After exploring stints in various jobs, including secretary and consultant, not to mention raising two children and receiving a masters and PhD in the process, Marian has now embraced the writing life with the publication of her fourth book, at age 82, Prohibition Wine.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. Whenever I tell people this, they often say how much they like the city. I know what they will say before the words are spoken. I also know they are not thinking of my Providence, they are thinking about the East Side and the preeminent College Hill where Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Moses Brown School look out over the downtown flatlands.
My growing up was in South Providence which did not have a famous, or any kind of hill. In this part of city, there were small factories on almost every narrow and wide street. A manufacturing plant stood at the end of my three-decker-lined street. Another directly abutted my elementary school’s playground. A bigger one was across the way from Roger Williams Junior High School from which I left for high school. Mainly, the factories produced metal findings for Rhode Island’s jewelry industry. These brick buildings were already old and fading when I was a child, and they merged inconspicuously into our neighborhoods. Streams of workers walked in and out every weekday, and we hardly noticed.
My parents were both the children of Russian Jewish immigrants who had settled in the Boston area. When my dad couldn’t find a job during the Great Depression, he and my mom moved to Providence to join an uncle’s business. Except for that family, with which we had a fraught relationship, I had no relatives in Providence. But I had lots of friends.
From kindergarten through twelfth grade, I went to public schools and got enough of an education to gain me entry into Boston University where I obtained a bachelor’s degree in English Literature (reading but not a lot of writing). At the end of college, I got married and had two children who are, today, very much a part of my existence. My current immediate family consists of two sons, two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren who all live close by and with whom I share frequent celebrations and simple dinners. My oldest grandchild, who I took care of every Tuesday starting in her infancy, is off to college this coming September.
At twenty-seven, six years after college, I went back to school and, ultimately, completed a master’s degree in Anthropology from Hunter College, New York. During that time, I was a mom, part-time worker, and community activist. Decades later, at age sixty-four and wanting more education, I, again, went back this time for a doctorate from Antioch University New England, Keene, New Hampshire. My Ph.D. is in Environmental Studies and I studied the total environment in which people age. I passed my dissertation defense and walked in the graduation ceremony right before my seventieth birthday.
It was at Antioch that I learned that I could write. In one of my classes, I was the only person who wrote an optional essay and my instructor asked me to read it. Her response was, “You should have that published.” The essay appeared in Whole Terrain, Antioch’s literary magazine.
Over many years I have had numerous jobs—even careers—including secretary, editor of an employee newsletter, counselor at an abortion clinic (shortly after the passage of Roe v. Wade), manager of a health care improvement organization, and a community improvement consultant. Volunteering In my city, I wrote (still do) a column for my local newspaper, was a political campaign manager, chair of an appointed commission on aging, and advocate for social causes. Throughout these times, I was a caregiver for multiple aged relatives.
What led to your various transitions?
I thought about each transition for a long time. Then I reached the point when I felt compelled to act, but I can’t identify the various tipping points.
At midlife—age 48—I decided I didn’t want to be married. Fortunately, I had a job that enabled me to support myself. In my era, many women who were divorced or widowed looked for a man to take care of them. That wasn’t and still isn’t me. I wanted to be self-sufficient.
I transitioned again in my mid-fifties when I left a regular job and became an independent community consultant and, in my sixties, I became a student once more.
Around eighty, I decided to cut back on some of my community involvement and my focus on senior issues. I had become weary of trying to promote progressive ideas that involved and served older adults, but I didn’t see forward-thinking, concrete actions.
Finally, I realized that I needed to pursue things that gave me a sense of accomplishment. That led to my next act.
What is your next act?
My next act has already begun as I am about to publish my fourth book on May 25, 2021. Prohibition Wine: A True Story of One Woman’s Daring in Twentieth Century America (She Writes Press). Prohibition Wine is about my paternal grandmother who came to America in 1889. When she became a widow with six children, she began selling illegal alcohol during Prohibition to help put food on the table.
I loved doing the research for this book. I conducted endless searches on Ancestry.com finding when and how my grandmother and her family came to America. I searched out where they all lived, their marriages, births of children, and deaths. In addition, I read deeply about Prohibition, immigration, women’s roles in Jewish families, health and women’s health issues during the era when she bore children, and anti-Semitism. I poured over family documents and photographs and conjured up and reflected on the stories I had heard as a child.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
There were two parts to this plunge. The first was leaving behind my community work. I had spent years researching and writing on the complexity of aging and encouraging elected officials to strategize for our growing elder population. It was very difficult to put all of that behind me. I didn’t withdraw with gentle, peaceful feelings, but continued for months with the fantasy that I could still make a difference. My mental disengagement was slow, sad, and slightly angry, and I’m mostly through that phase. I was aided in my transition because I had another project ready for my attention.
The second part of the plunge was beginning a new manuscript. Here, the biggest struggle for me was to determine the focus and whose voice to use. It took reading and re-reading old documents, working with my editor, and doing lots of thinking to finally conclude that the emphasis had to be on my grandmother’s personal story, the era in which she lived, and how her experiences are reflected in society today—more than a century later.
How supportive were your family and friends?
In terms of distancing myself from politics and the aging field, my kids, grandkids, and friends were not involved. This was a very personal and solo decision for me.
