Not Becoming My Mother Book Cover, EM Keeler, Balfour Books, Bookside Table

With Not Becoming My Mother, Ruth Riechl exonerates her mother Miriam from the narrow caricature of the charmingly embarrassing anecdotes that survived her. Because I had the pleasure of reading one of Reichl’s other memoirs, Tender at the Bone, a few years ago (when Gourmet sadly folded), I was already familiar with this narrow Mirriam. TATB opens with the story of how Miriam, loved more dearly as ‘Mim,’ accidentally poisoned the guests of her son’s engagement party with her, um, ‘creative’ approach to cooking with food past its prime.

In NBMM, Reichl looks to the record that her mother has kept of her own life, her letters and diary entries, to make sense of their relationship. Like many women of her generation and social station, Miriam felt overwhelmingly restricted; her world was too small for her, stuck at home while she longed to participate in a larger sphere.  She was hopelessly inept at domesticity, a legendarily terrible cook, horrible housekeeper, and well meaning but irregular at childrearing.  Well Reichl’s other work pokes gentle fun at Mim’s shortcomings, this small volume looks more closely, ultimately allowing Reichl to come to terms with never having known the fullness of her mother’s life.

Like David Shields’ The Thing About Life, NBMM  seems to come out of a place of simultaneous love and rage; we love our  parents–they gave us life!, and we rage and we rage… because they could’ve given us more. Reichl begins with an astounding speech where she expresses some regret for characterizing her mother in such an unflattering light in her previous work, and moves on almost immediately to Miriam’s own words and letters. Reichl is shocked by how unfamiliar the young Miriam is, how her mother as a young girl had seemed so different, so plainly nice, always accommodating to her own parents. There is real delight in seeing Reichl process her own pain through the small discoveries. The book is overall a very personal, though beautiful, meditation on the emotional torture of growing up for each of these women: Miriam’s freedom controlled by her parents, then by the social expectation that she marry and settle down, and Ruth’s distress at being raised by a wonderful, though terrifically unfit, mother.

I’ll refrain from spoiling it for you, but let me just say that NBMM is a short book that fails to resolve itself completely. Its brevity in no way relates to its devastating impact. I read these 100 pages in one sitting, at a Pizza shop on Bloor, tears streaming onto the greasy counter. And I would do it again. Reichl has written a sweet study of her origin, of her mother, and though the end result is painful, the book itself is nothing if not nourishing.