Women writers on ‘the day my life changed’
To mark the 40th anniversary of Rosie’s Place, novelist Alice Hoffman asked 40 writers each to compose a 40-word essay on the theme.
Introduction by Alice Hoffman
OUR LIVES often appear to be moving in one direction, and then, quite suddenly, a door opens and everything changes. A possibility arises, we daydream, we take a chance, we allow ourselves to feel joy. What’s on the other side of the open door becomes the moment that defines us and charts a new path. It could be almost anything. Suddenly we stop and make a turn. We imagine something completely different for ourselves. Something we never expected.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rosie’s Place, a place where women are offered the chance to rewrite their destinies, we asked 40 women writers to share the day their lives changed. All are women who have had a connection to New England. Some live here, others went to school here or taught here, but all have New England in their hearts. Not one writer hesitated when asked if she could lend a hand to Rosie’s Place. The truth is, Rosie’s generosity is what we would all want for ourselves if we were the ones who needed a helping hand. The guests at Rosie’s are our sisters. That much is evident in a single visit. It easily could be you or me taking refuge in one of the guest rooms, enjoying a hot meal, meeting with volunteers and counselors to start the process of rebuilding our lives.
How does a life change? We reach the door to our futures by chance, or by fate, or by design. We know something we didn’t before. We love someone new, or say goodbye. We pick up a book, or forgive someone. In truth there are many days that can change a person’s life, a series of events that add up to a future, but some are remembered more than any other. This is the day that sticks with us and reminds us of who we are and who we might still become. It’s the day that made us who we are.
I am 15 and my mother puts me on a plane to a place I’ve never been to live among people I do not know. “No,” I beg. “It’s for your own good,” she orders. Mostly she was right. Mostly.
I moved from a small apartment in Brooklyn over the bridge to Manhattan. I was alone. I was scared. I was 50. It was not how I had thought my life would be. Everything was different after that.
Forty-three years old and I had let go of the idea of motherhood. And now — was this some sort of early menopause? Friend says, “Maybe you’re pregnant!” I laugh. Then: Two lines means . . . preg-WHAT!? Mind blown, world rocked, life made.
Widowed, I joined Match.com. Rather embarrassing, believe me. One day I clicked on a profile. Last book he’d read? My latest. I’m stunned. We dated platonically (his choice) for months. Finally, a declaration! I needed no convincing. Nomance became romance.
As the car careened wildly through Hurricane Bob, all I could think was: My baby is coming too early. That’s how life works: Sometimes the unexpected becomes reality. I wasn’t ready for my son, but he was ready for me.
We were very young. He had cats. I had a dog. We lived in the same apartment building, each alone, on the same floor, each too shy to say hello. We met when, in the end, my animal chased his.
I wrote a sentence and it seemed to sing. I wrote another. Someone read it and heard it sing, too. You know, I think I could really get hooked on this, I thought to myself. And now I can’t stop!
August 6, 1960: the bittersweet day my family arrived in New York City. Bitter, because we had left our homeland; sweet, because we had escaped the dictatorship; bittersweet, in balance, when I learned this English and could tell the story.
A dear friend was near the end of a long battle with breast cancer and I was overwhelmed by my upcoming move. She came armed with mop and broom and hours to give. She said: Don’t keep anything you can live without.
The day of my father’s funeral, I took the stage and read aloud. Though barely 22, I was able to command the room with only my voice. It was then I knew, not only could I do this, I loved doing this.
When I began to comprehend that the bomb in Iraq had injured not just my husband, but our entire family, a powerful spirit of resilience began to awaken in me. Human beings are built to survive incredible things.
The letters of the alphabet were displayed above the blackboard in my first-grade class. My life changed the day I saw how those lines and squiggles made Jane run and Spot bark, and the world became an open book.
My first day of teaching. I remember looking out at my students and realizing what a profound responsibility they were entrusting me with — and that I’d better be worthy of it. Fifteen years later, they still fill me with awe.
Helen Elaine Lee
I did not know, when I first boarded the long yellow school bus to go from my black Detroit neighborhood toward the academic opportunities of wealthy, white, suburban territory, that I would be ever in between, and belong to neither place.
On a cold January afternoon, while watching my son eat a gyro with his little Peruvian hat on, my mother called. When she said pancreas and mass, I knew I’d just gotten the call I’d spent my whole life dreading.
When I was a single mother working in day care, I bought a tiny house, borrowing the down payment ($8,000 then!). A friend cosigned the mortgage and I rented out rooms to pay everyone back, but it was mine — my home, my son’s home — and it changed everything.
