Mother of Career Reinvention
My mom (left) started teaching when I was in high school, first at an inner-city junior high in St. Louis, Mo., and then at a high school out in the boonies. She disliked both jobs for different reasons, but was still miserable after she quit.
The previous decade, she had enjoyed raising her four children in the rural Illinois college town where my dad taught. We moved to St. Louis so my brother and I could attend a parochial high school. To make it work, my dad commuted and was only home weekends, while my mom tried to find a job.
It didn't help that I also was miserable, and as part of my teenage angst basically blew off the expensive prep school and my mom. Angry, hormonal and depressed, we both fumed inside and blamed each other. I'm sure there were moments of love and joy, but mainly I remember our unhappy stand-off.
At some point that I didn't notice, my mom hatched a new plan. (It may have been inspired by her latest career flop -- selling World Book Encyclopedias door to door, a humiliation that lasted about a week.) Out of the blue, she announced a trip to Guatemala, something about buying hand-woven fabric. During her high school years, my mom had lived in Costa Rica with her family and loved Central American culture.
Unfazed by the guerrilla warfare raging in Guatemala in the late 70s, she launched a spontaneous import venture and trekked out to the tiny, remote villages around Lake Atitlan, where Mayan women weave elaborate textiles on looms strapped to their backs. She returned with reams of fabric and novelties, and peddled them at trade shows and art museum shops across the country. She landed a large order from Williams-Sonoma for chicken-shaped potholders fashioned out of her hand-woven fabric.
Stuck with about 1,000 potholders (right) when Williams-Sonoma didn't reorder, she quickly opened a small storefront near our home. My dad helped her name it, Salamander, a play on her name, Sally Martha Anderson. She took trips to India and Thailand, and branched out into other ethnic merchandise. Although the store was hidden in a basement with zero foot traffic, one by one, she found her people, or they found her. Local artists and travel lovers somehow discovered her eclectic shop hidden away in a preppy St. Louis suburb. She eventually moved Salamander into a hip, renovated neighborhood in the city called the Central West End, and expanded into stylish clothing and artisan jewelry.
Although my mom was a gentle person and socially reserved, she tangled with landlords, confronted difficult customers and earned her buying chops in the design shows in Los Angeles and New York City. During her 17 years running Salamander, she never made more than a meager salary, but she was very happy. Over time, we finally started to get along.
After selling the shop, she returned to throwing pots and painting, and enjoyed many rich years with her grandchildren and travelling with my dad right up until she passed away suddenly in her mid-70s.
I'm now only a few years older than my mom was when she started Salamander, and I often think about her bold move. She always believed in the power of personal growth, and that you were only as limited as your thinking. As much as my mom preached self-empowerment, her midlife adventure made the most lasting impression on me. Although I'm not unhappy like she was then, I'm a new empty nester with no clear idea of what my future holds. Seeing my mom rescue her own life, and watching the fun she had doing it, I know it's possible to make good things happen at any age.
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