Sometimes Opportunity Knocks, and Sometimes it Knocks You Over

“Not knowing when the dawn will come
I open every door.”

–Emily Dickinson

In the recent Indian movie, The Lunchbox, a lunchbox delivered to the wrong address sparks an unusual correspondence and changes the lives of the two main characters. (The lunchbox delivery service by the dabba wallahs of Mumbai transports over 200,000 lunchboxes each day, with mistake occurring only once in a million times. Here’s a video I found.) All of us have heard stories of a person who “was at the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time.” There are hundreds of movies, plays, and books based on chance encounters—for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The reason why we repeat these clichés, and why these stories resonate with us is because they are so real. We’ve all had chance encounters; we’ve all experienced unexpected good or bad luck.

A few days ago, I learned how my dad got into the antique business. He and my mom were newlyweds. They married in 1942, shortly after the US entered WWII, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My parents expected that he would be called up, and so they hurried to get married first. In fact, my dad tried to enlist, but he was rejected because his eyesight was extremely poor. My dad had had no particular job training, and he had dropped out of college after a year or two. So like many other Americans, both my mom and dad did vital “war work” in factories. Many of the workers, like my parents, had no experience with the type of work they were doing, or attempting to do, and apparently in the rush to get items to the troops, these neophytes were not always trained very carefully. One day, the man with whom my dad was partnered, accidentally pushed something the wrong way—right into my dad’s face, knocking him down, and causing him to lose a couple of teeth. My dad decided right then that he had had enough of factory war work.

         An acquaintance offered him ten bucks a day to go with him door-to-door to buy old furniture and other items from people’s home. The man then re-sold the items. As my mom said, my dad was “a quick study.” He decided he could do this business by himself. He went to the library to read about antiques—no doubt taking copious notes and memorizing facts (as he later did when he went back to college). Before long he started his own business. After one store did not work so well, he found a business partner, a friend lent them some money, and they built up successful business in a store on Pine Street, in the heart of Philadelphia’s Antique Row.

         During the post-war boom—and baby boom—people were buying and furnishing new homes. Wealthy southerners wanted antiques from northern shops, and eventually my dad started an antique business in Dallas (his business partner kept the Philadelphia store), and our family moved and lived there for about 8 or 9 years. He worked hard to make the business a success—and so did my mom—but if the factory accident had not occurred, and if the acquaintance had not asked him to help in his little door-to-door business, perhaps Lee Antique Company would never have happened.

         When I was in ninth grade back in Pennsylvania, the boy sitting in front of me in English class never had a pencil. I, of course, was always prepared for class. I had a 3-ring loose-leaf notebook with one of those plastic zippered bags snapped into the rings  (do they even make them anymore?) with pencils, paper clips, and other important classroom items. I became his designated pencil carrier and supplier. I am now married to him, so I suppose I still have that job. If my parents had not divorced, if we had not moved to Havertown, PA, if the alphabetical seating chart had not positioned my future husband in front of me, and if I had not been prepared with pencils and paper, we might never have really talked and eventually married. In a way, my parents’ divorce led to my marriage.

         I’ve had other opportunities that occurred because of chance. Many years ago, someone told an editor at NYU Press about my recently completed dissertation, and I got a surprise phone call saying they wanted to publish Breaking the Bonds. A friend introduced me to test writing at ETS, and it turned out that I have a knack for it.

         Professional cooks advise people to always have a well-stocked pantry, and it is true that I have whipped-up some great spur-of-the moment meals based on “What’s in my pantry or freezer?” or on “What do I want to get rid of in my refrigerator?” But still some basic ingredients have to be there, and one has to have some skill in combining them—and then be willing to eat the results. Chance, preparation, skill, and hard work—important ingredients for many of life’s recipes.

         We have all encountered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” I know I have, and sometimes I’ve retreated, not willing to fight that battle. Sometimes though I’ve been able to deflect those arrows. And I’ve learned to hit my own targets. I’ve discovered that with my sling I can slay my own Goliaths, especially the ones that exist only in my mind.

         I guess the moral of this post is that one should always be prepared—because sometimes opportunity quite literally results from a punch in the teeth.

Looking Back at Looking Back

A few days ago while working on a new book, I needed some information on eighteenth-century men and women who left their spouses and turned to my first book Breaking the Bonds. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really read through it. It was a strange feeling to look back at prose I wrote over twenty years ago, but I was pleased to find I still thought it was good. Sigh of relief, right?

As I read about the unhappy lives of people who died long ago, I thought back about my own life.  I was reading history, but I was thinking about my own history—who I was, how I’ve changed, and how the process of research and writing has changed. Breaking the Bonds started as my doctoral dissertation, and because of that, it is the book I spent the most time researching and writing. I wrote each chapter multiple times and presented each one to professors, other grad students, and seminar groups. I presented versions of some chapters to various professional associations.

When I began the research for this book, few documents or collections were digitized. I didn’t do any of the research online or take notes on my computer. (I had one of the first Apple computer models then—a desk top, of course.) I went to archives with pencils (no pens allowed), index cards, and legal pads.

I was the first historian to really use and write about some of the documents and collections I unearthed during my research, although since that time, other, more celebrated, historians have gone on to discuss them. I was fortunate to be at the right place and the right time as archivists were processing some collections, and several graciously shared papers with me or allowed me to go through them before they were indexed. Those who have never visited archives might not realize how papers can become “buried” in stacks of other papers or within dusty volumes. Although I love the ease of finding and searching through online documents—without having to actually get dressed or worry about driving—there is something special about seeing and holding the actual letter someone in the past wrote to a friend, relative, or official. And something exhilarating about discovering a document that proves a point you want to make or leads you down a new path.

 I was a different person when I did the research for Breaking the Bonds. If I wrote the book now, it would be a different book. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Being a full-time graduate student is like nothing else. You are in an artificial world where your job is to read, write, and research, and then talk about it. All the time. Not joking. All the time.  It was a fun, exciting, and scary world to me. At the beginning of my grad school days, I was a twenty-something, but I was naïve and looked younger than I was. I always got carded if I went to a bar. Nearly every Friday night, my math teacher husband and I got together with other young married couples–who were not historians or grad students. We ate dollar hoagies (can you imagine?), or occasionally splurged on pizza or Chinese food. They would ask me what interesting stories I had come across in my research. I’d regale them with the pathos and sexual exploits of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Pennsylvanians, such as the woman who warmed one of her stockings and then dangled it in front of her lover before he could “get it up.” (Interested? It’s in the book!)

I was probably attempting to look professional.

I was probably attempting to look professional.

By the time I finished the dissertation, I had a baby daughter. Right before the book went to press, I gave birth to our second daughter (finishing the index just in time). Now both the babies are grown, and I’ve written and edited many books. I’m a different person. I’m probably still naïve, but I no longer get carded.

As I re-read Breaking the Bonds, I thought about how the world has changed since the eighteenth-century. And how I have changed since I wrote the book. At the same time, much in the world remains the same—people fall in love and lust, have children, enjoy eating and drinking with friends, gossip, and do cruel and horrible things to one another.

 Today I will reenact my grad school days. I told my husband that when I was in grad school I used to read a book in a day and write a review essay about it all the time. The book review I agreed to write for a major journal isn’t due until Wednesday. No problem. I guess I should get started though. Any second now. Wish me luck.

 Thanks for reading!

Merril