Personal Essay Sparks Reaction from Dad, Friends, Strangers

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I bought this plaque last week at a store in downtown St. Pete. I hung it up in my room as a reminder to keep writing.

When I published a personal essay about my mom and food last week, I wondered what people would say — or if they’d say anything at all. To my surprise, though, the response has been overwhelming.

Friends, coworkers, former teachers and strangers have commented on my blog and sent me Facebook messages, Tweets and e-mails. I copied and pasted all of their responses in a Word document (single-spaced, size 12 font) and it’s already more than seven pages long.

Their notes have served as a reminder of how many people — men and women — silently struggle with eating issues. Knowing this is incentive enough for me to want to keep writing about why I often turn to food as a substitute for feeling.

I worried that the essay would lead people to make false assumptions about what I eat and why I exercise. It might, but more than anything I think it has helped people — even those who couldn’t necessarily relate to the experiences I laid out. One editor wrote me an e-mail, saying: “Despite the fact that this 42-year-old male reader hasn’t shared anything like your experience I still found it relevant and moving. And I bet many others like me would too.”

That’s my hope. It’s also my hope that in sharing my story, others will feel motivated to share theirs, too. It can be tempting to want to keep our more painful stories to ourselves, for our own sake or for the sake of those we love and want to protect. I would argue, though, that most stories are worth sharing.

Even if we don’t feel comfortable writing about them for an audience, I think it helps to relay them verbally, or write them down for safe keeping. Our stories make us who we are; it would be a shame to forget them. That’s partly why I write essays about my mom — so that I won’t forget. So many of the memories I have of her are from when she was sick. I want to remember the good times, too, though.

My dad’s been helping me with this throughout the past week. After he read my essay last Wednesday, he began e-mailing me stories about my mom, some of which he’s never told me before. He has e-mailed me two “chapters” so far, starting off with the day he met my mom (she was 17, he was 19), leading up to their first date at a basketball game in Massachusetts. Today Dad e-mailed me to say, “The next chapter will deal with the Disco era, something that I would like to forget, but unfortunately, will haunt me for many years to come.” Uh oh. I can only imagine the funny stories that’ll come out of that chapter!

The stories he’s written about throughout the past week have meant a lot to me. Here’s my favorite one so far:

“Our favorite place to go was the Cape. The summer before we got married, we really wanted to spend a weekend together, something we had never done. It was 4th of July weekend. We drove to the Cape with no reservations, (no pun intended). Every place we stopped at had no vacancy.

“We finally found a place in Harwich, but decided that we didn’t like it, since the rooms were only separated by glass walls with curtains. We could see into the other room if their lights were on and ours were off, so we checked out as quickly as possible. We drove all the way to Provincetown looking for a hotel/motel room, with no success. I was determined to spend the night with Mom, no matter what.

“On the way back, we stopped at every hotel between Provincetown and the bridge with no luck. There was not a room to be had. We ended up checking into a hotel in Braintree, at 3:30 in the morning! By then we were both too tired to do anything but sleep. The next day we drove to the Cape and spent the day at the West Dennis Beach, before heading back home to Framingham. We never did tell our parents about our adventure.”

I like the idea of my parents sneaking away on an adventure together. I’m sure the story of their late-night ride will make it into one of my future essays. That’s the great thing about stories — they connect families, friends and strangers, all the while reminding us that for as much as we may struggle, we’re never really alone.