Who Do You Think You Are?: A Memoir [NOOK Book]

Overview

After her mother's death, Alyse Myers covets only one thing: a wooden box that sits in the back of a closet. Its contents have been kept from her for her entire life. When she was thirteen years old her mother promised she could have the box, "when I'm dead. In fact, it'll be my present to you."

Growing up in Queens in the 1960s and '70s, Alyse always yearned for more in life, while her mother settled for an unhappy marriage, an unsatisfying ...
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Who Do You Think You Are?: A Memoir

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Overview

After her mother's death, Alyse Myers covets only one thing: a wooden box that sits in the back of a closet. Its contents have been kept from her for her entire life. When she was thirteen years old her mother promised she could have the box, "when I'm dead. In fact, it'll be my present to you."

Growing up in Queens in the 1960s and '70s, Alyse always yearned for more in life, while her mother settled for an unhappy marriage, an unsatisfying job, and ultimately a joyless existence. Her father drifts in and out of their home. There are harrowing fights, abject cruelty, and endless uncertainty. Throughout her childhood Alyse adamantly rejects everything about her mother's lifestyle, leaving her mother to ask "Who do you think you are?"

A personal portrait of a mother and daughter, Who Do You Think You Are? explores the profound and poignant revelations that so often can come to light only after a parent has died. Balancing childhood memories with adult observations, Alyse Myers creates a riveting and deeply moving narrative.
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Editorial Reviews

Jennifer Gilmore
Who Do You Think You Are? is pleasantly old-fashioned, written in simple prose that allows the narrator insights into events as she ages…Yet what emerges from the single-layered narration is a touching, even tender, record of her thorny mother's difficult life raising three girls alone with few resources.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Myers (v-p, brand programs for the New York Times) considered herself a "daddy's girl," until the death of her father when she was only 11 left her particularly lonely. In this dark though moving book, she explains that she never told her two younger sisters of her loneliness and found her mother's unpredictable cruelty truly bewildering. Although this was a working-class Jewish family in Queens in the 1960s and '70s, it wasn't the sort featured in storybooks. Her parents chain-smoked and fought endlessly, slinging curses at each other without a thought of their children listening. Alyse got herself into a gifted high school in Manhattan, found herself part-time jobs and enrolled in an affordable city college. It was only after she married and had a child herself that she started to understand her father had been a philanderer and used morphine. The greatest gift she gave her daughter was the determination to create a different sort of life for herself.
Kirkus Reviews
A New York Times executive chronicles her dysfunctional relationship with her mother. The death of her beloved, somewhat feckless father when she was 11 brought an end to her parents' shouting matches, but without him as a buffer, the animosity increased between smart, self-sufficient Myers and her short-tempered, resentful, chain-smoking mother. School and reading were the girl's escapes from a miserable home life marked by physical violence and abusive language. In lackluster prose comprised of flat, declarative sentences, the author describes fighting constantly with her mother as a teenager. They both saw Myers as her father's daughter, someone who did not want to grow up to be "a switchboard operator in a bra factory," as her unambitious mother was. Thrown out of the house more than once, the author moved out for good at 18. "I was able to admit what I knew all along," she writes. "I hated her and didn't care if she hated me back." Later, after Myers married, their relationship became mildly civil. When the author had a baby, she realized that her mother possessed a softer, maternal side that she had not seen before. However, her mother's early death from lung cancer prevented the development of a closer bond. Myers's relationship with her two younger siblings was always cool and distant, and when the three of them were sorting through their mother's possessions, she deliberately concealed a box of old letters and photos, which she took away. Years later, when her daughter was a teenager, Myers opened the box for the first time; the discovery of its contents and significance closes the book on a contrived note. Adds little new or memorable material to an old story. Agent: RobinStraus/Robin Straus Agency
From the Publisher
"Here's a book so honest it won't let you off the hook. You may not realize it during the early pages, but it's a book about love. Indeed, it's a story where love is redefined, and even though it traces the sometimes unbearable relationship of mother and daughter, there are insights here for all of us. And the writing is masterly, taut, honest, and strangely satisfying." — Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes

"The moving story...pleasantly old-fashioned...touching, even tender, record of Myer's thorny mother's difficult life raising three girls alone." -The New York Times

"Myers provides a moving lesson. This journey has universal resonance for myriad readers." -LibraryJournal.com (starred)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416566090
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 5/6/2008
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 586,013
  • File size: 288 KB

Meet the Author

Alyse Myers
Alyse Myers lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. This is her first book.
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Read an Excerpt


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Prologue

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.

