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. be given at Villanova University…


…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.

And I realize I already have.










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