Concerning Prohibition Wine, everyone was very supportive. They kept asking me when they would be able to read it. I didn’t want to show it to anyone until I knew where the writing was headed. My brother and sister offered some suggestions, but their perceptions often didn’t fit into my construct of what my messages were.
What challenges did you encounter?
In general, the biggest challenges for me in writing this book have been learning things I had never done before: working with a publisher and understanding the complexity of the process; wrapping my head around publicity and its endless ins, outs, and decisions; and, most of all, gaining computer and social media skills, which weren’t part of my training. But I had to do it because publishing requires it.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
In my various processes, I learned that some transitions are easier than others. I also learned that I could shift directions, but to find those directions, I had to take unfamiliar, potentially scary steps. These steps didn’t have to be big. Small ones helped me learn that each step could introduce me to something I didn’t know before and that was exciting.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would not have done anything differently. I look at my lifetime as being a long series of tiny and huge learnings some of which have been happy and others stressful. I don’t wish that I had started earlier on my writing path. Living many decades has given me a continuum of chances to understand who I am and use that knowledge to be creative and to plan for the future.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I was fortunate to be able to pursue education and had good-enough jobs that gave me stability. Because I didn’t have an inheritance, I had to figure out financial security on my own—a big, satisfying accomplishment.
The most important suggestion is to determine who you are and what you want to achieve. To do this, a small-scale approach worked for me. Try something and see what happens. If it works, keep going. If it doesn’t work, try something else.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing family stories?
With any writing project it is important to know what you want to accomplish. The goal may not be clear when you begin, but it will likely emerge as you continue to do research and learn more. If the objective is to simply create a family tree, then that is pretty straight-forward; find the appropriate sources and create that heritage.
To flesh out the background of specific individuals, you need to write down what you want to find out. That will lead to other questions and resources. It would be good to ask family members what they would like to know and follow their suggestions – as long as it doesn’t impact anyone negatively. Finally, if it is important to set the family stories in a broader context, then it is necessary to sort out what is important to know. In this case, learn about the era, specific locations, and the political and social issues at the time, It’s a big job. Good luck!
What resources do you recommend?
Since Next Act for Women focuses on life after “mid-life,” the implication is that reinvention occurs sometime after age fifty, sixty, and greater. I like to focus on literature and resources that offer different views of the ongoing aging process. I look for resources that encourage people to see the positive aspects of getting older.
There are various websites that focus on different aspects of getting older such as where to live or financial strategies. These two sites offer more general concepts about planning ahead.
This article offers insights into the everchanging landscape of reinvention as people continue to get older and gain more experience.
This article asks readers to think about what is important to them so they can prepare for a personally meaningful future.
The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain by Gene Cohen
“Based on the latest studies of the brain, as well as moving stories of men and women in the second half of life, The Mature Mind reveals for the first time how we can continue to grow and flourish. Cohen’s groundbreaking theory-the first to elaborate on the psychology of later life-describes how the mind gives us “inner pushes” and creates new opportunities for positive change throughout adult life. He shows how we can jump-start that growth at any age and under any circumstances, fine-tuning as we go, actively building brain reserves and new possibilities.” ~ Amazon.com
Business World Perspective:
The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market by Joseph F. Coughlin. Coughlin observes that the business world is missing a great opportunity because it fails to acknowledge the depth, diversity, and potential of the members of our shifting, maturing demographic.
“Coughlin provides deep insight into a population that consistently defies expectations: people who, through their continued personal and professional ambition, desire for experience, and quest for self-actualization, are building a striking, unheralded vision of longer life that very few in business fully understand. His focus on women–they outnumber men, control household spending and finances, and are leading the charge toward tomorrow’s creative new narrative of later life–is especially illuminating.” ~ Book Dust Jacket
From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronalad S. Miller
“Reb Zalman…shows you how to create an aging process for yourself that is full of adventure, passion, mystery, and fulfillment…” Elie Wiesel, (Back Cover of the 2014 edition.)
What’s next for you?
Yes, there are future acts. I wrote my first book at age 76 in 2014 (Aging in Places: Reflective Preparation for the Future), published two more in 2017 (A Steadfast Spirit: The Essence of Caregiving; and with Vivien Goldman, The Outermost Cape: Encountering Time).
My next act will involve writing more books and I’ve already started one about my long-term friends from South Providence. Twelve preteen girls identified ourselves as a group in 1950 and we still see ourselves as a unit. I am looking for answers to questions such as why we formed in the first place and why we are still a little band even though we are scattered all over the country. Sadly, some of us have died, but those of us who are left continue to hang together.
Other books are floating around in my head, including one on how we can think about using leftovers and not waste food. (I like to cook and experiment with cooking.)
Because I started late, I feel I must hurry up. I have time to make up. Maybe the next act will involve something totally different, but whatever that may be, I anticipate having “next acts” until who knows when.
Connect with Marian Leah Knapp:
Aging in Places: Reflective Preparation for the Future
A Steadfast Spirit: The Essence of Caregiving
The Outermost Cape, Encountering Time
Prohibition Wine: A True Story of One Woman’s Daring in Twentieth Century America
I have published over one hundred articles, mainly in the Newton (MA) TAB. Interested people can Google Marian L. Knapp or Marian Leah Knapp and many of them will pop up.