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The Author Speaks

Jacquelyn Mitchard: In My Next Life

Best-selling author writes about starting over at age 56

Six months drowned in a howl of mourning: The older kids would have to drop out of college. There was no time even to get a second mortgage or student loans, only to start selling, begging and borrowing. The young ones would never see Disney World or take ballet or play soccer. Regular people morphed into drawings with price tags attached: Purse, $80; Haircut, $50; Shoes, $125. Innocently, friends mentioned upcoming ski trips. Savagely, I loathed them. Unable to find work as we faced bankruptcy, my husband hinted perhaps "the universe" was guiding us toward simpler lives: My words for him and the intentions of the universe would scorch through the page on which I write this. Even loving notes reminding me that I was the "comeback kid" and I just needed to write "the next Harry Potter" were salt on the sore. There's a special circle in hell for the wealthy acquaintance who quipped, "Call Oprah. She made you rich before."

Debt, a friend wrote, taints every transaction. There is no present, only a gilded past and an invisible future. The smallest wish granted — mascara, movie tickets — punches another hole in the wall already streaming with guilt.

The con man promised restitution, then told the lawyer appointed to recover the lost funds that he'd no idea how to find the gold coins, the Swiss accounts, the Rolls Royce Silver Clouds. The man said Cook made him "physically sick."


But time passed. And I got physically sick, too — of my fine whine. Writing was like trying to crochet wearing oven mitts, but I dug in. So did the children, swearing that old clothes were the new black. I'd been poor before. Grudgingly, I recovered the knack. Christmas came from Craigslist; Goodwill became our Macy's.

There were stunning acts of kindness: My best friend, living on disability with MS, sent me two months' mortgage payments, unasked. A stranger brought my girls 10 boxes of once-worn designer kid clothes. Six months later, she did it again. There were moments of grace. We played board games. I cooked from scratch until my arms and hands looked like The Deadliest Catch. Francie, 15 (whose favorite brother is a musical theater major) asked, "So, Mom, when do you stop with all the homemade noodles and trivia tournaments?" Probably never, I told her. Turning to her sister, Francie said, "Take my hand, Mia, I'm a stranger in paradise."

One day, our Merit, now 12, came home from choir and dug into her spaghetti, casually relating how helpers at the orphanage stole food for their own families.

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