But when the time came to start writing, I found I couldn't. For months I sat staring at the notes with absolutely no idea of where to begin. I went to the library and perused old newspapers. I read the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution and tried to imagine what it must have been like, belonging to that first generation of women who had been granted equal rights. I studied the work of suffragettes. But each time I tried to write about emancipated women I found myself going in circles, uncertain of what to say. Why did it take me so long to figure out that I had been handed the perfect opportunity to write my mother's book? Only later did I understand how frightened I had been, how scared of what I might find out.
Like most women, I decided who my mother was long ago, sometime during childhood. The comic character of the Mim Tales was safe now; I had spent many years making peace with her. Her voice was no longer inside my head and it was a relief to have all that behind me. I was reluctant to replace the mother I thought I knew with someone else. Why go looking for trouble?
But I owed it to my mother, and I knew it.
Still, every time I headed toward the basement where the box of diaries might be I turned away, experiencing an urgent need to bake a pie, run an errand, wax the floors.
In the end I managed to persuade myself that the box was very likely to be lost. That gave me the courage to finally open up the basement door and creep slowly down the chilly stairs. Feeling like Pandora, I picked my way through outgrown skis, discarded tools, old menus and ancient typewriters, peering into the dusty cartons that towered over me. The one containing Mom's notes was nowhere to be found, and I was beginning to breathe easy when I stumbled over a once- shiny white box held together with pieces of twine.
Blowing off the dirt, I read "Miriam's Life and Letters" penciled in my father's calligraphic script, the writing almost obliterating the stamped B. Altman & Co. beneath it. The top crumbled in my hand— it had been years since anyone had touched it— and opened to reveal a huge collection of letters, notes and clippings. Looking down I caught sight of my mother's bold handwriting and inhaled sharply.
It was as if she were suddenly with me, there in the basement, and as I bent to pick up a sheet of paper covered with her vivid scrawl I could almost hear her voice. I sat down on the cold cement floor and let the words flood over me.
"I hope Ruthy won't rush into marriage the way I did that first time. I felt so desperate, and I wanted someone to lean on. I pray she'll never feel that way. My parents thought that I needed to be married, but was that really true? What if I had never married? Would my life have been better?"
I felt a little sick; with these first words I had discovered something new. Mom's fi rst marriage had been a true disaster— I had always known that— but I thought that she had loved my father. But this note, written ten years into their marriage, holds a definite note of regret. Was I prepared to find out why?
I dropped the letter and picked up another, written in a safely unfamiliar hand. The script was tight and slightly cramped. Dated 1925, it began "Dear Dadsy- boy," the brown ink wavering uncertainly on cream stationery. Mom's sister, I thought, the one who died long before I was born.