For You, Mom. Finally.
by Ruth Reichl
Penguin, April 2010
Paperback 144 pp., ISBN: 978-0143117346
Ruth Reichl thought she knew her mother: She was the woman who served a bowl of weeks-old pudding mixed with pretzels, marshmallows, tinned peaches, prunes and jam as a snack to members of her daughter’s Brownie troop. She was the woman who gave food poisoning to most of her son’s engagement party. She was the Queen of Mold, a dramatic and crazy woman who, through negative example, helped Reichl become the food genius that she is today. Who would expect Reichl to publish a tribute to her mother?
The resulting book, For You, Mom. Finally, was originally published under the title Not Becoming My Mother, and it essentially captures the change that Reichl has gone through in the process of learning and writing about her mother’s life. She began her search stubbornly believing, as perhaps we all do, that she knew who her mother was, but when she finally forced herself to open the Pandora’s box labeled “Miriam’s Life and Letters” that lay crumbling in her basement, she learned more than she could have imagined.
Her mother grew up during the Depression. Women were expected to be housewives, and beauty was all too clearly prized over brains. Having decidedly more brains, Miriam found herself growing towards dreaded spinsterhood. So she married a man whom she didn’t know and, it turned out, she didn’t like, so she could keep house and make babies like a good girl should. What comes across most strongly in Miriam’s letters and musings is her boredom. This is a woman who had a doctorate degree, who was interested in books, music, and art, but was allowed to do nothing more than vacuum the house.
That Miriam had been unhappy trying to be a housewife in a loveless marriage that ended in divorce isn’t so shocking. What’s more telling is that she loved her second husband and he was completely devoted to her for their entire marriage, yet Miriam became only unhappier. She went to a therapist and was given a changing roster of medications, the ubiquitous house-wife pills the Rolling Stones so aptly named “Mother’s Little Helper.” But the pills didn’t help. Miriam became more extreme in her outbursts and her cooking disasters, someone who Reichl more and more didn’t want to be around.
What Reichl didn’t know until she excavated her mother’s letters was how common her mother’s predicament was. Many of Miriam’s friends were similarly over-medicated and under-stimulated. Reichl did some historical research, conducted interviews, and found that women all across America in the fifties were sitting in their homes, literally bored to tears. In this way, For You, Mom. Finally begins to grow past the story of one mother and becomes an exploration of the predicament of American women and their changing role in society.
At the end of the book, Reichl remains unsure whether her mother was really a manic depressive, as her doctors diagnosed, or whether she was simply a smart woman, driven crazy by the confines of the home. What she is sure about, however, is that her own ambition and success in the working world is thanks to her mother. It is a keen revelation.
July 9, 2010