For Mother’s Day, I bought my mom a copy of Anna Quindlen’s new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Then I
forced coerced her into coming with me to the author’s book signing in Talbot’s at the King of Prussia Mall.
I am a little star struck when it comes to my favorite writers.
On the way to the event, I chanted mantras of self-control: “I will not speak unless spoken to. I will maintain composure at all times. I will not sweat, babble, or cry.”
You see, Ms. Quindlen and I have met before.
It was 1999, the year of my college graduation from Villanova University. I was graduating with a BA in English, which meant that I was well read yet devoid of any real marketable skills. I felt adrift and desperate for guidance.
When I found out Anna Quindlen was selected as our commencement speaker, I was elated. Finally! Some representation for us right-brained folk: the bright yet hapless inhabitants of the St. Augustine Center for the Liberal Arts, collegiate Land of the Misfit Toys. If anyone needed some gentle mentoring, it was this Birkenstock-wearing crowd. Well, the English majors, anyway.
But that guidance would not come from Ms. Quindlen, at least not on that muggy day in May 1999. A small group of Conservative Catholics threatened to protest against her openly liberal views, and Ms. Quindlen gracefully backed down.
The replacement speaker was a Jesuit priest who worked with children…or maybe it was animals…in musical theatre? I can’t remember. I’m sure he was a nice guy. It felt a little jaded to me at that point.
That summer, I was in Manhattan interviewing for an editorial assistant position at a popular magazine (I didn’t get it). After being asked questions like, “What is your plan for maintaining our designer dress code on $23,000 a year?” (I didnt have one), I hobbled down 5th Ave searching for a place to buy flip flops before my blistered feet bled through my beige pumps from Payless.
Then, in the sea of the city lunch crowd, I saw her. She was walking toward me.
Our shoulders almost kissed as she passed me with a strong and purposeful stride; her eyes straight ahead like a true Manhattanite. I stopped and turned, causing a pedestrian traffic jam. Panic rose in my chest as I watched her bobbing head get swallowed up by the crowd.
So, I chased her.
In my Payless pumps and $50 navy suit from Lord and Taylor, I chased Anna Quindlen down 5th Avenue. What I actually said to her is still fuzzy. I know she was very kind and gracious, despite the fact that a sweaty psycho in an ill-fitting suit practically tackled her in broad daylight.
But that wasn’t going to happen this time. I am a grown woman now, a wife, a mother of two. I was in Talbot’s, for crying out loud. Talbot’s is a
grandma grown-up store. Surely I could maintain my composure in the company of literary greatness.
Then, through the rack of seersucker sundresses, I saw her.
A hot flush started to creep up my neck and face, my hands trembling with adrenaline. In an effort to channel my energy, I combed through a basket of bangle bracelets like I was digging for gold. The crowd begain to gather as Ms. Quindlen took her seat.
“Stop me if I try and raise my hand,” I whispered to my mom.
She gave me a look that said, “Yeah. Just like I stopped you from getting that tattoo.”
Ms. Quindlen answered the crowd’s questions with authenticity and humor. A woman standing to my right asked about the inspiration behind Quindlen’s book A Short Guide to a Happy Life. She explained how the book was originally a commencement speech…
Be quiet Jessie.
..to be given at Villanova University…
DON’T. RAISE. YOUR. HAND.
…but did not give due to threats of protest.
“Ok,” she said, ”time for one more.”
I must have some reflex that is triggered by opportunities to embarrass myself, because up went my hand.
Our eyes met. She nodded: “Yes?”
“Hi! I was actually IN that graduating class at Villanova, and I was an English major and was so pumped that you were going to be our speaker because English majors were like 2nd class citizens and then I was soooo sad and disappointed and then a few months later I was in the city for an interview…and then I passed you on 5th Ave and was so excited that I turned around and CHASED you for like 4 blocks and you were so sweet to me…so when I heard you were going to be here I bought my mom your book for Mother’s Day and….this is my mom actually….oh my God, MOM! Are you crying? Why are you crying? Anyway..I think you are great…and.. and I am sorry for chasing you like a lunatic.”
Did I say “pumped”?
She smiled: “It’s when people stop chasing you that you know you’re in trouble.”
When I got home, I found my copy of A Short Guide to a Happy Life and read it cover to cover. In in she writes, “Get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house…Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love and who love you.”
There are days when I still feel like that young platinum haired, nose-pierced, patchouli scented college graduate. I have multiple degrees hanging on my wall, yet no big career to show for it. Am I just a lonely stay-at-home mom with Walter Middy-esque delusions of being a real writer, or is there a chance that I can make it?
Then I look past the pieces of paper on the wall to see Phil and Emma building a fort with the couch cushions, while Phoebe dances to Fleetwood Mac with her eyes closed.