Beautiful. Poetic. Haunting. These are just a few words to describe
SAFEKEEPING by Abigail Thomas --- a magical memoir that looks at
the various stages of the author's life with astounding clarity.
Thomas, best known for her marvelously witty short stories, turns
her brilliant gaze to her own life. From her three marriages to her
role as a mother to her quest for fulfillment, Thomas lingers on
the tragedies and triumphs of her life with utter honesty. Broken
up into three sections --- Before, Mortality, and Here and Now ---
each tale is simple yet profound. The stories range in length from
a paragraph to several pages, proving true the old rule of quality
over quantity. She often chooses simple words and simple sentences,
but there is so much to read between the lines. It is difficult to
pick favorites when every story leaves the reader reeling.
In "Good Manners," Thomas writes, "'I'm going to have a baby,' I
told them. My boyfriend and I were holding hands on the brown couch
in my parents' living room. 'I'm really sorry,' I added. I was
eighteen. It was 1960... Soon I was married. Everyone had good
manners; that was how we got through it. Sometimes the four of us
sat in my mother and father's living room and they asked my new
husband, nineteen years old, about school and politics and what
books he'd read and listened politely when he answered. It was
civilized." Thomas's simple sentences are full of meaning at this
momentous time in her life.
Thomas's outspoken but refreshingly real sister appears in many of
the stories, including "Young Wasn't It," in which Thomas focuses
on her role as a mother right after high school. Thomas believes
that motherhood happened simply because she was young, while her
sister contends that she wasn't just young but also completely
unprepared. Her sister points out that their own mother was also
unprepared. "'Mom didn't exactly spend her days in a red-checkered
apron plying us with little goodies, now did she... Mother wasn't
born to put on our little mittens and then hang them up to dry,'"
she seems to say with zest. As in many stories, Thomas's sister
forces her to delve into the heart of something and to discover the
One of the sweetest stories centers on a moment between a young
Thomas and her father. "Watching Her Father Eat Cake" is a long
paragraph that describes Thomas's passion for baking yellow cakes
and the tenderness of watching her dad eat them. "My father
sometimes had two pieces. 'This is very good cake,' he told me.
'How did you make such good cake?' and I would explain it to him.
He was an important man, a scientist who often stayed at his lab
till all hours. It made me shy to have his full attention, but I
watched carefully as he ate every bite, his jaw clicking now and
then as he chewed."
"A Simple Solution" gives us a glimpse of newly divorced Thomas on
her own with three children. She writes of her own difficult times
with a sincerity that brought tears to my eyes. "At suppertime I
pulled out the bottom drawer in the kitchen cupboard and turned it
upside down because we didn't have a table. Then we sat on the
floor and ate off it. I felt resourceful... I went barefoot and it
was New York City... I didn't understand what was so bad. Perhaps I
wanted to be one of the kids instead of the mother. Forgive me.
There are so many things that I would never do again."
One short tale that strikes with its biting humor was "Definition
of Marriage." "My mother said to me, 'Your father likes to think
that he is personally responsible for the sunrise. He thinks that
if he didn't stand in front of the window every morning and
supervise, the sun would never come up. What he doesn't know,' she
went on to say, 'is that he couldn't do any of it if I didn't get
up first and make the coffee and open the curtains.'"
In "Fencing" Thomas eloquently describes the back and forth play
between Thomas and her ex-husband during her second marriage. "For
him love/marriage was a fencing match; you never allowed your
opponent the upper hand. Your mate was your opponent, although it
was all in good fun. You never revealed your vulnerable spot, but
you went after theirs with the lightest of touches." Despite this
fencing, Thomas and her second husband become very good friends
post divorce, so she is shocked in "When He Told Her," when he
reveals that he has cancer. In the very short "Drifting Away,"
Thomas writes of her ex-husband's death --- "You died, and the past
separated itself from me like a continent drifting away."
The book ends gracefully with the beautifully written "What the
Moment Can Hold," in which Thomas writes about her granddaughter.
"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 her crying, her body goes limp, her eyelids drop...
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... And I know
what a moment can hold."
SAFEKEEPING is a truly magical memoir written with a reality and
eloquence that leaves a lasting, poignant impression.
Reviewed by Megan Kalan on January 23, 2011