Living Madly: Blessings
By Emilie-Noelle Provost
My husband, Rob, and I moved to Lowell nearly twenty-four years ago with our then eleven-month-old daughter. For the previous four years, we’d been living in a rural area of western Massachusetts. The nearest grocery store was fifteen miles away. We liked it there, but once our daughter, Madelaine, was born we quickly decided that raising her in such a remote place, a few hours’ drive from either of our families, was not what we wanted.
To be closer to my mother, who lived in Chelmsford, we decided to move to Lowell. We didn’t know much about the city at the time, but I liked it right away. I grew up on the Boston line in an urban neighborhood and the part of Lowell where our first house was, Christian Hill, felt like home to me in a way that our pastoral enclave in western Massachusetts never had.
I also liked that Lowell was very ethnically and culturally diverse. It was the main reason that, after being in the city for less than a year, Rob and I decided Lowell would be a good place for Madelaine to grow up.
When Madelaine was younger, we spent a lot of time in Lowell’s downtown, driving her back and forth to school, eating at restaurants, and going to events. But after she graduated from Lowell High School and began attending college in Worcester, we didn’t get down there as often. During and after the COVID-19 lockdown, we rarely interacted with anyone from Lowell at all.
After being confined to our own neighborhood for so long, many of the reasons I liked Lowell seemed to fade into the background, especially its people.
But this past January, a few days before my birthday, I went to a Lowell nail salon to get a manicure. It was something I hadn’t done since 2019.
“Yesterday was my birthday,” the nail tech said when I sat down at her table.
“Happy birthday,” I said. “My birthday is this week, too.”
“What day?” Her Vietnamese accent made the question hard to understand. “The eleventh,” I said finally.
“That’s the day before my husband’s birthday,” she said as she filed the nails on my right hand. “It’s a blessing to have your birthday at the beginning of the year. All your life, you get to have two new beginnings at the same time.”
I’d never thought of my birthday, or anyone’s, as being a new beginning. I’d always thought of birthdays as mile markers, evidence that one is inching closer to the end of the road.
“I had dinner at Texas Roadhouse on my birthday,” she said without pausing. “I love Texas Roadhouse. It’s my favorite restaurant. I always get a small slice of cheesecake. Cheesecake is so good.”
“It is good,” I said.
“My husband had never been to Texas Roadhouse. It was his first time.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I said to him, ‘How long have you been in this country, and you have not been to Texas Roadhouse?’”
I imagined Texas Roadhouse full of customers from Southeast Asia. The thought made me smile.
“So, my husband said to me, ‘Maybe you like Texas Roadhouse because you are from the country.’” She laughed, and I took this to mean that he had been teasing her about being a hick. I laughed, too.
“When we got back from Texas Roadhouse, my cousin was at my house,” she said. “I thought he was coming to wish me a happy birthday, but then he tells me my other cousin’s wife died. On my birthday he tells me this! He says she went to bed and didn’t wake up in the morning. She was just forty.”
I wasn’t sure how to reply to this, but then she said, “We know the day we are born, but we don’t know the day we die. Life is a blessing. We have to enjoy every day. You have to talk to all the people you meet. Find out about their lives. Make the most of it. Life is too short!”
Although I’d never met her before, I started to feel like I’d known this woman for years. It had been ages since I’d had a conversation with someone I’d just met, especially someone who, on the surface at least, seemed so different than I am.
“Do you go outside?” she asked.
“Yes, I walk every night when I get home from work. My husband says it is too cold, but I don’t care. I like to be outside. Tonight is the full moon. It’s cloudy, but maybe I will see it. But even if I don’t, the moon will still be beautiful tomorrow.”
Then she said, “Our waitress at Texas Roadhouse is going to Hawaii for vacation.”
“I haven’t been there,” I told her. “The flight is so long. I’ve never wanted to go.”
“I have not been there either. But I fly back to my country and it takes a long time. Almost two days. I have three brothers in Vietnam. They are all married and have kids. When I go, I have to rent a van so everyone can fit. I stay for three weeks. I pay for everything. It costs a lot of money, so I don’t go often.”
When I didn’t say anything, she continued. “Soon it is my nephew’s birthday. I send my brother money to buy him a cake and a gift. I am blessed.”
It occurred to me then that she was most likely supporting three families besides her own with the income she earned at the salon. Most Americans I know wouldn’t think of it as a blessing.
“Thank you,” I said, looking at my nails after she had finished. They were shiny and pale pink and looked nicer than they had at any time in recent memory.
“What will you do for your birthday?” she asked as I handed her my credit card.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I haven’t really thought about it.”
“My husband wants to go to Texas Roadhouse for his birthday. He loved it so much,” she said. “So, I told him, “Maybe you are from the country?”
I haven’t seen her since that morning, but I still smile when I think about that nail tech. In less than an hour, her sparkling sense of humor and joyful personality reminded me of the reasons I’ve lived in this city for nearly half my life. If we’re willing to stop and pay attention, blessings are everywhere.
Emilie-Noelle Provost is the author of The River Is Everywhere, which was released on March 14, 2023, and The Blue Bottle, a middle-grade adventure with sea monsters. Learn more about Emilie and her work at emilienoelleprovost.com.