Mary Tabor’s Living Memoir

Natalie Goldberg in “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir” writes: “Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out.  We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged.  This means that when we write we give up ourselves.”

I think you’ll agree that author Mary L. Tabor, in her memoir (Re) Making Love: A Sex after Sixty Story, and in the guest post that follows has, indeed, “surrendered” her “most precious understanding” of an experience that challenged her but also offered new life.

Natalie (poet, teacher, author of 12 books, including her classic Writing Down the Bones) also wrote: “You lose everything in the act of writing.  Are you willing?”  And “What is it you love and are willing to give to the page?  It’s why we write memoir, not to immortalize but to surrender ourselves.  It is our one great act of generosity.”

So I’m happy to welcome my guest, Mary Tabor, to SunnyRoomStudio today and know you’ll enjoy her guest post a great deal.  If you enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, you’ll love Mary’s book, as well.  Humor, insight, honesty — it’s all there.  Thank you, Mary, for sharing your thoughts in this creative, sunny space for kindred spirits.


by Mary L. Tabor

I published my first book at age 60.  You might argue that I was a has-been before I began.  I argue, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”  Inside that bravado lies a question I was unable to address until my world cratered.

I stood at a distance from this question, I, who began writing with my life’s breath in 1987 when my first piece, an elegiac tribute to my mother, was published in The New York Jewish Week, at this same time of year—between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the time of self-reflection for Jews.  It was not the best thing I’ve written, but it was a beginning, way too late.

My mother died in 1990, my sister in 1993, my father in 1999—all from long, tortuous and serious illnesses while I remained well and strong.  In 1996, I left my corporate job when I was 50 and went off to grad school to do the work of my life: To write. I now believe that work sat in wait for reasons I had yet to discover.

When I turned 60, The Woman Who Never Cooked won Mid-List Press’s First Series award and was published.  The writing of that book I thought—and I thought is the key word herebrought me through the grief that lies inside the stories.

But that year, the year the book was published, my husband left me for reasons he couldn’t explain and that I couldn’t understand.  The bottom of my life fell out from under me. I cratered.

My memoir tells that story, but what I want to explore here is where the writing comes from and why it had lain in wait.

I was on Twitter one day when I saw a quote by Marianne Williamson, posted by someone else, that hit home: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

  • A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson

Because I grew up in a household of illness—goodness, yes, but linoleum halls were my home away from home—I grew up with the fantasy that my being alive took lives.  The child could not understand.

The adult wrote this, when the last of the three was dying:

I think my father knew I wanted to abandon him. Did he know that I asked myself, What has he to offer me now, to give me? That I thought, What he wants from me is too much. My mother’s and my sister’s slow, painful anguished deaths that filled my years with long linoleum hospital halls, while my father sat in the orange chairs in the waiting places for the families of the sick. While he sat distant, apart, I went to the gurneys and the bedsides. I walked down the halls to the elevators that led to the operating room where one day they cut off my sister’s leg and then one day cut off the other—the diabetes. While I held my mother’s hand and felt the blood inside her fingers slow as if the blood that bled into her brain came from that hand, reversed and went another way, took a wrong turn, and that left her hand crooked and bent like his, while I went with her to the room where they put her in a tube to look inside her brain, to confirm the stroke, the bleeding in her brain, while I did that, while she lay in the tube unconscious, he sat in an orange chair in a waiting room.

I think now, Why were those chairs, plastic-leather-cushioned or hard-curved-molded in all the rooms where he waited, all orange? Like the unexplained orange on the forehead in that poem: “the night nailed like an orange to my brow.” My father was nailed to my brow. He sat in his wheelchair with his arm around my head. Bent and angled bones that would not straighten out. I felt no blood coursing through him, no soft flesh pressing down on mine.

No way out.

The way he felt while he sat in the orange chairs?  (from “To Swim?” The Woman Who Never Cooked)

As raw as this might seem to you, it still did not get at the conscious understanding I needed to write the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story.  I had known that aggression must be part of the writing, but I feared what must be done to create: Say the unsayable.  I don’t mean that the writer must crush another.  I mean the writer must crush herself.

My path to that end was to rediscover the past in the therapist’s chair—not in the writing chair.  It took me way too long to get into that chair, but I have to thank for that chair my husband’s announcement, Oh so Greta Garbo, “I need to live alone.” If he had not left me—and he was the straw that broke this camel’s back—if he had not sent me on my journey, I would never have written the memoir that dares to go without fear to the heart of the matter: the question, Who am I?

You have your reasons for waiting or for writing.  I have mine.

And I know this: those of us who choose to create art, whether we succeed or not, must have as our mantra: Bird out of the cage, bird on a wire.

  • Memoir — (Re) Making Love: A Sex after Sixty Story
  • Visit my website or blog: Mary L. Tabor


Thank you, Mary, for sharing your thoughts here.

I loved how you linked “rom-coms” to your book.  Romantic comedies.  It anchored the book in something we all understand and also offered levity and perspective.  And here’s one of my favorite quotes from your book (pg. 159): “I have feared the destruction of my perceived experience, of my illusory self.  But I now know that in destruction lies discovery.”

I also like this sentence (pg. 163): “I wonder if my fear of loss is a legacy that I carry with me like the memory of my father and the way he paced the shore.”

I guess, in some ways, we all “pace the shore” of life — as we seek understanding, solace, and some sense of the timeless within.

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