by Caryl of SecondLivesClub
I met Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, author and, according to her newest book jacket copy, “America’s laureate of real life”, when we were both young mothers. Anna lived in Hoboken, and I lived in a Greenwich Village brownstone on the property of St. Luke’s where her children went to school. She’d schlep her children by path train across the Hudson River to the school yard. I could watch her from my kitchen window give her kids one last kiss, sometimes several last kisses, another hug. (I also remember watching Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor, arrive by town car to drop her children. I don’t remember kisses.) On those same school mornings, I’d wait with my girls and our over-eager beagle puppy for the bus to their public school in Tribeca. At least once, Anna (Quindlen, not Wintour) came upstairs for a cup of coffee, and we talked about our lives in our 30s.
Motherhood was Anna’s most compelling subject. Her breakthrough New York Times column–”Life in the 30s”– chronicled those crazy days of big-brained women and small-sized children, the first generation to combine work and family. Though she was our poster girl, Anna always seemed to do things a little bigger or better. Anna had three children –and the last was a girl—while most people we knew had two kids and frequently of the same gender. She had a marriage to her college sweetheart that would endure while an estimated half of ours would crash and burn before our children reached high school. Like us, she juggled marriage and motherhood with a demanding career. But she won a Pulitzer Prize while the rest of us just got concussions from bumping into the glass ceiling.
I invited Anna to speak to my mothers’ group at Time, Inc., where I was a senior editor at Life magazine. These dozen or so women with one child or at most two children had big jobs at the world’s most powerful publishing company. They were the first wave of women to take an uncharted path to Fortune100 leadership. Ann Moore, one of the original club members, would eventually break through and become the first female head of Time Inc. a decade later. But at the time Anna Quindlen came to lunch with us in a vacant corporate boardroom, most of us were conflicted and torn between our two full-time jobs.
Not so Anna. She had just voluntarily left her prestigious Times post to be at home with her children (and to write fiction between the hours of 9am and 3pm while they were at school). I remember clearly one woman—who had a biological daughter and a recently-adopted second child from China—describing how she’d put her pre-schooler to bed by reviewing the child’s events that day and either congratulating or consoling her on her experiences. It was the mother’s way of staying in touch while she was at work. The day before, the mother told us, the little girl had fallen and had badly scraped her knee. That night, before tucking her in, she told us, she kissed the boo-boo that had happened when mom wasn’t there.
Anna listened and then explained she had left her job with its salary, benefits and affirmation for just that reason. She wanted to be present at the threshold of these childhood experiences so she could wipe away her daughter’s tears the very moment they occurred. Long after, I remember thinking about the importance of threshold experiences but that day I just thought about how Anna knew it all and just maybe had it all. Home with the kids and writing fiction? Wow! And, one more thing: Meryl Streep played the fictional Quindlen in the movie adapted from her novel, One True Thing.
Another true thing: you didn’t resent Quindlen for all her successes because at the end of the day she was still the Irish Catholic kid from South Brunswick High, the one whose mother died right after she started Barnard College. She wasn’t the prettiest, the thinnest, the most popular girl but she was really smart and seriously focused and as ambitious as any of the guys. These were the heady days of feminism after all. Anna was a sister.
So I was excited to read her latest book: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake because I knew she was going to turn 60 in a couple of months. I had always felt our lives ran parallel, though I was a few years older. I myself had been obsessed by turning 60, had even written a manuscript with the working title “Sixty Days to 60”. (It ends at the Taj Mahal. The Taj, by the way, is a monument to a dead woman (and mother of 14)!) The subject of aging is a tricky one, especially now that we live about 30 years longer than our grandmothers and nobody knows exactly what to do with this new longevity. Certainly not me. I put my writing in a drawer. I needed more time to figure out how to make it to the finish line, especially over this rapidly changing global terrain. Maybe Anna had the answer.
I finished the book nearly in one sitting. Thoughtful and heartfelt, the memoir is beautifully written, supportive and optimistic, a life of ever increasing blessings. Anna now has two houses—a townhouse with a rooftop garden in Manhattan and a country house with a stocked pond in Bucks County, Pa. Her three children are successfully launched into the world but return often to the family dinner table with its still-assigned seats. She has written six novels as well as non-fiction and children’s books. And, though her mother died at 41 from ovarian cancer. she will enter her seventh decade disease-free because she had her ovaries removed as a preventative measure.
The book made me think of my own walk-up to my 60th birthday. The previous decade had been a rugged road. I was fired from the editorship of Real Simple, a job I loved and a magazine I had successfully turned around. Because of a dismal U.S. job market, my husband left for a position in Eastern Europe, leaving me to raise my daughters alone. We could no longer afford our designer loft, which I sold for a smaller one. I had breast cancer—the same disease that had struck my mother and my sister. My mother, my father, my sister’s husband all died within five very sad years. This litany of loss has made me a stronger, braver, even a more grateful woman. I’ve learned first hand that luck can be bad as well as good but never predictable. And, faith in whatever you choose is a necessary rudder in life’s rougher waters.
When Anna’s oldest son told her he thought the singular subject of her life’s work had been motherhood, she corrected him in the book by adding: “Motherhood . . . and loss.” The loss of her mother made Anna the writer and woman she is today. Subsequent losses, however, seem mostly silent in Lots of Candles. She told Morning Joe that she had wanted to write a “memoir of aging” but her publisher just wanted a memoir. Maybe aging is one of those words that doesn’t sell books. I hope Anna will write another memoir where she confronts the challenges of a second life. In our first lives, we worked hard to “have it all”. In our second life, we must learn to “lose it all”, to gracefully let it go, to acknowledge and gently say good-bye as I did when I put my children on their school bus long ago.
I too look forward to lots of candles and plenty of cake but my glasses are definitely not rose-colored. They are bifocals, in fact, graduated ones that sometimes trip me up on curbs and stairs. Nevertheless, I am trying to see clearly the uncharted road ahead and embrace whatever comes my way with my mind and heart. I want to make the best of the rest, to grab every threshold minute with gusto and conviction. In fact, I’ve started a new manuscript: “365 days to 65″. You don’t think putting that age in the title is a buzz-kill, do you?
Photo credit: rainydaybooks.com