Coincidentally, my husband and I started reading books about parents at the same time. Mine was For You Mom, Finally by Ruth Reichl and Mark’s was Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. Is it interesting to note that the first one is missing a comma in the title and the other one is missing a letter? (Actually, I see from the thumbnail I’m posting that the publisher corrected the comma on a subsequent edition – the book I checked out of the library is missing the first one!)
Ruth Reichl was the New York Times food critic for six years and is currently editor of Gourmet magazine, and she’s edited cookbooks and written about food. She’s also published three memoirs, all of which I enjoyed, particularly Garlic and Sapphires, The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.
For You Mom, Finally was previously published as Not Becoming My Mother, and frankly, neither title really reflects the book. It’s a slim volume and the font size is big, and the story feels both intensely personal and universal. It’s not the kind of book you can really give your mother for Mother’s Day, it makes you squirm a bit too much. It began with a speech Reichl made when accepting an award from Women in Communications in 2008 – were she spoke eloquently about her mother’s influence on her life. According to Reichl, much of her motivation to follow her own path sprang from observing her mother’s deep unhappiness through her life.
Born in 1908, Reichl’s mother Miriam came of age in a time when women were expected to be completely domestic, but education was fine for the well-to-do. So instead of becoming a physician, Mim got a Ph.D. in musicology. She opened a bookstore and became a bookseller (a genteel profession for a spinster). She married late, and much to the relief of her family. Then, with World War II funneling American men overseas, she started a very successful business in the music world. The end of the war meant the end of her life’s work and her satisfaction. And in For You Mom, Finally, Reichl tells the Mim stories that aren’t so sweet or amusing, that show how her unhappiness affected her family.
In the afterward for the newly titled new edition, Reichl recounts the way the book seems to have touched a chord with so many readers, from women who now understand their mothers better, to women of all ages who relate to the story, to men who say “this is not just a woman’s problem, I am unhappy and dissatisfied, too.”
Only after her husband died, with her children grown and fully independent – and not surprisingly, although they loved their mother, her children did distance themselves from her – did Miriam Reichl thrive. And only after her death, when reading her mother’s letters and papers, did Ruth Reichl see that much of the pain her mother caused her came from love, sorrow and frustration. A very sad lesson but one better learned late than not at all.
More about Sh*t My Dad Says in the next post. Hint: hahahahahahhaha!