I didn’t know my grandmothers very well. I wish I had.
My father’s mother, Fritzi, died when I was relatively young. I have fond memories of her: going to the Children’s Museum, eating hamburgers and sundaes together at Bob’s Big Boy, trying on her make-up and jewelry in her apartment. To a little girl, she was a great grandma. It was only later in my life, after she had died, that I heard that she could be difficult and controlling. Her husband died very young and she spent much of her life alone, following her children and grandchildren across the country.
I knew my mother’s mother, Iris, a bit better. She didn’t pass away until I was in college, but we never lived in the same city. I knew much more about her life. She was a nurse in the Air Force, a stay-at-home mom, a devout Catholic and Republican. I knew she defied her father to attend nursing school, leaving the Midwest for Los Angeles. Her husband also died young, so she lived alone for the last fifteen years of her life. I remember Christmases at her home and our first meal of boiled corn beef, cabbage, and carrots at every visit. When I was a teenager, I learned that she struggled with mental illness throughout her life. As she got older, her symptoms worsened. Just as I was old enough to get to know her well, she became more and more unknowable to me each day.
I had always thought that I bore more of a physical resemblance to my father’s family. When my maternal grandmother died, my mother and I went through the steamer trunks filled with her letters and photographs. I found a picture of Iris when she was nineteen (my age at the time), posing outside of her nursing school. We were mirror images of each other, from our petite frames to our dark hair. I never knew.
After reading Ruth Reichl’s new book, Not Becoming My Mother, I’ve been thinking of Iris and Fritzi and what their lives must have been like. Reichl is the same age as my parents, so her parents were of the same generation. She writes about her mother’s life, seen for the first time through her personal letters and notes, and comes to a new understanding of her mother’s struggles with mental illness. She paints a portrait of a woman who was stunted by her the limited choices that women had in those days. It’s heartbreaking to realize the wasted potential, not just in Reichl’s mother, but in all the mothers of that generation.
Without those women, my mother’s generation wouldn’t have broken away and forged a new path. Without my mother choosing to work, raise a family, and have a career, I wouldn’t have nearly as many choices and opportunities as I have. I’m the first generation that gets to take things for granted: a college education, a marriage that’s a partnership of equals, a career that uses my strengths, and a choice regarding whether or not to have children. I wonder if my grandmothers were still alive, what they would think of my life? Would they be proud of how far I’ve come? Would they be jealous, as Reichl’s mother was, of all of my opportunities?
I would highly recommend this book to all women, regardless of your age or your relationship with your mother or grandmothers. I think it offers all of us an important shift in perspective, reminding us of the lives that were sacrificed so that we could thrive.