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My Mother's Daughter: A Memoir
Around five oclock on a Sunday afternoon, as I lounged on my bed with The Catcher in the Rye, someones car blasted out of our driveway like a hot rod. I rushed to the window just in time to see our blue Studebaker tear down the street, my mother at the wheel. Bound for points unknown, an hour before dinner.
In the kitchen shed left a ghost meal. A mound of peeled apples, turning brown. A pastry blender clogged with shortening. The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook spread-eagled in a puddle of tomato pulp. That night, for the first and only time, dinner consisted of sandwiches. My father cleared his throat. My sister spilled her milk. No one spoke.
The queen of England might as well have run off to an island with a pirate; thats how baffled I was.
Next morning I found my mother in the kitchen, the pressure cooker already seething. Chicken soup, Daddys favourite lunch. “So where were you last night?”
The answer exploded as if shed been waiting to let fly. “Out, thats where! Has it ever occurred to you, Rona, that I might deserve at least a small reward for the work I do around here? That maybe after stocking the cookie jar and entertaining Daddys students and cranking out another three thousand words for Good Housekeeping, I might want a few minutes to call my own? You of all people should understand that, Miss Cant You See Im Reading, Miss Dont Come in Without Knocking! For a bright girl you can be surprisingly obtuse. You seem to have forgotten that I spent the best part of the weekend helping you finish that dress you had to wear today, never mind that Ive got a deadline to meet. And what did you say to me afterwards? Waving your dainty hand as if I were your maid? ‘Were out of Diet Pepsi. Would it kill you to drink something else?”
So her anger was all my fault. Oh please! She was the one who scorned store-brought cookies, who prodded me to make my own dresses, who faithfully sent all her magazine tearsheets to Grandma. By this time she made more money writing for womens magazines than my father did teaching literature. (She must have been the only writer in Good Housekeepings stable who crafted her prose with Miltons cadences ringing in her brain.) If my mother thought she had too much to do, let her try doing less. Holden Caulfield had a word for people like her: phony! (She would have called him the hero of a book, The Catcher in the Rye; I thought of Holden as the boy I loved.) That day I got my Diet Pepsi, a whole case of it. But if she wanted me to thank her, shed be waiting until her precious teak table was ready for a yard sale.
It was 1964, a year of anthems and polemics. Marchers denouncing the Vietnam war, three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi. I linked arms with a cluster of demonstrators in a town with no black people, singing “We Shall Overcome” and wondering when some dashing, blue-jeaned saviour of the downtrodden would be smitten with my inner beauty. I was almost fifteen; my mother was forty-two. She had just acquired a paperback copy of The Feminine Mystique, which she carried around like a talisman, filling the margins with notes in her emphatic hand. She kept leaving that book on the kitchen table or the back of the toilet, as if she were daring me to read it. But I had read the article in Life magazine, and it told me more than enough about the plague of boredom dogging housewives all over the land. Like a witch with a frowzy bubble cut, author Betty Friedan had foretold my mothers flight from her kitchen: “Sometimes…the feeling gets so strong [a woman] runs out of the house…” If this was revolution, I didnt want it. Besides, Id never be one of those women, those pitiful, tranquilized chumps fuming over their vacuum cleaners. Id write poetry under the eaves in a Greenwich Village flat, by the light of a candle in a Chianti bottle. No wage-slave husband for me. Id have a lover who spoke like Richard Burton, looked like Jean-Louis Trintignant and rattled the walls of Middle America like Bob Dylan.
A sign on my bedroom door shouted, “PROTEST AGAINST THE RISING TIDE OF CONFORMITY.” The sign had a target: my mother, with her dutiful cocktail parties for Daddys loudmouth colleagues, who would never recommend him for promotion, no matter how elaborate her canapés. My mother, who prided herself on driving miles out of her way to save a few cents on canned cream-of-mushroom soup, burning up the savings on gas. My mother, who invented and overcame a new crisis every month — drug addiction, widow-hood, agoraphobia — for a magazine feature called “My Problem and How I Solved It” (with no byline, she could take on a multitude of sad-sack personas). Why dont you solve a real problem, Mother? How about “My Husband Is a Drunk”?
Of course, I never said that. What I said, rolling my eyes in case she didnt get the point, was, “I cant wait to get out of this place!”
“Your problem isnt this house, Rona. Its you. When youre old enough to read Paradise Lost, youre going to look back on these years and understand that Satan is your soulmate:
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”
Why couldnt she just tell me to go to hell, the way other parents did when their kids drove them wild? She had to prove she was above such lowbrow tactics, thats why. My mother was an expert on Paradise Lost, along with everything else John Milton wrote. Other people had forgotten that, so I was supposed to remember. But I knew the score. “You have no idea whats going on in my head!” I shouted. “You dont know me at all. But Ill give you credit for one thing. You made me strong enough to fight you!”
From the Hardcover edition.
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