Here's the first truth about second chances: They rarely happen by chance. Oh, the first one, sure, is often concentrated pure luck, but first chances are notorious for fizzling out, derailing. At which point, everyone learns the second truth: Pure luck will only take you so far.

Recently, in talking to a number of people who've had remarkable second acts, I met a woman named Anne Martindell whose first chance, true to form, hadn't lasted a year. On the surface, what she got was an opportunity to go to college, but condensed down, it was really a shot at becoming who she was. It stretched out, one long dazzling promise, for two semesters at Smith, during which she became sharply aware of how you could be ravenous for something like European history, how the sight of a Picasso could hit you like you'd been socked, how ideas—ideas alone—could break you out of shyness.

Right after, she learned how it was possible for a chance to be exploded so fast you couldn't be sure you'd had it. Come June, her father yanked her out of school. This was 1932. The place was too "bluestocking," he complained—too intellectual, and if you want to ruin your possibilities for marriage, that's what you'll become. She'd felt fully alive. Now she felt devastated, "terribly upset and terribly bored and terribly angry"; a year later, she was married to "my father's dream man." He was basically sweet, she says measuredly, but they had nothing in common.

If this were a fable, and perhaps it qualifies, this would be the place to point out several additional truths: Foremost, that all first chances contain seeds for a second, not to mention a third, fourth, and fifth. Without water or soil, they can lie dormant forever. Those seeds are durable, though. They can bloom years later. Not long ago The New York Times carried a record of a second flowering after a 70-year delay, in a story headlined THE GRADUATE, AGE 87, LOOKS AHEAD.

"I think women can have it all," Martindell told the reporter who'd caught up with her after her graduation from Smith, which was attended by her four children and nine grandchildren. "We live so long, you can have the family and then the career.

"I didn't do anything real until I was 50," she added, a bit of an understatement perhaps, given that after an impromptu teaching job at her children's school gave her the courage to test the unknown, she blazed a remarkable career path. Political volunteer work led to convention delegate led to New Jersey state senator. "At budget time I had a hard time," she says: "I'd missed third grade and beginning math (Mother was sick that year and didn't enroll us)." Ultimately, Martindell became director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. At 65, she was appointed ambassador to New Zealand.

It was there, then twice divorced, that she met the love of her life when she rode her bike to a gallery opening and fell in love with the painter. He wanted to marry her, but she refused. That wasn't necessary nowadays, she said ("he was cross"), but the affair continued over two continents for almost 20 years, till his death. What initially attracted him: her appreciation of art.

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