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Sunday, December 1, 2013

No Place Like Home

           February 2007.  My sister was battling an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. My father had died the previous June. My real estate appraisal business was feeling the pinch of the declining economy, despite my working seven days a week. I was 50 years old.  I realized that I had three options: I could have a heart attack. I could have a nervous breakdown.  I could take a vacation.
            Luckily, I had the presence of mind to take a vacation. And not just any vacation.  Armed with a copy of Suzanne Braun Levine’s   “Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood,” I gave myself a sabbatical.  Hawaii:  28 days on Maui to look at my life and try to figure out if where I was in life was where I had wanted to go.

Inside the Cyclone
            First, some history. February 13, 1977. Those who know me well know the significance of that date. At 20 years old, I was suddenly homeless. During my senior year at LaSalle College, I lived in six different places.  Somehow, I  managed to get my degree.  With honors, no less.
            But dreams of graduate school, teaching, writing seemed suddenly out of reach.  For more years than probably necessary, life became a matter of survival. I never believed I had a choice in the matter.
            Fast forward to July 1991. By my mid-thirties, I had surmounted those real and imagined obstacles, with a sense of accomplishment. I had come to Cape May with the promise of a partnership in, and eventual ownership of, an appraisal business.  But the man with whom I partnered didn’t tell me (and maybe did not know) that he had terminal cancer.  Within a year, ready or not, I was on my own.

Over the Rainbow
So, as I sat on the beach in Lahaina - humpback whales breaching just beyond the breakers  and Lanai in the distance - I asked myself:  What if February 13, 1977 had never happened?  What if I had made other choices in July 1991?  
            Two dreams came to mind immediately:  I wanted to write and I wanted to work with animals.
            So I set out to see if those dreams were possible.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road
            I sent out my first resume in February 2008, after downsizing my business in Cape May and making sure my employees had places to go. The employment scene was daunting:  resumes were sucked into an electronic black hole, never to be heard from again.  But I had a dream.
            I rented a cottage in Pennsylvania to be closer to the job market and my family.  And sent out resumes. I went to seminars on career changes for aging Baby Boomers. And sent out resumes.  I finished the final draft of my first novel. And sent out resumes.  I took classes in pet first aid and animal communication.   And sent out resumes.   I enrolled in a six-month course for veterinary assistants and passed with flying colors.  And sent out resumes.
            I volunteered at the Pennsylvania SPCA and Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Team.  And sent out resumes.  I joined in a blog with three other creative women.  And sent out resumes.  I taught creative writing classes and line dancing classes at Montgomery County Community College.  And sent out resumes.  I taught culinary arts classes to children from four to fourteen years old.  And sent out resumes.

            If I only had a brain…In May 2011, I landed what I hoped was the prelude to my dream job:  I became a client services representative at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  Part time.  Second and third shift.  The drive to Kennett Square from East Norriton put 300 miles per week on my car and cost me nearly a day’s pay for the gas.  No matter.  I was finally where I wanted to be.  But, after fifteen months, my “reward” for being a competent, dependable employee was a change in shift:  still part-time, but six days on in a row.  Longer hours.  All  third shift.  I lasted a month before I surrendered and resigned.
            If I only had a heart…But all was not lost.  My experience at New Bolton garnered me a position as a veterinary assistant/receptionist at a lovely small animal practice in Phoenixville.  Three days a week.  Eight-mile commute.  Lower pay.  No benefits.  But the chance to get some hands-on experience with dogs and cats and to put my training to good use.  I am proud to say I can scruff a cat or restrain a Rottweiler when called upon to do so.  But after a year, I realized the position had no chance of becoming full time.  And no opportunity for benefits.  I needed to move on.
           If I only had the nerve…Enter my dream job:  a full-time receptionist/veterinary assistant position at an animal hospital in Center City.  Second shift.  Promise of humane wages.  Benefits.  No weekends. The commute on the train was a treat after years of driving. I loved strolling the sidewalks of Philly again. The hours were manageable, the clients divine.  The catch?  To avoid possible litigation, let me just say that, in less than 90 days, my dream dissolved into a nightmare.

Ruby Slippers
            The weekend this past October -- when I realized I had spent all of my money, downsized my business to a
skeleton of its former self, and nearly abandoned my weary little house in Cape May -- seemed the antithesis of those mornings in Maui.  What had I gained chasing after my dreams?  I applied the same questions I had asked myself in 2007 and came to a simple conclusion…

There’s No Place Like Home
            Oh, I didn’t know it in February 2007.  Having lived so much of my life in what felt like survival mode, I never realized how many choices I had already made.  

Or how much of a home my home in Cape May truly was.  I have no regrets.  I believe I needed to check out what might have been, to walk streets I once walked, dream dreams I once dreamed.  Going back to where I once was showed me who I truly am. Now, I know  I am where I am because where I am is where I want to be.
And, when the cold water of reality ‘liquidated” my dreams, my family, my friends, my clients and my house in Cape May welcomed me back with open arms.  

 As if I had never gone.

Watch a video to see what Dorothy learned.

             Have you ever wondered if you made the right choices?  Have you ever gone “Over the Rainbow”? What have you learned?


  1. Mary, this post touched me in so many ways. I admire your courage to give yourself the time to reflect and going for it. And, the Wizard of Oz analogy, priceless. carol

  2. Mary, I think you know now that you had to take that journey. And depending on your attitude you can look at it as a success or a failure. I like to think you learned so much in those years away from Cape May. And what's not to like about moving back to such a wonderful place?

    To quote a favorite song: "Regrets? I've had a few, but then again to few to mention..." I think everyone who reads this will have at least a few memories of roads taken that turned out not exactly as planned.

    But look at where you are now. You have your writing, your friends, the ocean, and a business to rebuild. I'd say that you are in a pretty good place.

  3. Mary,
    Ditto what Carol said! You have been through a lot and I can (as you know) relate to your employment journey. You're doing great and I admire the hell out of you! Libby

  4. Mary, a beautiful story and beautifully written. Yes, we each have a journey that is filled with twists and turns. But it is attitude and perspective that really defines whether it is a dream or a nightmare. Everything is ALWAYS as it should be. Ours is to just enjoy the journey, taking nothing personally and giving everyone and everything the benefit of the doubt. You are consciousness experiencing the physical in each and every moment. I believe that loving ourselves unconditionally and trusting our choices will making our journey all the more wonderful. I for one am happy that you're back in south Jersey!!


  5. I loved your story, Mary. What courage you showed. Inspiring!

  6. M.S.FedericiJanuary 26, 2014

    " A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arrival." (Lao Tsu).

    How goes the Shaker hymn that we go around and round until we come round home? Perhaps that is how we discover where home leaving it to recognize where we need to be. When my family left it all behind for a year of discovery-journey we consciously chose to resettle in the East coast near where we started.

    Welcome back, I celebrate your homecoming. M. S. Federici