Excerpt: 'Not Becoming My Mother'

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 doctorno man will ever marry you."

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