So Mom got a PhD in musicology. The family was musical; her mother would later become an impresario, the Sol Hurok of Cleveland. My grandmother was, by everybody's estimation, a formidable businesswoman. She brought great musicians to Cleveland, she started a lecture series, and Mom said she could look at any theater and count the house in a second. But when the hard times ended, my grandmother folded her business. As she later explained, her work was just a stop- gap measure, her way of helping out when money was scarce. Good women didn't work if they didn't have to; it would only humiliate their husbands and make the world think their men were incapable of supporting them.
So Mom took her degree and opened a bookshop; it was a ladylike profession, and although it was not the medical career that she had yearned for, it made her happy. She did marry, but not until she was almost thirty, late enough that the word "spinster" was being whispered behind her back. And sure enough, after the wedding everyone expected her to settle down, leave her shop behind and have babies.
There were a few problems with this plan. In the first place, Mom wasn't exactly maternal; babies bored her to tears. Happily, in her time there were nursemaids to care for the kids; I'll bet my mother never changed a diaper. And that is precisely the problem; she didn't do much else either. In earlier times keeping house had been a full- time job, even for those with servants, but by the time Mom married so many labor- saving devices had been introduced that cooking and cleaning just didn't take that long. My mother, like most of her friends, literally had nothing to do.
I have never known so many unhappy people. They were smart, they were educated and they were bored. Some of them did charitable work, but it wasn't fulfilling. Their misery was an ugly thing, and it was hard on their families. It was a terrible waste of talent and energy, and watching them I knew that I was never going to be like them.
Every night, when my father came in from work, he'd set his briefcase down in the hall, and I saw the little transformation that occurred. I realized that his secret life, the one he had when he was away from us, nurtured him, fed his soul. I watched him leaving in the morning, wishing that my mother could go to work too. I thought if she had her own secret life she would be a happier person. And I determined, when I was very small, that no matter what, nobody was going to keep me from having a work life. I thought then— and I still think now— that it is the key to happiness.
And so today, when people ask, "Why do you work so hard?" I think of my mother, who was not allowed to do it, and say, "Because I can."
This was not a Mim Tale, but Mom's story had struck a nerve and over the next few weeks I began getting letters from people I did not know. They all began the same way: "My mother was just like yours . . ." The letters kept on coming and several people suggested that I write a book about Mom's generation. The idea intrigued me, and I began interviewing other women, taking notes about their mothers and their thwarted lives.