by Amy Weldon
In deep midwinter, ten adults gather at my table in a room next to a downtown welding shop, notebooks and pens in front of them. They’re here because they can’t put aside the nagging voice any longer: I’ve been someone else’s good wife / mother / husband / grandfather for so long, and I want to see what else there is in me. I know there’s something here. But what? Life has textured them, sponged-over and scratched them like an heirloom table, a rich golden wall, a cat-ragged but still-splendid velvet divan. They feel beauty in the world, in the wise and difficult ways that deepen as we get older. They know how to read expressions and silences. They’ve given birth and watched their parents die and signed papers to separate themselves from people who once seemed as necessary as oxygen. They have stories. But to those new to it, writing looks as impossible as pole-vaulting or ballet. They are here so they will not have to grip that bar or lace up those blunt toe-crushing shoes alone.
On the first night of class, after we introduce ourselves—Rebecca clutching her father’s maroon veterinary practice ledgers; Ed with memories of a Wisconsin farm boyhood; Karen just coming from caring for her mother in the Alzheimer’s unit—I start with a favorite first exercise, from a little stripe-spined book called Thinking About Memoir:
Write two pages about a time when you were dressed inappropriately for the occasion. What occasion? Who thought you were inappropriate? That’s up to you.
A woman wrote about her first husband’s death, which had happened maybe twenty years ago. He was helping somebody load a truck, a favor for somebody he barely knew—that’s the kind of generous man he was. The truck moved unexpectedly and he was thrown to the ground, and sustained a head injury so severe that when they got him to the emergency room he was declared brain-dead. Hours later she was standing on the roof of the hospital with her husband’s brother, deciding whether or not to take him off life support. She was wearing flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt, and she remembers thinking how these were the wrong clothes to be wearing at such a moment. She had never written about his death before. Focusing on what she was wearing gave her the distance.
A side door.
“Take ten minutes and see what you get,” I offer. Little snickers and sighs erupt around the table, amidst steady scribbling. When time’s up, everyone reads aloud. Even the self-doubters discover they’ve filled two pages. On every face is the same look: surprised and softened. They’ve lowered their defenses—and now, around the table, we are a community.
I owe this experience to that little book’s author, Abigail Thomas—memoirist, novelist, dog lover, former literary editor and agent, mother of four and grandmother of twelve, widow, painter, and teacher—who trains us in forgiveness and clarity with every word.
As a 19-year-old bride, Abigail Thomas, pregnant, was sleeping next to her first husband in her parents’ apartment when her father burst in. It was past midnight, yet he was excitedly talking about something, “perhaps a scrap of something interesting from the paper . . . after a while he left, the smell of whiskey in the air.” Her husband was angry, but “that night the baby kicked so it wasn’t a complete wash.”
The father in question was Lewis Thomas—endlessly curious doctor and scientist, author of six books (including The Lives of a Cell and Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony), and dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine—who had written in an essay, “Seven Wonders,” that our own known universe “can keep us awake and jubilant with questions for millennia ahead, if we can learn not to meddle and not to destroy.” You can believe in such a thinker bursting into people’s rooms after midnight to share what had just occurred to him.
Abigail Thomas’s mother Beryl seems to have been similarly wide-ranging and wide-eyed. In the anecdote that gives her daughter’s first memoir, Safekeeping, its name, Beryl describes what she heard in Switzerland: “the disembodied voices of nuns coming through the windows of the church singing the same song they had sung at the same hour every day for the last five hundred years. ‘If safekeeping has a sound,’ she said, ‘then surely this was it.’”
When Thomas became pregnant at 19, she was asked to leave Bryn Mawr (this being 1959.) “Looking back,” Thomas has written, “I think I married my mother and [my boyfriend] married his. Anyway, we were horribly self-conscious about our new roles—husband, wife, father, mother—and we were either ridiculously polite or we were fighting. It was awful, but it was what I wanted to write about.” Yet her first, unpublished attempt at telling their story, beginning with a fight in the kitchen over “the beginnings of baked Indian pudding,” was unsuccessful, because “this wasn’t writing, this was tattling. Worse, what had been stored in my memory as a vivid scene was whiny and boring when exposed to light. And I realized that if I wrote it the way I remembered it that it wouldn’t be true. It would only be truth for the girl I no longer was.”
