by Vicki Larson
My birthday is coming up (although, honestly, I think I’ve had more than enough!) and my kids will ask me what I want.
And I will answer the way I always answer, whether it’s Christmas or Hanukah (we celebrate both), Mother’s Day or some other Hallmark card holiday; “Nothing, I don’t want you to spend your money.”
But there was one year that I did ask for something — respect. (Must have been a particularly rough year.) And so under the Christmas tree, wrapped up in lots of shiny paper and ribbons, was a box with a piece of paper in it and the words R-E-S-P-E-C-T written on it. I promptly put it up on the fridge along with my boys’ pictures and drawings, where it was promptly forgotten (not the note, but the message).
I know the perennial question is, what do women want? Just as hard, maybe even harder, is trying to guess what mothers want. It seems we mothers ourselves don’t quite know, so what hope can anyone else have of figuring it out — especially our kids.
But it‘s a question that’s been on mind ever since I entered and then, amazingly, won an essay contest that sent me on a whirlwind weekend in Seattle to be pampered and to meet Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, in whose honor the contest was created.
Reichl was at the Pan Pacific Seattle hotel to talk about her new book, “Not Becoming My Mother,” in which she explores deeper Miriam “Mim” Brudno Reichl, the mother she’s only come to fully know — and appreciate — late in life, and too late for her mother to know.
Reichl’s stories of her mother fueled many comic stories she called Mim Tales in her previous books. It was only after her death, when she read through her mother’s personal papers and letters, that Reichl discovered a woman “more thoughtful, more self-aware and much more generous” than she knew growing up, one who desired a career but wasn’t allowed to have one. Reichl had no idea.
I could say the same about my own mother. In my essay, I describe the day my mother — up until then a normal 1950s housewife as far as I could tell — called my elementary school to tell the principal that my uncle was sick, and took my sister and me to see a matinee of “Mary Poppins,” a day she told me she couldn’t remember but one that stood out as the best day of my young life. Of course, after my essay won, my aging mother’s memory, which is always in flux nowadays, suddenly kicked into gear (making me wonder if she does this just to prove me wrong!): “It wasn’t ‘Mary Poppins,’ it was ‘Fantasia,’” she told me, making the year 1963 not 1964, and the month February instead of September.
OK, Mom. You’re right. Still …
What made the day so special, despite the fact that it was the first — and sadly, last — day of mother-sanctioned hooky — was that it was also the day my mother gave me a gift. I got to see a part of her that I didn’t know. She was a spunky, sassy girl with rebel leanings while growing up in Romania, until the war came and then four years in concentration camps and the loss of everything she had — her home, her parents, her friends, her sense of normalcy. And, her sassy, spunky side — until that miraculous day in 1964 (or ’63, depending on whose memory).
She never finished her schooling, and married my father when she was just 20. A former country girl, she raised two relatively emotionally healthy girls to adulthood in New York City mostly as a stay-at-home suburban mom, keeping a clean (and stylishly modern-furnished) home, happily sewing herself Vogue-pattern designer clothes, cooking foodie-like meals out of her Julia Child cookbook and developing an Imelda Marcos-like collection of shoes. When I was in junior high, she took a job selling cosmetics in Bloomingdale’s and eventually made a career at an Elizabeth Arden salon.
It was only when I was a woman in my 40s, the mother of two young boys and going through a divorce, that I asked her if she was happy with her life as a mommy. Yes, she loved being mom to two girls — she always wanted daughters, she said. But, she also admitted that there really weren’t many choices for her. She could be as unhappy as she wanted, but she had no skills, no job, no way to support herself, no clear future. So, she made herself happy, unlike Reichl’s mother, who eventually became bipolar.
I asked Reichl if she thought her mother would be any happier were she alive now, a modern-day working mother. She was unsure. The truth is, 50-something years later, mothers are no more sure of themselves or happier in their lives than our mothers were; in fact, living in the era of the Mommy Wars and Bad Mothers, they may be less sure.
But Reichl offered this: “Ask your mother questions while she’s still alive.”
So as I’ve been thinking about what mothers want, or at least one particular mother — me — I realize there is something I want my kids to give me, or rather, that I would like to give to them: to know me, to see the young girl I once was, to understand the Good Mother I tried to be despite whatever failings I may have had.
All they have to do is ask.