For years, Ruth Reichl took pleasure in relating what she called “Mim tales,” playful stories of her mother’s fumbles with and trespasses against proper motherhood— as when the dishes she prepared for her son’s engagement party gave guests food poisoning, or when she cobbled together a last-minute snack for her daughter’s Brownie troop by stirring assorted cupboard contents into moldy chocolate pudding salvaged from the fridge.
Early in her slim, potent new memoir, Not Becoming My Mother, Reichl (editor in chief of Gourmet and author of three best-selling memoirs) describes her late mother, Miriam (“Mim”), as a “comic character,” yet as she digs into a crumbling box of Mim’s correspondence, she resolves to form a deeper picture of her. Mim emerges not as the lighthearted star of one of her daughter’s stories but as a kind of blueprint for the pre–Feminine Mystique woman, who resigned herself to a domestic role only to find little comfort or reward. Born in 1908, Mim knew from a young age that she wanted to be a doctor, but her parents insisted that she focus her energies on finding a “suitably ladylike” occupation, the better to attract a husband. Her ambitions thus rebuffed, she reluctantly aimed for success by perfecting a set of womanly skills, becoming the unlikely author of the twelve-volume Homemaker’s Encyclopedia. Over the course of two marriages, Mim became all too aware of her failure to find satisfaction in family and home.
In her letters and in the notes she scribbled to herself on seemingly endless scraps of paper, Mim speaks to the tragedy of generations of women lost to conformity and rigid tradition. “My parents thought that I needed to be married, but was that really true?” she wrote on the first sheet her daughter pulls from the box. “What if I had never married? Would my life have been better?” Mim’s discontent was never lost on Reichl, who knew she didn’t want a life of compromises and “could not wait to escape from [her] mother’s unhappiness.” Her exploration reveals that Mim was similarly determined, always trying to give her daughter “permission to defy her”—and that though she loved and took great pride in her daughter, Mim was also wildly envious of her freedom. “Mom and her friends had poured so many of their hopes and aspirations into their daughters, and now they were watching us walk off into the future, leaving them behind,” Reichl writes.
Though Mim saw the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and belonged to the first generation of women to be granted equal rights (at least in theory), Reichl believes her mother was born at “the worst possible time to have been a middle-class American woman.” Mim’s story has the feeling of a parable: An individual struggles against the strictures of her time, nearly losing her mind, but emerges triumphant late—nearly too late—in life. If anything, the book’s brevity makes her personal victory seem deceptively simple. Its overly tidy conclusion aside, the book is a deft consideration of what it means to admire a person without wanting to emulate them. Reichl’s life stands as a tribute to her mother precisely because she has made a point of not becoming her.