In her second book and first novel, An Actual Life (1996), that marital experience became that of young Virginia and Buddy. In one poignant scene, Virginia’s attempts to connect with Buddy are mirrored by her attempts to connect with her mother, both difficult tasks for the young bride:
She takes the lid off a little box for just one second, long enough for me to know there is something very important inside, and the clue is a line of poetry or perhaps the color red of a cloak in the piece of stained glass window she once saw depicting the four seasons “and winter’s cloak was of such a ruby red that it caused me to weep.” She doesn’t say my name. . . . She is looking into space when she talks this way, and I just listen. I am a very good listener. I am listening for the secrets of life that I do not yet know.
Yet that young marriage is marked not just by difficulty but by flashes of sweetness: in Thomas’s first published book, the story collection Getting Over Tom (published in 1994, when she was 54), Buddy decorates Virginia’s pregnant stomach with brilliant Magic Marker drawings, which may or may not have left “the red outline of a wing, very faint” on the infant’s shoulder blade. “He wet his finger and touched it to the mark,” Virginia says, “but it did not wash off. Indelible. I already knew, but I did not say one word.”
Thomas further developed her method of rendering emotional states and redemptive possibilities through odd, carefully chosen detail in her third book. A novel-in-stories, Herb’s Pajamas (1998) traces four New Yorkers whose lives (on the same block) brush close together but never engage. Thomas paints funny, sympathetic portraits of these ordinary souls, such as uptight Edith, challenged by accidents like the sudden splitting of her leopard-print skirt in a movie theatre: “Edith limped to the glass doors, which she opened with her shoulder, and then she limped down the steps to the street, where she started to laugh, and couldn’t stop, and every fresh burst of laughter created an accompanying sound of material tearing, and the more it tore the more she couldn’t stop laughing.” But “thank God she believed in decent underwear.”
At 60, Thomas published her first memoir, Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life (2000.) The book’s style feels at once casual and inevitable—accidentally deliberate, a beautiful and delicate balance. Like Grace Paley, she evokes clear moments that fall together to make the shape of a life. “Tomorrow it’s a year since you died,” she addresses her second ex-husband.
I don’t seem to be able to do a damn thing today. Not a damn thing yesterday either. I start something and drop it. I walk from room to room. I eat whatever is lying out on the counter and today it’s apple cake. I eat piece after piece. You weren’t here for this cake; I found the recipe after you died. You wouldn’t have liked it, though, you preferred my sponge cakes, light and drier. “I think your other cakes are better,” you’d have said with authority. I’d have wanted to scream. Where are you? One year.
This is the chapter “Tomorrow” in its entirety. Other chapters cast other lights, subtle and wise:
It was at a party in what was to become SoHo, lots of drinking, lots of smoke, and somebody said something I didn’t catch, and another man replied, one hand on the back of his own head, the other holding a cigarette, both men wearing togas as I recall, “Oh, honey, any sense of security is a false sense of security.” Everybody laughed, but I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. What was so funny? What did it mean? Now I get it.
Rereading this book just before Christmas, I think of the white lights on the little plum trees in my yard; each small point glows, and together they make an outline of a whole yet intangible shape in the dark. That shape, of course, is life as it is lived, through an accumulation of just such moments, accidents, and miracles. And it’s the structure of this book. By the end of Safekeeping, we’ve seen Thomas’s first and second marriages begin and end, her second ex-husband pass away, and her happy third marriage begin. Her four children have grown up and had families of their own, providing the luminous scene with which Safekeeping ends, as Thomas takes her new infant granddaughter to the bathtub:
I gather her up, nuzzling her soft face, and bring her into the bathroom, and my daughter, her breasts heavy with milk, reaches up her arms for the child. The moment she is lowered into the water the baby stops crying, her body goes limp, her eyelids drop—it all happens at once. Under her half-closed lids her irises are now moving left to right, over and over, rhythmically, as if to a beat. At first I am afraid, and put my hand in the water to make sure it’s not too hot, but it is fine, comfortable. We don’t speak, but my daughter touches my arm as we realize what we are looking at, what the two of us are being shown. This is the face of the unborn child.
