Turning into Your Mother: An Essay by Ruth Reichl

As a famous (and feared) restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl found it best to dine in disguise. But the day she donned her mother’s blue dress and pearls, she experienced much more than a meal.

By Ruth Reichl

Putting on the Silver Wig

My mother’s blue silk dress fell over my shoulders and settled against my hips with eerie perfection. Smoothing the skirt, I reached up to clasp her pearls around my neck. As they clicked into place I could feel them nestle into my skin and begin to gently warm themselves. I wrapped myself in a robe and settled in to let Denise, my makeup artist, work her magic.

I had found the dress in the back of my mother’s closet after she died, hanging between the fake Pucci shifts and the jackets from Loehmann’s; the scent of Joy still clung faintly to the fabric. As I sorted piles for Goodwill, heaping up the bold prints and bright colors that my mother favored, I found myself putting the blue dress aside, along with the pearls, which had belonged to my grandmother.

"Pearls like to be worn," Mom said every time she fastened them around her neck. "I hope you’ll remember that when these are yours. Every time you wear them, they grow more beautiful." The pearls gave off a warm glow against the silky blueness of the dress, an effect that was far too quiet for my mother, who always completed the ensemble by splashing bright-green eye shadow across her lids and pressing a tiny silver star onto each one.

"Like this?" asked Denise as she put the stars on my eyes. She had painted my short nails with the deep-blue/red polish my mother always used; when I slipped on Mom’s large moonstone ring, even my hands were playing the part. "Now look," she commanded, whirling the chair to face the mirror. "My God," was all I could muster. I had never noticed the resemblance, but if you dressed me up in her clothes, hid my hair beneath a silver wig and covered my face with wrinkles, I turned into a virtual replica of Miriam Brudno. I even said "Gawd" in her Cleveland accent.

The moment the silver wig went on my head, I turned into someone else. It was stunningly unnerving. The only thing I can compare it to is being so absorbed in a novel that you disappear into the fiction and feel emotions that are not your own.

I am nothing like my mother. No one is. She was a commanding figure who did not have a timid bone in her body. Frank, fearless, and totally tactless, she was a woman who said what she felt, did what she pleased, and let the chips fall where they might. Having spent most of my life being embarrassed by Mom, I was shocked to discover how easily I slipped into her shoes.

Finding out that it was fun was even more frightening. Becoming my mother was like getting cosmic permission to abandon my superego, act without considering the consequences, behave badly. It wasn’t me, after all, doing these bold things, but it gave me an extraordinary sense of exhilaration.

My mother never walked; she advanced upon the world as if she were an invading army intent upon conquest. My rhythm, I found, had changed too. When Mom made calls, she punched the numbers into the phone, as if the very pressure would speed the connection. And I was punching now — to make a reservation.

Cocktails and Oysters

"This is 21?" Claudia asked. My mother’s oldest friend let out a moan of disappointment. She looked around the room at the red-and-white-checked napkins on the table, the long bar, and the low ceiling hung with thousands of toy trucks, airplanes, and football helmets. "It looks like a parody of an inexpensive Italian restaurant," she wailed. "It looks like a suburban recreation room. It looks as if it has not changed since it was a speakeasy."

"I don’t think it has changed," I said as a maitre d’ led us inexorably toward the dim reaches of the rear. "I think that’s supposed to be part of its charm."

Claudia snuffled unhappily. "This must be the worst table in the entire room," she noted when the maitre d’ finally came to a halt. "I’m certain that all the important people are seated in the front."

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