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Some True Stories from a Life

Written by Abigail ThomasAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Abigail Thomas

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: August 03, 2011
Pages: 192 | ISBN: 978-0-307-80195-1
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A beautifully crafted and inviting account of one woman’s life, Safekeeping offers a sublimely different kind of autobiography. Setting aside a straightforward narrative in favor of brief passages of vivid prose, Abigail Thomas revisits the pivotal moments and the tiny incidents that have shaped her life: pregnancy at 18; single motherhood (of three!) by the age of 26; the joys and frustrations of three marriages; and the death of her second husband, who was her best friend. The stories made of these incidents are startling in their clarity and reassuring in their wisdom.

This is a book in which silence speaks as eloquently as what is revealed. Openhearted and effortlessly funny, these brilliantly selected glimpses of the arc of a life are, in an age of excessive confession and recrimination, a welcome tonic.

Excerpt

Apple Cake

I am not a girl. I am the grandmother of six. I bake cakes for all my grandchildren. My name is synonymous with "cake." I have taught them this. Nana, Cake, and they clap their little hands. Apple cake, this is my specialty. In the past twelve days I have baked seven apple cakes for seven separate occasions. These cakes contain walnuts and raisins as well as golden oil and apples. You would beg me for a slice if you could see these cakes. You would beg for their perfume alone. They do well for holidays. Thanksgiving, for example. Anniversaries. I have had my good times and my bad. This was long ago, my dears, before most of you were born. I was not a prudish girl. Nor was I wise. When I was young I gave myself away; it was all I had to offer. But not today. Today I will bake a cake. The cake is not a metaphor. Say the words "apple cake." Apple cake. See how the mouth fills with desire.


Not Meaning to Brag

I remember one summer I was slim enough to wear a yellow polka-dot two-piece bathing suit, and still, I could see him looking sadly down the beach like a dog on a rope. No matter what, there was still only one of me. Which later he regretted taking so long to find out.


I Ate There Once

She never thought he'd get old this way. Never thought his defenses would come down one by one, dismantled, she realizes, by children. She imagines a split-rail fence coming apart over the years. He wasn't wise, she understands now, he was depressed. They both had mistaken depression for wisdom. She has married again, the third time, and she sits up front with her new husband, the nicest man in the world. Her old husband sits in back, bundled in blankets, blowing his nose in his old red kerchief, wearing his brown hat. He has gotten so gentle. Especially since she has remarried. He treats her like a flower. They have their own language. It isn't secret, but it is their own. Certain sights carry weight for them. They remember everything. She once told him she remembered the exact moment when she knew it wouldn't last. That they weren't going to stay together, that their little vessel had not been made very well, that it had sprung too many leaks, and then in anger both of them had gouged holes in the bottom. Sink, damn you, they thought. "I know when I knew it, but I didn't say anything. We were standing under that tree," she said. "I forget the name."

"It was a mimosa," he said. "The mimosa tree on the corner."

Today they are driving upstate to see their daughter graduate. Her new husband is  driving. She loves his kind profile, the way he keeps asking her former husband if he is warm enough. It was he who remembered the extra lap rug. They are like three old friends, companionable, everybody on their best behavior. They pass a sign for a Mexican restaurant, coming up on the right. It is the only place to eat on the parkway. "I've always wondered what kind of place that is," says her new husband, slowing down for a look as they approach. "Unlikely spot for a restaurant. The food must be terrible." The restaurant, only barely visible through trees, vanishes behind them. As it happens, it was here that she and her second husband had eaten their wedding supper, twenty-five years ago. They were by themselves and had been married about an hour.

"I ate there once," she says. Her expression doesn't change. She doesn't turn around.

"So did I," says a voice from the back.


The Animal They Made

Once they were no longer married he was free to love her again and she was free to love him too so after a while they did. Because they had always loved each other, and because of the animal they made. Not a real animal, nothing born in a litter, nothing fashioned out of clay or wood or brass, and not the beast with two backs, but what they were, the two of them together. The animal they made, that's the only way she can describe it. An animal with its own life, its own life history, its own life span. Its own intelligence. Its own memories and regrets. Its own sins. An animal with its eyes and ears open, so alive, so alive. Greeting them! Making jokes out of thin air. Extinct now.