I know she didn't like me either. I can't say whether she loved me, as I don't remember her ever telling me so. But her dislike was more about not understanding the monster she created, as she would say, the person who wanted so much more than she expected -- or was able -- to give. Or wanted to give. To me. To my sisters. And to herself.

My mother married my father when she was nineteen and was a widow at thirty-three. She told me that he was the only man she had ever been with, both before they married and after he died. Even when I was a child, I knew that theirs was a complicated marriage. I wanted to believe they were destined to be together, that their bitter fights had to do with his illness and her inability to cope with it. I didn't want to believe that my parents -- childhood sweethearts -- could end up hating each other with a passion that still frightens and saddens me to this day.

A week after her funeral in 1993, my two sisters and I were in her apartment in Queens, New York, arguing over who would get her things. I was thirty-seven and my sisters would soon be thirty-five and thirty-four. She didn't have much, and I knew we were fighting over who would get more for herself and not for who would have more of her. Who would get the ugly blue and white crystal bowl that a neighbor's daughter had given my mother after a trip to Germany as thanks for looking in on her elderly mother? Or the Lladró porcelain statue of a milkmaid that came from Spain, a gift from that same neighbor's daughter? Or the framed painting of a Moorish castle that she bought at a Greenwich Village art show and was so proud that it perfectly matched the green and gold motif of her living room?

My sisters and I took turns picking things we wanted. I forget who went first. I put my choices in one corner of the room, and I soon realized the things I chose weren't really important to me, but I wasn't willing to say so. I wasn't going to let my sisters have all of her things.

And then I remembered the box. It was the size of a shoe box, hand-carved brown wood, with a green and red skull and crossbones painted on top. It looked like a pirate's treasure chest. I don't know if my father did the painting, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had been something he made in a grade school shop class. My mother was an A student and my father barely made it through the ninth grade. I could see him doing well in shop class, though. When he showed up, that is.

I knew my father had given the box to my mother before they got married. She told me so many years earlier, when I sat on the floor watching her cleaning out her bedroom closet. Or trying to. The box sat in the middle of a pile of shoes -- all colors and many missing a mate -- scuffed pumps and loafers, slippers and handbags. I asked her if I could open the box, and she told me no, it was only for her. That there was nothing interesting in it and I should go back to my room.

I tried again. "When can I open it?"

"When you're older," she told me. "You're not old enough now."

I had turned thirteen the week before. That day she told me I was now officially a grown-up.

"But I'm a grown-up," I reminded her. "You told me so yourself last week."

Silence.

"When can I open it?" I repeated.

She paused. "When I'm dead," she responded. "You can have it when I'm dead. In fact, it will be my present to you."

Over the years, whenever my mother wasn't home, I would take the box out of her closet and turn it around and around, shaking it and wondering what treasures hid inside. I wanted so much to open it, but the box was locked tight, and I couldn't figure out how to open it without breaking the lock. I once dropped it on the floor -- partly by accident but partly hoping the little gold padlock would somehow spring open and whatever was inside would fall out. But the box remained shut and the top corner chipped where it hit the floor. I looked around, afraid she would catch me, even though I knew no one was there. I knew she would kill me if she found me playing with it. So I put it back where I found it and left her room.

From that point on, I wanted to know what was inside. I knew the box was important to her. And at her apartment a few days after her death, I knew that if there was one thing I had to have of hers, it was that. That box would give me the answers to my questions: Who were my parents really? And why did my mother end up with so very little in her life?

