May 11, 2006
Mother and Daughter Authors Are Klass Act
Sheila Solomon Klass and Dr. in Perri Klass -- mother and daughter co-authors -- don't finish each other's sentences, but they do elaborate on them in Talmudic style, layering on comments, memories, opinions and their own interpretations of the same story.
In a kitchen table interview in Sheila's Washington Heights, N.Y., apartment, the two women talk candidly about their lives and careers -- sometimes describing the other and waiting for a correction to be lobbed back -- and their new book, "Every Mother Is a Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace and a Really Clean Kitchen" (Ballantine).
Perri, 48, is a pediatrician and writer, and Sheila, 78, is an author and teacher of writing. Between them, they've written more than 25 books, although this is their first collaboration. The book is told in alternating voices and reads like their live conversation. They share ideas about home, children, writing, relationships and the way their lives overlap and echo. There's nothing thorny or strained between them, even as they disagree. The book is funny, thoughtful and smart -- full of love but avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality.
"In some ways we spend our lives telling stories about our mothers," Perri writes, determined to give her mother her say in print.
Among their similarities, Perri points out that both have three children, long marriages to academic men and work that allows time for writing "around the edges."
"She started out in a completely different place. She invented the whole thing. I was just copying," the daughter says.
"Perri gives me too much credit," her mother replies. "I don't feel I invented this kind of life. I stumbled upon myself."
Perri is one of the best-known pediatrician-writers in the United States. She gained national attention as a medical student in 1984 when she began contributing to the "Hers" column of The New York Times and published a much-discussed essay in The New York Times Magazine on being pregnant while attending Harvard Medical School. Since then, she has published widely in magazines, ranging from Parenting to Esquire to Knitter's Magazine (she's also a serious knitter) and has written nine books of fiction and nonfiction. In addition to her work at a neighborhood health center in Boston, she directs Reach Out and Read, a national program that trains doctors and nurses to stress the importance of reading.
Sheila is the kind of ardent New Yorker who prefers subways to taxis and wanders the streets with confidence -- she's still dazzled by the city where she's spent most of her life. For more than 40 years she has taught writing at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and she has written 16 novels, including several for young readers and a memoir of her time living in Trinidad, where Perri was born. Her other children are also writers: her son a screenwriter, and her younger daughter a poet, songwriter and English professor.
The book is in many ways a paean to husband and father Morton Klass, an anthropologist who specialized in religion and died suddenly in 2001. Perri says that she so missed hearing his voice and thought that this project would be a way for them to look at their memories from different perspectives. After his death, Perri and Sheila traveled to Trinidad, where they had previously lived in a small wooden hut on stilts while Morton did research for his dissertation -- this was a return trip they had hoped to do with him.
While Perri grew up in suburban New Jersey with familial support for all of her pursuits, Sheila grew up very poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1920s, in an unhappy Orthodox home. In order to attend Brooklyn College, she ran away from home and took a live-in baby-sitting job. Sheila never wanted a life like her mother's, although she later realized that "she who gives you life is never wholly separated from you."
Perri doesn't seem so much like a younger version of Sheila, but there's a direct lifeline between them. It's perhaps in their habits of home, kitchen and thrift that mother and daughter differ most, and playfully spar. Sheila never leaves a teacup in her sink, perfectly refolds the newspaper whenever she or anyone else puts it down, lives frugally and gets her assignments in early. Perri misses deadlines regularly and spends much of what she makes. Her home is chaotic and, unlike her mother, who served breakfast every morning at a set table, she tries to remind her kids to grab a handful of nuts on their way out of the house. While Perri isn't allowed to wash a dish in Sheila's home, Sheila makes sure to wash Perri's sink full of dishes whenever she visits, in spite of her daughter's protests. It's motherly prerogative.
"When I think about strength, I think about my mother," Perri says. "My mother has always been very reliable in a way that I don't think I am. I sometimes come home and I say I'm too tired to even think about dinner. Never in my whole life did my mother, who worked all day and had dinner on the table every night, say she was too tired."
"Only because I didn't know I was allowed," Sheila remarks.
The book ends in India, another return trip for the intrepid pair. Perri makes the plans, adding a few luxuries her mother would ordinarily eschew. The final scene is one of mother-daughter mischief, as they view the Taj Mahal at night.
Perri is about to become a New Yorker. She and her husband, a professor of history, are joining the New York University faculty. Along with an appointment at the medical school, she'll also teach in the journalism school.
As for Sheila, who has some trouble with her vision and hearing, she's grateful every day for the gifts of her life. Moving back to Manhattan after her kids left home was like returning from exile. She offers her own mantra: "Let it be known that she never took a cab of her own free will."
For Journal readers who will be in the New York region, there will be a Mother's Day event, celebrating mothers and daughters, co-sponsored by The Jewish Week and the UJA-Federation of New York. It will feature a conversation with Dr. Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass - moderated by Sandee Brawarsky and hosted by JCC Mid-Westchester. The dialogue will be followed by a book signing and light refreshments. It takes place Monday, May 15, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., JCC Mid-Westchester, 999 Wilmot Road, Scarsdale. The event is free but reservations are required. Contact Tia Disick, (212) 921-7822 x237, or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.