Skip to main content

If you've ever despaired that your life is passing you by, that you'll likely never accomplish the things you thought you might, meet Laurie Lewis.

She just published her first book at 80.

"I didn't feel the need to nor did I have the time," confides the slim, pretty author, whose memoir, Little Comrades, was released this summer. "I was always scrambling for money. As a writer, you can scramble for money all your life if you're alone, but when you have children, you can't."

She also didn't feel free enough in spirit. "I was really quite frozen," she continues, leaning over a table in a downtown Toronto café. Girlish is how one might describe her, the easy manner and quickness of laughter, the bright sparkle of her blue eyes. "It's astonishing, amazing," she says with a giggle about her new status as a writer.

In the acknowledgments of her book, she writes that the day her publisher, Tim Inkster of The Porcupine's Quill, said yes to her manuscript "was the beginning of a new life for me."

Does she feel liberated by the fact that so many people from her past are dead?

"Oh, yes, that helps," she says with a broad smile.

Her childhood was unconventional, growing up in a Communist family in Calgary in the 1930s, when it was illegal to go to party meetings, pass out leaflets or organize workers as her parents did. "They were the vanguard for the working class. They were going to make everything better," she says.

But the Communist party activity wasn't all she had to keep hidden. Her father was an abusive alcoholic. Her late mother, Ellen Stafford, who figures largely in Little Comrades, spent most of her life as a frustrated writer. Her first book ( Was That You at the Guggenheim?) was published at 80, too. But her formidable presence as well as the fact that many other members of Ms. Lewis's family are writers – her late brother, her husband, a daughter and her son-in-law – made her feel that there was no room for her to express herself. "I thought I couldn't write. They all did it, and it was pretty scary. And they were good at it."

Her decision to write began about 14 years ago, when she and her husband moved with her mother to Kingston, Ont. Ms. Lewis, who worked as a designer and production editor for 30 years at the University of Toronto Press, commuted to Toronto by train to work twice a week. "It was the first free time I had and at the same time I was trying to work through some personal situations." She began by writing "little pieces of my childhood." A few years later, she attended a writing workshop in Banff, where one of her editors offered encouragement.

But then her home life got difficult again. Her mother, who lived with her, fell ill. And her husband developed dementia. In 2002, her mother died and her husband entered a nursing home. Her life became hers, and as she sat down at her computer to write, she marvelled at the loyalty and diligence of her memory.

"What is memory to our brain?" she says, leaning in again like an eager student. "It's a chemical soup, so when you go there, all it does is assemble the chicken stock and then you go back again and it says, 'Oh, I have some carrots, too.' It's like it's putting it all together for you. As you search, it begins to grow."

Her mother is a larger-than-life character on the page. When Ms. Lewis was 14, her mother finally summoned the courage to leave her husband. She had arranged to send her son off to military academy, lying about his age to get him in (he was 16 but should have been 18), and said to her daughter, "I'm leaving. Do you want to come?" They set off for Toronto, then to New York, and in one scene, found themselves sitting on their suitcases on the sidewalk, trying to figure out where they would live and how they could make ends meet.

"My father's world was really easy," Ms. Lewis says with the ease of someone who has long ago dismissed her demons. "All I had to do was smile, be friendly, look halfway decent and drink. My mother's world was harder. I had to think about things. And sometimes it's easier not to think."

A single mother at a time when divorce carried enormous stigma, her mother taught her not so much about courage as about survival. "It was that you don't have a choice," she says of her mother's action. "It's just that you damn well had to do it."

Her mother may have been strong, but she was also restless. "We moved and moved and moved. In two years, we lived in eight different places. I once said to her, 'You think happiness is in the next place you go. And she said, 'What I do know is that it's not here.'"

Along the way, Ms. Lewis has some confusing coming-of-age experiences. Her mother's boyfriend visited her room for sexual encounters. Later on, when she got pregnant at 15 by an occasional suitor she calls The Beautiful Actor, she went to a doctor who counselled young women to retreat to a home for unwed mothers. During the appointment, the fiftysomething doctor had sex with her. "I let him put my legs up on the couch, lift up my skirt. As if I had no choice," she writes. He figured that if she had had sex as a young teenager, she must be a "tramp," she later reasoned. She aborted her child.

"It's hard to admit in print," she acknowledges. "[But] once I went into that kind of territory, I made the decision that I don't have to protect myself. I'm an old lady," she says with a laugh. "What are they going to do? Shoot me?"

This is what old age can look like if you do Tai Chi (her "secret"), eat well and laugh, even if you don't have a lot of money. She owns her house but lives frugally. "My car is 16 years old ... it doesn't really cost much if you don't buy stuff." At night, she loves to put music on and dance by herself. "Living alone is not wonderful but it's doable, and more doable now with Facebook.

"Life is full of surprises," she offers as her philosophy. "And you spend a lot of it not knowing who you are, and then there's a time when you do finally know who you are. And you think, 'I'm going to live it.'"