Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas ’59. This work is a memoir composed of prose poems and discrete vignettes; together they show a woman creating a sense of self as she grows up with her kids. Still a teen, she becomes a wife and mother. She spends her twenties caring for her three children, watching her marriage dissolve, and eventually finding a second husband. They have another child, but their marriage does not work out as a marriage. Rather, after she marries a third time, it evolves into an affectionate, complicated friendship. Safekeeping is ostensibly about her second husband, but more fundamentally is about how to fix fleeting moments so that they can be held up, examined, and enhanced by reflection. Her opening epigram is from Hey Jude – “Take a sad song and make it better.” By crystalizing experience, she transforms it into art, always a step up from sad.
The title is taken from a vignette toward the end of the book. Her mother tells of a recent trip to Switzerland. She happened upon a church that dated back to Charlemagne, where nuns were singing just as they had for hundreds of years. Her mother says that this must be the sound of safekeeping. Like Abigail’s Safekeeping,song, poetry, and painting protect the ephemeral from vanishing. She mines transient feelings that would go by most of us in a nanosecond and crafts them into word art. In her prose poem “What I Know,” she sees a young woman feeding a child. This woman (Abigail herself years ago I think) wonders what to make of an intense feeling of longing. “You can make something out of it, I want to tell her.” In another anecdote, a stranger gives her a loaf of bread for no particular reason other than she said she liked the smell. “Nothing is wasted,” she reflects. She will use the idea of an unexpected gift as a prompt for her memoir students.
Much of this book is about death, but I am really hoping you will read it so I won’t tell all. “It is so hard to comprehend gone,” she says. I also won’t mention my gratitude to Abigail’s sister for encouraging her to spell things out once in a while or how touchingly poignant is the relationship to grandchildren or how astonishingly amazing is the scene where she and her daughter bathe the baby. Did I mention that parts are hilarious? Yes, that too!