I think I’ve found a soul mate in Judy L. Mandel, author of Replacement Child – a memoir (Seal Press/Perseus, March, 2013). Like I, Judy reinvented herself from a writer in the corporate world to a creative Writer in the last several years. So I thank WOW! Women on Writing for inviting me to host Judy on Choices and introducing me to her heartfelt and well-received memoir.
Here’s what Judy has to say about how she found out exactly what she should do with her life.
Switching Gears to a Writer’s Life
They say that when you find out what you should be doing with your life, you will have already been doing it. At least someone said that to me once. Which always confused the hell out of me. But, now, finally it makes sense.
I was always a writer, although now the title seems to be written with a capital “W” instead of a small one. For many years, I wrote about other people’s lives, or a company’s products. As a newspaper reporter, I found interesting stories for features—because I hated writing police reports and attending long town hall meetings. The hours were terrible, and I left to work in public relations, advertising and later, corporate marketing, thinking the stress would be less. Not so much.
It was good though. As a single mother for several years, the stability of my corporate gig helped me provide for my son and myself, buy a home, and keep him in mac and cheese. I liked a lot about the work; the spurts of creativity it allowed, and some of the great friends I met. But, the workaday world in an office, with the undercurrent politics that I had no stomach to manipulate, scraped me raw.
When I was downsized, or right sized, or whatever they were calling it that year—I took the opportunity to run fast. My son was grown and in college, and I had figured out how to provide that for him. I was married again and begged my husband for a reprieve.
“Don’t make me go back there!” I may have groveled at his feet.
I wrote up a business plan for my own marketing firm and built a roster of clients over the next year—continuing the same kind of work I had done for the last 20 years. But, my resolve shifted the year both my parents died within seven months of each other. There is something about being slapped with your own mortality that makes you take stock of your life and re-evaluate how you are spending your precious days, now that I knew for sure they were limited. I wasn’t sure that selling insurance products or the latest risk management technology was the only legacy I wanted.
Then, there was the matter of the story. The one my parents had wanted me to tell, about the plane crashing into their home, killing their seven-year-old daughter, and nearly killing their two-year-old girl. This was the defining story of my family, and the accident that happened before I was born was mythic to me. My mission was clear from the day I said my final goodbye to my mother; to tell their story of recovery from losing their child, seeing their other daughter through years of surgery and rehabilitation, and also having the hope to bring another child into the world. That would be me. I would write for two years; researching the crash, the faces of grief for the loss of a child, before I would come upon the term “replacement child” which changed the focus of the work.
Through the four years it took to write the book, I learned that I loved being in the midst of a writing project. Waking up each day with a goal to write a few good pages, or edit yesterday’s work, was the kind of adrenaline I used to seek from jumping out of airplanes or skiing (badly). Mostly, it got me out of bed early, and working late into the night at times. I cried at some memories, at my mother’s voice in my head, or the vision of my father’s eyes. Yes, it was a healing journey—cathartic in a way. But, I cringe at those proclamations—hoping my work achieves more than that.
In an effort to find a publishing home for Replacement Child, I attended several writing conferences and workshops and got hooked on being in a community of writers. It seemed to nourish a part of me that had been neglected. So, I applied for an MFA program and started going back to school in my fifties. Now, I am a fully committed and admitted writer-aholic. I can’t stop. I’m trying my hand at essays, short stories and even plays. The best part is that I don’t hesitate anymore when someone asks what I do, but proudly tell them, “I’m a writer.”
About Replacement Child – a memoir
Judy Mandel is the replacement child for her sister who was killed in a tragic accident. It would be years before she would understand how the event, that happened before she was born, shaped her life.
A plane crashes into a family’s home. A two-year-old girl is critically burned and a mother is forced to make an impossible choice. The death of a child leaves a hole in the family that threatens to tear it apart.
In a great act of hope, the parents give birth to a "replacement child," born to heal wounds and provide a "salve for the burns." The child unwittingly plays her role throughout childhood, riding the deep and hidden currents of the family tragedy.
In this powerful story of love and lies, hope and forgiveness, Judy Mandel discovers the truth that changes her life forever and forces her to confront the complex layers of her relationships with her father, mother, and sister. When she has her own child, her epiphany comes full circle.
And what Publisher’s Weekly says about Replacement Child
"In this well-researched tribute to her parents, journalist Mandel explores how a freak accident altered the fate of her family in 1952. What began as a normal January school day ended with the crash of American Airlines Flight 6780 into the Mandel family home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three miles outside Newark airport. In addition to the oldest Mandel daughter, the pilot and all 22 passengers died that day. Following the recent loss of her parents, the author decides to piece together the event that incinerated one sister, left another sister severely burned, and prompted her conception as a "replacement" child. By cleverly shifting between recent years and the day of the crash, Mandel weaves together chapters of real and imagined scenes building to the inevitable. "I read that replacement children often feel they can never live up to the memory of the dead children. I recognize myself in some of the descriptions of those with this affliction." Without seeking to give a greater significance to the issue, the book grapples with the random forces that shape modern life. The parents who survive and overcome the death of a child emerge as true heroes, celebrating family birthdays and, eventually, becoming grandparents."
About the author
Judy L. Mandel made her living as a marketing professional for over 20 years before writing her first book, Replacement Child. She grew up in New Jersey, but when she went to college in Connecticut, she knew she had found her home.
Her writing life began as a newspaper reporter. She later worked in public relations and advertising and somehow found herself in corporate communications at various insurance companies. Her memoir grew out of early essays and the promise she made to her family to tell their story.
Judy now balances her business writing for clients with writing fiction, nonfiction, and articles.
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PS: If you are an author with a new book out, I highly recommend you contact WOW! Women on Writing about hosting your virtual book tour. Take it from me, you won't be disappointed.