These books are worth giving or savoring in honor of the first and most important figure in our lives.
by Sue Tomchin
Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 8th, but two new books about moms and daughters are so good we would still want to talk about them, even if it were October.
The first comes from Nina Tassler, whose name is familiar to many for her more than 10 years as head of entertainment programming for CBS, where she shepherded such hits as CSI, The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, and Criminal Minds. Her book, though, grows from her role as the mom of a teenage daughter. What I Told My Daughter: Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women (Atria Books), delivers what it subtitle promises. Working with journalist Cynthia Littleton, Tassler has compiled more than 50 essays from such boldface names as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Olympic gold medal soccer player Mia Hamm, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and actresses Mary Steenburgen and Brooke Shields. But we also hear from a diverse collection of other women whose names may not be as well known, but whose accomplishments and leadership have impacted the worlds of politics, public service, law, science, medicine, business, sports, the arts, and spirituality.
Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles, writes to her daughter about the oppression of women and girls around the world. “The suffering in our world is real and nothing will ever change if we remain detached from other people and indifferent to their struggles,” she writes.
Attorney and activist Gloria Allred writes about how she demonstrated to her daughter Lisa Bloom that each of us has “the ability to question and confront authority… When you want something and someone in power says no, that’s just the beginning of the conversation.” Bloom is now an attorney, mom, author and legal commentator on the Today show.
Media executive and entrepreneur Joy Marcus writes about the strength of her mother, Thelma, born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She didn’t graduate from college, yet “believed strongly in women and their ability to succeed.” Marcus, among the first women to go to Princeton University, was CEO of a startup, partner in a venture firm where she focused on investments in female-led startups, and a professor at Princeton. She is now executive vice president and general manager of the digital video network at Condé Nast Entertainment.
“The common thread in all of these tales is the extra layer of responsibility that mothers have to guide their daughters to be empowered, to be confident and to make the right choices for them regardless of societal pressures,” Tassler writes.
Working on the book, Tassler notes, helped her appreciate “the strength of the emotional and intellectual foundation,” provided by her own mother’s teachings. Growing up in a small town in upstate New York at a time when the Vietnam War was at its height and local boys were being drafted, it wasn’t popular to be an anti-war activist. Yet, Tassler’s mom took her to an antiwar rally. As they stood hand in hand, the message was: “It’s okay to stand alone, to be afraid, to hold unpopular beliefs, to hear the sound of your own voice and to let courage grow from within.” Tassler would later need these qualities when she found herself the only woman in the room at high level meetings.
The direction of Betsy Lerner’s life was also influenced by her mom, but, in her case, in reaction to her mom’s choices. “I defined myself in fierce opposition to my mother, putting career and personal fulfillment over marriage and children,” she writes in the prologue of her insightful and affecting new memoir, The Bridge Ladies (Harper Wave). Like many who grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, Lerner rebelled against the authority of her parents and became immersed in her times. She smoked weed, became a “Dead Head,” used birth control, slept with a variety of men, got an advanced degree, and lived on her own.
Years later, when her husband’s job takes her back to New Haven, Conn., the town in which she grew up, Lerner finds herself living five miles away from Roz, her 83-year-old mom. Though in her forties, a mom, and a successful writer and literary agent, Lerner still finds that every time she is with her mother, she feels like a rebellious teenager. “We circled each other like wary boxers,” she writes. “Was everything she said a criticism, or did it only sound that way?”
With the hope of crossing the generational divide, Lerner asks to attend the bridge group that Roz has been part of for more than 50 years. The “bridge ladies,” Bea, Bette, Rhoda and Jackie, women whom her teenage-self had dismissed as “square,” for their focus on family, synagogue, and community, welcome her and allow her to speak to them about their lives and choices. To these octogenarians, who reached adulthood in the 1940s and ‘50s, marriage to a good provider (Jewish, of course) and motherhood superseded career aspirations.
The bridge ladies are not ones to wallow in self-pity as they face the inevitable losses of increasing age. For them, she notes, sharing means splitting a sandwich, “not automatically opening up about your life,” Lerner writes. Their gathering is not an encounter group or rap session with the girls, but a ritual that gives their lives structure and stimulation, in addition to being a social outlet. As she gets more involved, Lerner decides to learn bridge herself and comes to understand the beauty, difficulty and complexity of the game.
Even within the context of the restraint of the other bridge ladies, her mother’s personality remains a puzzle. Always impeccably dressed, coiffed and manicured, Roz works weeks ahead to prepare—and freeze—the traditional dishes for holiday meals. Though she’ll tell Lerner to please put on a little lipstick or to dress in “anything but black,” her deeper feelings are always kept under wraps. Lerner ponders how her mother remained so self-contained and silent—about an abusive father, severe postpartum depression, widowhood and the loss of a young daughter, Lerner’s sister, even to the point of removing photos of the child from display and observing her annual yahrzeit alone. “No matter what we say, it always feels as if the most important things remain unsaid,” Lerner writes. Had her mom been more honest and open, would Lerner still have suffered from the emotional and psychological problems that plagued her teen and young adult years?
Yet, as she spends more time with her mom, the anger diminishes and acceptance and even admiration grows, a life affirming coda to this bittersweet and beautifully written memoir.