Ruth and I met in Ann Arbor. She in graduate school at the University of Michigan, working on her MA in art history, and I working at Bill Moss’ design business, C. William Moss Associates. I had just opened a small women’s clothing store. Ruth applied for a part-time job. Our love of food and cooking created a deep friendship over these last fifty years. My respect and admiration for her has only increased over time as she has moved, so effortlessly it seems, through many successful careers. Chef, food writer, food critic for two national newspapers, the last editor-in-chief for the now defunct Gourmet magazine. Ruth has received many James Beard Awards for television cooking shows and food writing. Most peoples’ accomplishment list would have ended with all those efforts, but not Ruth’s. She has written and published eight books, compiled Gourmet recipe books, and co-produced PBS’s Gourmet’s Adventures With Ruth. I treasure, Mmmmm: A Feastiary, her first cookbook, a collection of Ruth’s good recipes and stories, illustrated with humorous photos of our mutual friend, Pat Oleszko, a visual and performing artist.
When I contacted Ruth to ask her to participate, she responded as I expected knowing how busy she is writing a new book, traveling and speaking nationally while somehow keeping up with twitter and her daily blog—too pressed for time to write something now. But she sent me the following excerpt from an earlier draft of her book, For You, Mom, Finally. Ruth said it “pretty much explains why I do what I do.”
Any writer would be grateful for a mother like mine: She is a fabulous character. Passionate, opinionated (and more than a little loony), she opened my first book by inadvertently poisoning a couple of dozen people at a party. After it was printed every interview started with this question: “Is your mother still alive?”
She isn’t, but that does not seem to keep her from showing up whenever I sit down to write. She has wangled her way into all my stories, and she’s been an important part of every book I’ve ever written.
So it should have been no surprise when she turned up a few years ago, just before her hundredth birthday. Sitting down to write a polite acceptance speech, I had absolutely no idea of what to say. Ten minutes later the speech was done, although I had no memory of writing it. Other people experience this sort of automatic writing, but this was the first time it had happened to me. Reading what was on the page I saw that the words belonged to my mother; it was as if she had shoved me aside and written the speech herself. It was a gift - I was grateful- and I did not give it another thought.
But on the day of the ceremony, when I walked into the enormous ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria and saw all the women who had turned out to celebrate successful careers, I began wondering if this was really the speech I ought to give. There were a dozen women on the dais, and listening to all those graceful talks I wished I had something else to say. But it was too late to write a new speech, so when my turn came I simply read what was written on the page.
“My mother would have been 100 years old today. And so I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, and how she helped me to become the person that I am.
She did not do it any of the ordinary ways. She was not a great writer, or a great businesswoman, or even, if truth be told, a particularly good mother. I think she tried to be a good wife, but she wasn’t much at keeping house, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was a worse cook.
But my mother was a great example of everything I didn’t want to be, and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I’m not her. Grateful, in fact, not to be any of the women of her generation, who were unlucky enough to have been born at what seems to me to have been the worst possible time to have been a woman.”
A collective gasp went through the room, and then it became even more hushed. I looked at the sea of faces, 1500 people who had now turned eerily silent. The clink of silverware had stopped, and ice cubes no longer rattled against the glasses. Until that moment it had not occurred to me how radical these words might sound. I stumbled a bit, and then went on.
“When my mother was five she answered the telephone by saying this: “How often are the pains coming?” Little wonder, then, that she wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor like her father. But when she announced this to her parents they looked her up and down and said, “You’re no beauty, and it’s too bad that you’re such an intellectual. But if you become a doctor no man will ever marry you.” So Mom got a Phd. in musicology, thinking that she would become an impresario like her mother, 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 depression ended, my grandmother folded her business. As she later explained to my mother, her work was just a stop-gap measure, her way of helping out during hard times. Good women didn’t work if they didn’t have to; it would only humiliate their husbands and make the world think that their men couldn’t support them.
So Mom took her degree and opened a bookshop; it was a ladylike profession, but also something that made her very happy because it allowed her to correspond with writers all over the world. 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 bookstore behind, and have her 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, and 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 ever going to keep me from having a work life. I thought then – and I still think now – that it is the secret to happiness.
And so today, when people ask me “Why do you work so hard?” I think of my mother and say, “Because I can.”
Ruth Reichl, an excerpt from For You Mom, Finally, 2010
Be sure to visit Ruth's website www.ruthreichl.com