Power

She was sixteen and wearing a tight yellow sweater. It had shrunk, but she had to go to school and nothing else was clean. Her route was along Washington Mews, up University to Fourteenth Street, along Fourteenth to Third Avenue, then up Third to Fifteenth, then one more block east to school. It was a warm fall day. I believe she was also wearing a short plaid skirt, A-line, and probably loafers and no socks. She never could find socks. The men in New York City, where she had just moved, stared. Some of them put down their tools or else just held them slackly as she walked by. They murmured. My god, she realized. I have power. Like most power it was both utterly real and utterly illusory. But she spent the next forty years with her eye on who was looking back. This didn't get in her way. It was her way. Her ambition was to be desired. Now it's over and what a relief. Finally she can get some work done.


Nothing Is Wasted

She is a writer and she teaches writing. Well, not teaches writing because you can't do that, but you can certainly locate the interesting, you can go over the page with sand-papered fingertips and say, Here, what is really going on here, and if you're lucky the writer blushes and says, Oh I thought I could just skip over that part, which means you have discovered a gold mine, and you say, No, sorry, you're going to have to write it. You can point out the promising. You can encourage and allow and permit and make possible. She gives assignments so nobody has to face the blank page alone with the whole blue sky to choose from. After all she knows how hard it is to make it up from whole cloth; everybody needs a shred of something to start with to cover their nakedness and so to this end she wanders around the city with her eyes and ears open. On the subway one afternoon she sees a man holding what appears to be a silver Buddha. Good lord, she wonders, what is he doing with that? Is he going to sell it? Is she going to buy it? Where did a silver Buddha come from? Then as she is watching he brings it toward his mouth and bites off the head. How completely baffling until she sees it is not a Buddha but something edible, some sort of wafer wrapped in silver paper. Perhaps chocolate. Nevertheless, she tells her class that night, Write two pages in which somebody is eating something unusual on the bus. Write two pages, she says, in which somebody can't stop apologizing. Two pages in which somebody kills something with a shoe. Two pages containing a French horn, an ear infection, and a limp. Describe somebody by what they can't take their eyes off. Two pages. Two pages in which someone is inappropriately dressed for the occasion. And so forth. Nothing goes to waste.


Passion

Even though she's a grandmother now she loves to watch people kiss. She loves how their arms go around each other, how their eyes close, how their lips meet. She loves watching them make out at bus stops, entrances to subway stations. Sometimes one of them is crying and she feels sad and very interested and she makes up reasons why, one or another is going away, maybe, back to Ohio or into the army. Or they are breaking up. But she likes it best when they aren't crying. Take today on the subway, for instance. She sat with a grandson on either side of her and right across was a couple eating candy out of two paper bags, feeding each other those soft pieces of yellow peanut-shaped candies and unable to keep their hands off each other. They were skinny and pale, their faces ravaged and sick, she was pretty sure they were junkies, but every time the boy leaned over to kiss the girl, the cords stood out in his neck. Oh, she thought, trembling. Such passion. Meanwhile the boys were reading a poem by a Chinese poet of the ninth century among the ads for jeans and liquor on the subway car. She smiled to herself and squeezed their warm hands because love comes and goes in so many forms and in this city passion is everywhere you look and all you have to do is breathe it in.


What I Know

It doesn't take much--the glimpse of a bare-legged girl crouching on the second-story porch of a house with five mailboxes, and I know without looking any harder that she is feeding a baby. I can see through the slats of the railing, and it is all in the curve of her back, the position of her shoulder and arm, the posture of intent. I know she is feeding a baby and the baby sits in a small plastic chair on the floor of the porch. Maybe now and then she takes a spoonful herself, if it's cereal with peaches or plum tapioca dessert in that little jar. Somewhere there are tiny shirts and crib sheets drying in the sun, and indoors a cat stretches on a beat-up chair. There is probably a sink full of dishes. Maybe she is thinking of the life she won't have now, although she loves this tiny human creature she has made out of herself. I know for years she will listen to the radio and think of boys she might have had a different future with. What is this longing, she will want to ask. This troubling feeling of more to come. You can make something out of it, I want to tell her. But that's what her life is for.


From the Hardcover edition.
Abigail Thomas|Author Q&A

About Abigail Thomas

Abigail Thomas - Safekeeping

Photo © Nancy Crampton

Abigail Thomas is the author of the novel An Actual Life and the story collections Getting Over Tom and Herb's Pajamas. She lives with her husband in New York City, where she teaches in the M.F.A. writing program at the New School.

