilling. Their misery was an ugly thing, and it was hard on their families. It was a terrible waste of talent and energy, and watching them I knew that I was never going to be like them.

Every night, when my father came in from work, he'd set his briefcase down in the hall, and I saw the little transformation that occurred. I realized that his secret life, the one he had when he was away from us, nurtured him, fed his soul. I watched him leaving in the morning, wishing that my mother could go to work too. I thought if she had her own secret life she would be a happier person.

And I determined, when I was very small, that no matter what, nobody was going to keep me from having a work life. I thought then — and I still think now — that it is the key to happiness.

And so today, when people ask, "Why do you work so hard?" I think of my mother, who was not allowed to do it, and say, "Because I can."

This was not a Mim Tale, but Mom's story had struck a nerve and over the next few weeks I began getting letters from people I did not know. They all began the same way: "My mother was just like yours ..." The letters kept on coming and several people suggested that I write a book about Mom's generation. The idea intrigued me, and I began interviewing other women, taking notes about their mothers and their thwarted lives.

But when the time came to start writing, I found I couldn't. For months I sat staring at the notes with absolutely no idea of where to begin. I went to the library and perused old newspapers. I read the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution and tried to imagine what it must have been like, belonging to that first generation of women who had been granted equal rights. I studied the work of suffragettes. But each time I tried to write about emancipated women I found myself going in circles, uncertain of what to say. Why did it take me so long to figure out that I had been handed the perfect opportunity to write my mother's book? Only later did I understand how frightened I had been, how scared of what I might find out.

Like most women, I decided who my mother was long ago, sometime during childhood. The comic character of the Mim Tales was safe now; I had spent many years making peace with her. 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 I owed it to my mother, and I knew it. Still, every time I headed toward the basement where the box of diaries might be I turned away, experiencing an urgent need to bake a pie, run an errand, wax the floors.

In the end I managed to persuade myself that the box was very likely to be lost. That gave me the courage to finally open up the basement door and creep slowly down the chilly stairs.

Feeling like Pandora, I picked my way through outgrown skis, discarded tools, old menus and ancient typewriters, peering into the dusty cartons that towered over me. The one containing Mom's notes was nowhere to be found, and I was beginning to breathe easy when I stumbled over a once-shiny white box held together with pieces of twine. Blowing off the dirt, I read "Miriam's Life and Letters" penciled in my father's calligraphic script, the writing almost obliterating the stamped B. Altman & Co. beneath it.

The top crumbled in my hand — it had been years since anyone had touched it — and opened to reveal a huge collection of letters, notes and clippings. Looking down I caught sight of my mother's bold handwriting and inhaled sharply. It was as if she were suddenly with me, there in the basement, and as I bent to pick up a sheet of paper covered with her vivid scrawl I could almost hear her voice. I sat down on the cold cement floor and let the words flood over me.

"I hope Ruthy won't rush into marriage the way I did that first time. I felt so desperate, and I wanted someone to lean on. I pray she'll never feel that way. My parents thought that I needed to be married, but was that really true? What if I had never married? Would my life have been better?"

I felt a little sick; with these first words I had discovered something new. Mom's first marriage had been a true disaster — I had always known that — but I thought that she had loved my father. But this note, written ten years into their marriage, holds a definite note of regret. Was I prepared to find out why?

I dropped the letter and picked up another, written in a safely unfamiliar hand. The script was tight and slightly cramped. Dated 1925, it began "Dear Dadsy- boy," the brown ink wavering uncertainly on cream stationery. Mom's sister, I thought, the one who died long before I was born. "I'm glad I'm over here and not at home. It's so hard to keep pure ideals at home when all anybody talks about is society."

The letter went on, a virtuous little screed about living an upright life. This sister sounded like such a Goody Two-shoes, so different from my dynamic mother, that I began to wonder why Mom had loved her with such fierceness. Still trying to picture this long-dead aunt, I spotted the signature and realized that it did not belong to her after all: My mother, seventeen, had signed the letter. This was not the young Mom I had imagined, and I released the letter, heart beating, to peer down into the box.

It was utter chaos, a jumble of voices belonging to people who died long ago. Letters from dozens of different friends and family members, shopping lists, unused prescriptions and newspaper clippings were crammed in, helter-skelter. Time telescoped around me as I pulled out the yellowing bits of paper and began to read, rocketing dizzyingly from 1924 to 1988 and back again.

Mom did not keep what any normal person would call a diary, but constantly wrote notes on scraps of paper. They were threaded through the pile of letters like shouts from the past, eager to be heard. Who was she writing to? What was she trying to say? And would I have the courage to listen?

I wasn't sure. Looking for a sign, I closed my eyes and picked up a note at random, the way you open up a fortune cookie or consult a Magic 8-Ball. If the words told me to, I would close the box and let the past lie undisturbed. But if they beckoned me forward I would follow them and go searching for my mother.

I opened my eyes and looked at the note in my hand. Mom had been an old lady when she scrawled these words across the paper. "Who am I? What do I want? Why do I stand in my own way so often? It's not good enough to say that my mother thought self-analysis was self-indulgent. She's been dead for 25 years. I need to find me."

Could the message have been clearer? And so I began traveling through the box, trying to answer my mother's questions. As I sorted out the handwriting I got to know my grandparents, who both died when I was small. I discovered that my father was an ardent lover, a wonderful writer, and deeply romantic. But mostly I met my mother — as a little girl, a hopeful young woman and an increasingly unhappy older one. And the more I came to know this woman, the more grateful I became that I did not have to live her life.

Mom turned out to be very little like the comic character of the Mim Tales. She was more thoughtful, more self-aware and much more generous than I had ever appreciated. Getting to know her now, I realized how much I missed by not knowing her better when she was still alive. But there was something more. As I came to know this new person, I began to see how much I owe her. Mom may not have realized her dreams, but that did not make her bitter. She did not have a happy life, but she wanted one for me. And she made enormous emotional sacrifices to make sure that my life would not turn out like hers.

Excerpted from Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl 2009 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

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Ruth Reichl