As my sisters fought over her fifteen-year-old television set, I walked into her bedroom and over to her closet. The sliding door was off its track, as it always was when she was alive. Never a good housekeeper when my sisters and I were living with her, my mother's apartment was even more cluttered and messy after we had all moved out. Her clothes were so tightly packed in the closet that it was hard to see what was there. She never threw anything out. I could see the blue dress with the white stitching that she wore to my father's funeral twenty-six years earlier crammed next to the brown polyester slacks and the brown and white polyester blouse she wore to her chemo treatments. Her shoes were thrown in a pile on the bottom of the floor, size 7½ AAA that she always had such a hard time finding in stores. The home nurse who had taken care of her while she was dying clearly had no interest in keeping the house clean, either. What is the point? she probably had asked herself. She's going to die, anyway, so why should it matter?

I was glad I brought my largest canvas tote bag that day. I carried it with me from room to room, knowing my sisters would think I was trying to take something they might want. I didn't care what they thought. Carrying the bag reminded me of when my mother first came to visit me and my husband in our apartment soon after we were married. She kept her handbag with her the entire time she was visiting, tightly over her shoulder, hugging it to her chest. "Ma," I said when I saw she had her bag with her in the kitchen, the dining area, the bathroom, and then back in the living room, "I promise I won't steal your money." She looked at me like I was crazy, and then I touched her bag and told her it was safe for her to leave it in one place. We both laughed, and she told me she didn't realize that she was carrying it around. I'm not sure I believed her.

Now, facing her closet, I bent over and looked on the floor and pushed aside some of her things, but I didn't see the box. I stood up, stepped back as far as I could go, jumped up a few times to see if the box was on the top shelf. I started to get nervous. I didn't want my sisters to know what I was doing. They were still looking through her things, her LP records now. I left my bag on the floor by the closet and tiptoed down the short hallway to the kitchen and to the table covered with the orange and yellow checked vinyl tablecloth with old cigarette burns at the place where she used to sit. Feeling like a criminal, I glanced over my shoulder a few times, hoping my sisters wouldn't notice me. I picked up one of the metal folding chairs and tiptoed back to her bedroom.

I placed the chair in front of the closet, kicked off my shoes, and climbed on top. I saw the box on the shelf, hiding behind the simple blue leather pocketbook I gave her for her fiftieth birthday. I knew she would never use that bag, but I wanted her to have something that wasn't plastic and didn't have hundreds of pockets and zippers. I wasn't surprised when I saw the tag still on it. I pulled it out and shoved it into my tote bag.

Then I reached for the box, pulled it out, put it under my left arm, and climbed down from the chair, keeping my balance by grabbing onto the blue and green and white housedress she wore when playing poker with my grandparents and their friends on Saturday nights. I slipped my shoes back on and put the chair in the corner, next to her bed. There was no one now who would notice it missing from the kitchen. I slipped the box inside my bag and used my sweater to cover it. I walked out of the bedroom and saw my sisters still going through her LPs, arguing over who was going to get Barbra and who was going to get Frank.

"I'm going now," I said. "I have to get home for dinner."

"Did you take anything else?" my youngest sister barked. "You didn't take anything, did you?" I knew she would worry that I had more than she did.

"What would I take?" I asked. "There's nothing here I want."

Out in the street, I looked for a taxi to take me home to my apartment in Manhattan. After twenty minutes, I found a driver who was thrilled to go back over the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. I leaned into the seat, lifted the sweater in the bag, and looked at the box. I thought about when I would open it. And then I thought about my mother and why our relationship was so complicated.

"Why do you want more?" she always asked me and not pleasantly. "Why is my life not good enough for you?"

I closed my eyes as the taxi went over the bridge and didn't open them until it turned the corner to my building.

When I got back to my apartment, my husband and daughter were sitting in the kitchen, laughing together and eating dinner. I was reminded how lucky I was to have my own family that was so uncomplicated. I gave my husband and daughter a kiss and then walked straight into the bedroom.

"What did you do at your mom's house?" my husband called after me. "Did you find anything special?"

"Nope," I said. "Not a thing. She didn't have a thing I wanted."

I don't know why I lied to him. I sat on the bed holding the box, tracing the outline of the skull and crossbones with my fingertip. I toyed with the lock and noticed that it would be easy to pry open. Finally, I would be able to find out what it had been hiding all of these years. All I had to do was get a screwdriver, wedge it under the metal plate, flip open the top, and all of my questions would be answered.