Author Q&A

Abigail Thomas, author of SAFEKEEPING
Q: Was there a specific event in your life that prompted you to write Safekeeping?
A: I began this book about a year after my former husband died. We had become very close friends. We hadn't made a very good husband and wife but the friendship that evolved was real and deep and good. Anyway, after a long illness he died, and it kind of took me by surprise. It's amazing what you don't let yourself know when it's happening right before you eyes. For a long time I couldn't write anything at all, and then suddenly a bunch of short pieces began to appear. I didn't know what they were, only that I couldn't stop writing them. As I said in the book, when he was alive the past was still all around me, part of my life. Then he dies and suddenly half of my life had floated away. I began to look at my time with him, and before him, and what had happened and what was redeemable and what was not. I think I was looking for clarity, how-did-I-get-here-from-there kind of thing and I think it was also something I wanted to give my children. It came in bits and pieces and it needed to be in bits and pieces. My life has no narrative flow, no arc, my remembered life seemed to consist of moments big and small, and it's in these moments that I began to find some truths. And to have constructed stories around them would have changed everything, made it into something else. Some memories were so sharp and painful that they didn't deserve the cushioning a story can give, they needed to be presented as exactly as I could render them. And one thing began to lead to another and pretty soon I had a whole bunch of them. Then it began to take a sort of shifting amoeba-like shape. The hardest thing was to give it a chronology that wasn't chronological but that made a kind of emotional sense. Partly it was to say to my children I'm sorry, I did these things and failed to do these things and I know it. So much can't be undone but I can say Yes, this is the way it was, and this is who I was. But partly also to say hooray and surprise, aging is the best thing that can happen to you, middle age is the best of times and that's part of what I like about it, I hope the book will show that you don't have to stay put, you don't have to stay stuck. You can learn as you go along. You can really and truly change. But it was Quin's death that precipitated the whole thing.
Q: You open the book with a line from "Hey Jude:" 'Take a sad song and make it better.' How does that line inform this book?
A: Take a sad song and make it better. Oh boy. Well, yes. Certain cards are dealt you and you don't do very well with them but if you keep your eyes and ears open, if somebody says exactly the right thing at exactly the right time you can learn from it, you can see, oh my God, there's a whole different way to look at things, a whole different way to live, and it turns out to be simpler than the old way. You can make it better. There are those moments when you suddenly see you have a choice, the old way or something new. But you have to pay attention and be awake for when they come because otherwise they can whiz right past. And then you'll just harden right up. Still and all, singing "Hey Jude" still makes me cry.
Q: Safekeeping is a memoir (of sorts) told not through a continuous narrative but through very specific recollections of events and moments in your life. Why did you choose to structure the book this way and what do you feel it illuminates about the nature of memory?
A: Well, the nature of my memory is pretty faulty. I have no memory for sea change, no memory for chronology. Some people remember everything. I think my sister can remember that in 1954 at Longchamps I got the bigger piece of pie. Naturally I can't remember that. There are huge gaps in my memory. But I have very vivid memories of moments and moods and times. And this is what I worked with. I didn't want to make a seamless thing of this, my life has been lived in a somewhat herky-jerky fashion, and anything smoother than that wouldn't have felt right. I constructed this out of little bursts of memory mostly because it's all I've got. But it feels very like my life to me.
Q: Why did you choose to write some parts of this book in the third person?
A: Some of these little pieces needed the distance the third person affords and others had to have the immediacy of the first. It wasn't really a decision, that's just how they came. But if they had all been in the first person I'd have very quickly tired of myself. And there are things you can say in the third that would sound maudlin in the first. Also, I think I saw myself at a certain distance in some of the third person ones, almost as if I'd been somebody else once. Which, of course, I guess I was.
Q: You found yourself pregnant with your first child at age 18 and as a single mother, in 1968, with three children at age 26. How do you think society has changed since then in its views towards single mothers and what advice can you share with young mothers?
A:
Getting pregnant before marriage in 1959 was a really shameful thing. My college (Bryn Mawr) gave me two weeks to leave, and told me I couldn't take my meals with the other girls. A weird time. I honestly don't know how much the stigma has changed, probably in many places it hasn't changed much. Small towns maybe. But by 1968 when I moved back to NYC with three little kids, there were all kinds of support systems in place for single mothers. My kids went to a daycare program at Greenwich House on Barrow Street, a great place with wonderful teachers and real stability and meals (and even inoculations), and it cost me fifteen dollars a week for all three. Nowadays? Forget it. There is no way to work and care for your children. Why? God only knows. Republicans maybe. What advice can I share with young mothers? You don't have to know everything. You don't have to right. There isn't always a solution to their hard times, and you can't fix everything that comes along. Sometimes you just put your arms around them. Try to let them figure out for themselves who they are. Other than that? Make a lot of cakes. Oh and try to hang on to your sense of humor. And if you feel guilty about something you've done, try to get past it. Guilt befuddles the mind. Guilt is the enemy of clarity.
