book review: Who Do You Think You Are?

A Memoir

I didn’t like my mother, and I certainly didn’t love her. The only time we actually had anything in common was when I had my own daughter—but by then it was too late, since my mother was to die before we really could compare notes.

Happy Mother’s Day.

In honor, here’s a candid, often heartbreaking story about growing up in Queens in the 1960s with a verbally and sometimes physically abusive mother. In Who Do You Think You Are?, Alyse Myers recalls her childhood in Queens with astute descriptions and vivid details. Some moments are purely painful and some are brimming with expectations and (almost) hopefulness. Did Alyse find a way to leave her mother’s tyrannical grasp. Did she manage to avoid the same trappings of her mother (marrying young, not getting a college education, working at jobs she does not particularly enjoy)? Would her mother ever change her ways?

When the book opens, Alyse and her two sisters had gathered at the mother’s apartment to divvy up her things after her funeral. Alyse realized she only wanted one item: a carved wooden box that her father had given her mother as a gift and had been kept from Alyse’s reach and prying eyes. Alyse grabbed the box and brought it back to Manhattan but she didn’t open it.

Growing up, Alyse remembered being very fond of her father who didn’t spend much time at home. Her parents fought, but Alyse adored him because he lavished her with special attention. It turned out that her father cheated on her mother. When she was around 11 years old, Alyse’s father died of cancer. Her mother became more demanding and Elyse no longer had her father as a buffer. She pulled Alyse’s hair so much that it hurt for hours afterwards. She threatened to beat her with her father’s belts if she didn’t immediately clean her room or empty the dishwasher. Without warning her mother kicked her out of the house several times, often giving her mere minutes to pack her things and leave. Elyse confided in her grandfather who turned out to be her only confidante.

Alyse’s mother would often say, “You’re just like your father.” She even made it worse by saying: “You only do what’s good for you.” Through all this turmoil, Alyse managed to get excellent grades in school. She skipped a grade and was accepted at a prestigious high school in Manhattan where she commuted from Queens. When she graduated, she went to a community college and worked two jobs to save money so that she could get her own apartment and move, ultimately, away from her mother.

If you don’t like living her, leave. You’re never here anyway. You come and go as you please and you treat this place like a hotel. You’re just like your father.

I’d rather be like him than you.

Once Alyse was out on her own, her relationship with her mother changed a bit. Her mother’s attitude softened, particularly when Alyse married a man her mother liked and when Alyse had a daughter. The two women now had something in common. Both women wanted what was best for the little girl. Alyse began the process of forgiveness but then her mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.

Alyse finally opens the wooden box 12 years after the death of her mother. Her daughter is 15 years old and they open the box together. The contents will surprise you. I don’t want to spoil it.

Who Do You Think You Are? is a wonderful, bittersweet memoir about endurance, letting go of the past, looking toward the future, and forgiving but not forgetting.

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