Instead, I walked over to my linen closet, took out a white towel, and wrapped it around the box. I opened my closet door and moved aside my shoes that were neatly stacked in white boxes. I pushed the wooden box far back into my closet, behind my shoes, and closed the door.

I can't explain why I didn't open the box that day. And I can't explain why I didn't open it until twelve years later. I don't know what I was afraid of, but all during those twelve years, I would conveniently forget it was in my closet, or when I did notice it was there, would decide I just didn't have the time to look inside.

Copyright © 2008 by Alyse Myers

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Introduction

Discussion Questions

1. "That box would give me the answers to my questions: Who were my parents really — and why did my mother end up with so very little in her life" (page 7). What answers, if any, did the contents of the box give the author? What did you think was going to be hidden away in that box? Do you think the contents help explain the author's relationship with her mother? Why or why not?

2. What is the significance of the book's title, Who Do You Think You Are? How does the author answer this question? If asked, how do you think her mother would respond to this question?

3. "Here's how you'll get her back, he told me. I looked at him, not understanding how that diary would help me. Write it down, he said" (page 39). Do you think keeping a journal helped the author work through her anger or just allowed her to keep track of her mother's faults? What purpose do you think journal writing has in our culture?

4. Why do you think the author's parents fought so much? Do you think Alyse is a fair narrator when it comes to describing her parent's relationship or the relationship she has with her mother? Why or why not?

5. At her father's funeral, her mother gave Alyse her father's favorite "Chai" necklace. Considering the origin of the necklace, what kind of gesture was this? How did this gesture make you feel about Alyse's mother? What does it mean to Alyse?

6. Why do you think no one offered to drive Alyse's family home after her cousin's bar mitzvah? Who or what was responsible for the tension between the two families? Did you think it was strange?

7. Who was the one person that the author trusted to be there for her, no matter what? Doyou think Alyse was being fair or do you think she didn't allow others to get close to her? Who else, if anyone, do you think she could have reached out to for companionship during her childhood?

8. What event prompted Alyse to move out of her mother's apartment for good? Do you think the author or her mother was at fault? Explain your answer.

9. "For some reason, the mere mention of The New York Times would trigger her anger toward me, long after I moved out of her apartment. Sometimes it seemed as if The Times was in some way the cause of our problems" (page 130). Why do you think Alyse's job upset her mother so much? Was there any career choice that would have made her mother feel unthreatened? If so, which one?

10. Why did Alyse's mother give her the pearl earrings? Was she proud of her daughter or finally becoming comfortable with their relationship? How did the theft of the earrings affect the original gesture?

11. Was her mother deliberately late for Alyse's wedding or did she get lost? What do you think the author believes? After the couple was pronounced man and wife, everyone clapped except her mother. How do you interpret that behavior?

12. How do you feel about the author and her sisters lying to their mother about her true medical prognosis? Do you think that it was truly in their mother's best interest or that it was a violation of their mother's rights?

13. "My daughter was going to bring the two of us together. For the first time, we would have something we could share. We were both mothers. And one of us was going to be a good one" (page 156). Discuss the theme of motherhood in this book. In what ways is it shown to be both damaging and healing? In the end, how would you describe the relationship between Alyse and her mother? And finally, would you call Alyse's mother a "bad mother"? Explain your answer.

Alyse Myers lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.  This is her first book.

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Reading Group Guide


Discussion Questions

1. "That box would give me the answers to my questions: Who were my parents really -- and why did my mother end up with so very little in her life" (page 7). What answers, if any, did the contents of the box give the author? What did you think was going to be hidden away in that box? Do you think the contents help explain the author's relationship with her mother? Why or why not?

2. What is the significance of the book's title, Who Do You Think You Are? How does the author answer this question? If asked, how do you think her mother would respond to this question?

3. "Here's how you'll get her back, he told me. I looked at him, not understanding how that diary would help me. Write it down, he said" (page 39). Do you think keeping a journal helped the author work through her anger or just allowed her to keep track of her mother's faults? What purpose do you think journal writing has in our culture?