Q: You didn't begin writing until age 47. What do you think have been the advantages of coming to write later in life?
A:
Well, at least I didn't burn out early. And I was an observer all those years. Also, my molecules were still spinning around trying to take shape, I wouldn't have had a thing to write about worth putting down. I can also say with authority to struggling writers who aren't getting anywhere as fast as they'd like that it happens when it happens. I thought you had to be anointed to be able to write. I thought you had to be special, to know something I didn't know. The truth is that you need to be a beginner every time you sit down. Bill Roorbach, my first writing teacher, used to read from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. "In the beginner's mind are many choices, in the expert's mind are few." You write with you beginner's mind. To be a beginner at anything at age 47 was nothing sort of thrilling.
Q: You write about your parents' marriage and about watching them age. How has that influenced you own ideas about marriage and aging?
A:
My parents were in love with each other since they were sixteen. My father's illness and death was terrible for us all. What did I learn from it? I don't know yet. I really don't. Probably a great deal I'm not ready to writethink about yet.
Q: You write about a moment at age 16 when you realized you had sexual "power." What is that power and how has your understandingdefinition of it changed with age?
A: Sexual power was both real and illusory. It was great to get whistled at on the street, great to have a man want to come home with me. Silly as that sounds, I have to give it its due. I loved it. And I wanted that more than I wanted to be a lawyer or a nurse or a doctor. It satisfied me in some very primitive way. It was also the only power I thought I had. I was a girl of the fifties, brought up to revolve around the man, to bask in his light. I don't knock it. But finally, there's the power inside you to make something else out of yourself. Children. Paintings. Rugs. Stories. Really good talk. The best thing I think anyone can have is the thing that takes them outside themselves, the passion and power to make something, to move somebody else, to make them shake with recognition. Oh, you too, I want the reader to say. You too.
Q: How has being a grandmother affected your views on motherhood?
A:
Grandmotherhood. It makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a mother. When you're the grandmother there's nothing you can do for your grandchildren that's bad for them. You can spoil them and love them and comfort them and even get it wrong and it's okay as long as you love love love them (and you do do do). But mothers have to deal with everything else. Love isn't enough when you're the mother. You also have to try and keep an even keel. Maybe by the time you're a grandmother your keel has evened out on its own. And when you're the grandmother you know you're going to go home and get a good night's sleep. Motherhood is really very hard.
Q: Much of this book is colored by the death of your second husband. How did the writing help you deal with your own grief?
A:
I think Quin would have loved this book. I think he would have really loved this book. That makes me happy. He would have loved that I'd written us down and gotten us right. That makes me feel good. I miss him, but it keeps him connected to me in a funny way.
Q: You teach a variety of writing workshops. Can you tell us about them and also what you have learned from your experience as a writing teacher?
A:
I teach a workshop called The Tuesday Night Babes and we've been together almost eight years. We are all different ages and backgrounds, but we have become something akin to an organism. I think none of us laugh as hard anywhere else, or speak as passionately, or feel as safe and happy as we do on Tuesdays. I say "we" because although I am the nominal leader, it really runs itself. The work is wonderful (two books have come out of it so far) but the fact is that we all really care about each other. I teach a workshop at the Cosmopolitan Club which is also all women, but most of themus are in our fifties, sixties and seventies. Our eldest is 89 and she drives from Princeton every Wednesday and then back again. This woman is Jane Brown who is a force of nature. She's the one who told me that the trick of getting old successfully is to start something new that you're going to get better at. I love these women. A couple of years ago I ran a workshop for men. One big difference was that the men's group talked way more that the women's. (This did not surprise me in the least). I also teach at the MFA Program at the New School. These are most often students in their twenties, so the classes are different from my more seasoned groups. They are talented and eager and serious and it is great fun to work with them. Teaching is kind of an honor for me. There is almost nothing I'd rather do than get the best work out of somebody. To find where their story lies and when it's in hiding, to encourage and promote an atmosphere that is exciting and fertile and safe. My goal is that after each class I want everybody to be anxious to get home and write. What have I learned? That people do their best work when they are encouraged, (but not fooled), that everybody has a story in them and often many stories, that you can free somebody up to do the hard scary work, that people often begin their most important work when they think they are just playing. That there is nothing I would rather do.


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