My son has cancer. He wears a survivor’s mask to any public place. Yesterday, a hospital security guard asked me, “Are you lost?’’ I said, “I’m with him.” From behind his mask, Harry asked him, “Can’t you see the resemblance?
First I had to see the truth and call it by name. I was scared, but I opened the door and walked through. It’s not that I haven’t looked back: I have, but over my shoulder as I’ve kept on moving.
An October morning, 12 years ago. I stood at the door of a knitting store wondering if a home ec failure like me could learn to knit my way through grief and back to hope. K2P2. Ah! Joy! Ah! Life!
My life changed the day my first child, a girl, was born. I was about to turn 21. Those two blue eyes looked up at me and I realized that my heart would never again be entirely my own.
When I was 19, I met a young man my age who was dying. I was not able to help him, but he helped me: He showed me the fragility of life, and made me want to celebrate it, always.
Two bleeding-heart liberals meet on a blind date 15 years after they’ve attended the same nursery school. They hear Barry Goldwater, the only entertainment in Bangor, Maine that night. Married for nearly half a century, they have never voted Republican.
Cambridge, 1974: A college dropout, I worked in an office with five other secretaries, all women longing for . . . something more, we didn’t know what. The power and frustration we felt together made us, one by one, quit to find out.
At 4 I was trusted to field my mother’s calls. My nonna’s voice laughing: “Put my daughter on the phone, please.” My heart leapt. My mother had a mother? My grandmother had a daughter? An infinity exploded between my ear and the telephone that day.
Back to Foulke. Red Sox fans have longed to hear it: “The Boston Red Sox are World Champions!” History is prologue; victory is sweet.
On a wintry day, on a windswept island, I had lunch with S-, a woman I scarcely knew. I was so nervous my hand trembled as I ate and we talked. Our deep friendship has lasted more than 30 years.
At the last minute Robin asks me to stay. I see the head crowning. Swirls of shiny black hair, then abruptly a full child, slightly blue, quickly rosy, a short cry, curious eyes. My daughter’s daughter in my arms. Emma.
When I met my agent, Stephanie Abou, she said, “I’m offering you a contract but first I want to hug you.” Her belief in my books made it possible for them to get out into the world. I’m forever grateful!”
Before my daughter was born, I believed that if my father died, I would die. I was 33, old enough to know such a thing could not be true. But it wasn’t until I saw her tiny face that I knew I would live to be her mother.
“There it is,” said the midwife, pointing to the ultrasound monitor. “The heartbeat, it’s still there.” And I saw it, what a light show, a blinking SOS from a faint little soul. I am here. I am here. I am here.
In the space of a few years, I sat on a bed, crying, holding hands with my dying mentor, then my dying mother, then my dying father. I miss them all every day and every day I am glad I had that chance.
Forty days nil by mouth, not compos mentis, my father was drowning in pneumonia. We refused a third intubation; they gave him 90 minutes to live. Somehow — drugs? the divine? — he rallied, breathed, returned. Two more beautiful years: Grace.
Jayne Anne Phillips
December 27th, 1984, after two days of labor that began Christmas night, my doctor said, “Here he is! Reach down and catch him!” I looked into my son’s eyes and began the ultimate, blessed surrender.
It is 1985, she is 2 years old, and finally diagnosed. Life splits apart, becomes Before / and /After, yet—who knew that /After would turn out to be such a gift? A daily, renewable reminder. This day, this moment—this.
Connie Mae Fowler
At 18, I told my dying mother, “I love you.” She responded, “You go to hell.” Now, three decades later, I insist on remembering her parting words differently. I am sad. I don’t want to go. I love you, too.
Unforgotten days: my Cousin’s death, my Daughter’s birth, the Love Story’s failure — when a door closed, a window opened. The next morning, I was different but the same. With a bit more Knowing, perhaps some Hope. Even those are precious.
One night when I was 14, my father woke up and began losing himself, pacing the halls and covering the windows. It was nothing anyone could fix. His memories gradually floated loose, I caught them, and that became my work.
I must have been 5 or so when I learned to read, the black marks on the page aligning first into sound, then into sense, and then (in my memory, it happened suddenly, a seismic shift) I could go anywhere, borne by words.
Nine months, 24 hours of labor, three hours of pushing. The moment I became a mother could not come soon enough. That first touch of your first born, warm and wet, washing over you like a Hawaiian surf.
I couldn’t walk without pain. A healer massaged my neck and shoulders, pressed down, and asked me to slowly turn my head. Crunching noises filled my neck, and suddenly the pain was gone. Now I become grounded by massaging others.
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