4. Why do you think the author's parents fought so much? Do you think Alyse is a fair narrator when it comes to describing her parent's relationship or the relationship she has with her mother? Why or why not?

5. At her father's funeral, her mother gave Alyse her father's favorite "Chai" necklace. Considering the origin of the necklace, what kind of gesture was this? How did this gesture make you feel about Alyse's mother? What does it mean to Alyse?

6. Why do you think no one offered to drive Alyse's family home after her cousin's bar mitzvah? Who or what was responsible for the tension between the two families? Did you think it was strange?

7. Who was the one person that the author trusted to be there for her, no matter what? Do you think Alyse was being fair or do you think she didn't allow others to get close to her? Who else, if anyone, do you think she could have reached out to for companionship during her childhood?

8. What event prompted Alyse to move out of her mother's apartment for good? Do you think the author or her mother was at fault? Explain your answer.

9. "For some reason, the mere mention of The New York Times would trigger her anger toward me, long after I moved out of her apartment. Sometimes it seemed as if The Times was in some way the cause of our problems" (page 130). Why do you think Alyse's job upset her mother so much? Was there any career choice that would have made her mother feel unthreatened? If so, which one?

10. Why did Alyse's mother give her the pearl earrings? Was she proud of her daughter or finally becoming comfortable with their relationship? How did the theft of the earrings affect the original gesture?

11. Was her mother deliberately late for Alyse's wedding or did she get lost? What do you think the author believes? After the couple was pronounced man and wife, everyone clapped except her mother. How do you interpret that behavior?

12. How do you feel about the author and her sisters lying to their mother about her true medical prognosis? Do you think that it was truly in their mother's best interest or that it was a violation of their mother's rights?

13. "My daughter was going to bring the two of us together. For the first time, we would have something we could share. We were both mothers. And one of us was going to be a good one" (page 156). Discuss the theme of motherhood in this book. In what ways is it shown to be both damaging and healing? In the end, how would you describe the relationship between Alyse and her mother? And finally, would you call Alyse's mother a "bad mother"? Explain your answer.

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2012

    Highly recommended

    Well- written , engrossing book about a mother/daughter relationship.
    Very enjoyable.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I would skip this one...

    I finished "Who Do You Think You Are?" in less than a day. It was easy reading and bits and pieces were interesting. But for the most part, I think my issue with the writing was that I did not feel for Ms Myers. A Myers grew up in the housing projects in Queens, her family had marital problems, her father died young and her mother was stern with her and her sisters. At this point I would simply say, "so what?!?" And as I read through her memoir, all I really hear and experience was the author's chronic whining and complaining. I think she failed to understand that as young parents (which hers were), it's not always easy to raise three daughters esp after the death of the father. And as Ms. Myers grew into her teenage years, I felt as though she did think she was better than her mother. It's one thing to want to make a better life for yourself and to be independent but to not have or show any respect to your mother regardless of how tough you thought your life was, in my opinion, is unforgivable.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Must Read Memoir

    What can I possibly say about this book that would adequately express how much I loved reading it? It is not the type of book that you will say "Wow! I really loved that book" but you will become engrossed in Alyse's story. You will be unable to put the book down and it will take awhile to fade from your memory. I love books like this. Books that even a week after you finish, you can still recall even minor details. This type of book happens very rarely and I am glad I was given a chance to read it.

    Who Do You Think You Are? is a wonderful book. There is not much more I can say than that. The writing is perfect. Alyse Myers does a wonderful job of bringing her story to life. I am amazed at how she can remember so much. I can barely remember yesterday much less my childhood. Most of my childhood memories seem as if they happened underwater when I try and recall them. Alyse, as a child, teenager and adult, was a completely engaging character. I loved reading about her family, as well.

    I think we all can see some of ourselves and our childhoods in Alyse's story. One particularly striking moment for me was when Alyse was less than pleased that her she had a new sister. I did almost the exact same thing. When my little sister was brought home, I was two years old. I walked up to my mother and asked "What is it and when is it leaving?" When they said that she was here forever, I ran downstairs to my grandmother's and did not return for a week.

    I would recommend this book to just about everyone. It is that good. I am passing this on to my sister and mother because I know they would love it, too.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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