And I know now what a moment can hold.
Thomas’s second memoir, A Three Dog Life (2006), begins with a different sort of stillness:
This is the one thing that stays the same; my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again. The clock ticks, the season shifts, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent. He grounds me. Rich is where I shine. I can count on myself with him.
This tone, unsentimental and compassionate, holds true even through the difficult revelations of the rest of the book: in 2000, Thomas’s third husband, Rich Rogin, was hit by a car while walking their beagle, Harry, and remained in a care facility until his death in 2007. Yet, Thomas writes,
I don’t find it ironic that the very reason Rich got hurt is the creature who comforts me. There is no irony here, no room for guilt or second-guessing. That would be a diversion, and indulgence. These are hard facts to be faced head-on. We are in this together, my husband and I, we have been thrown into this unfamiliar country with different weather, different rules. Everything I think and do matters now, in a way it never has before.
Six months after Rich’s injury, Thomas adopts a high-strung second dog named Rosie (“[h]alf-dachshund, half-whippet . . . a union that must have come with an instruction sheet”). Soon a third dog joins the family—Carolina, a starving hound picked up at an interstate rest stop, who goes into heat in one of the memoir’s funniest chapters. “If this animal were human,” Thomas writes of the husky lurking outside, “he’d be wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. He’d be lighting a cigarette.” (Her sister jokes, “Now you know how Mom and Dad felt.”) The dogs become a warm, sturdy through-line of comfort in a quiet and difficult routine: Thomas brings Rich home for visits, returns him to his room in the Northeast Center for Special Care, accepts again that “in five minutes he’ll forget I was there at all,” and returns to the house they used to share. She writes, soberly,
Once I stood in line behind a young woman ordering coffee, who remarked to her friend that she didn’t yet have a set of beliefs, and I imagined catalogs from which one could order such sets, like furniture, beliefs that wouldn’t collapse under one’s full weight, big sturdy reliable sideboards of belief. As for me, I have learned what I can do and what I can’t. I know my limits. That’s all I have to go on, but it’s better than nothing.
Reading this moving, lovely book, you realize that writing itself has become belief, the way for Thomas to inhabit her reality after Rich’s accident, with all its mixed emotions, including self-acceptance. “I go without lipstick if I feel like it,” she writes, “and I always wear my comfy clothes. It’s a life with fewer distractions, but should something beautiful show up, a middle-aged woman is free to stare.” Detail by detail, the small beauties add up, in spite of everything:
Inside you may notice that what you thought was dust is instead a layer of golden pollen blowing through the open windows. If only life were more like this, you will think, as you and the dogs traipse up to bed, and then you will realize with a start that this is life.
In Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas teaches us life and writing, by example and by instruction. She asks students to reduce any 10 years of their lives to two pages—all in sentences of three words each. “When you’re done, run your mind over everything the way a safecracker sandpapers his fingers to feel the clicks. If there is one sentence that hums, or gives off sparks, you’ve hit the jackpot. Then write another two pages starting right there.” She hones in, over and over, on the psychological difficulties of writing in a way that blows my own cobwebs out:
I wrote an essay about not feeling guilty anymore—about having had the guilt burnt out of me. It was a proud piece, and rather strident in its claims, but when I read it aloud I felt as if I was being embalmed. I showed it to a friend. “What’s wrong with this?” I asked. “Why isn’t this working?” “Because it’s not about not feeling guilty,” he said, “It’s about feeling guilty as hell.” Bingo. I went back to it, and learned a few things.
Ultimately, I learn from Abigail Thomas because she learns from the world, leaning into life with openness and curiosity: “She gives assignments so nobody has to face the blank page alone with the whole blue sky to choose from,” Thomas writes, of herself, and also of the memoirist in general, in Safekeeping. “After all she knows how hard it is to make it up from whole cloth; everybody needs a shred of something to cover their nakedness and so to this end she wanders around the city with her eyes and ears open.”