Introduction: Divine Timing

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Divine Timing

Life calls the tune, we dance.

~John Galsworthy

Amy: Natasha and I are running late finishing this book. But we’re used to that. Because we’re writers, and perfectionists, and we always take on too much! I was always this way. I was even born sixteen days late according to my mother, but hey, perfection takes time, right?

Natasha: I, on the other hand, arrived in this world early. Minutes ahead of my twin brother, I was born on December 31st in the year The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan, and two months premature of my March due date.

But that was the first and last time I’ve ever been early—or even on time—for anything in my life. Since my birth day, I’ve been late for school exams, family weddings, court duty, surgeries, flights to Paris, and interviews with A-list celebrities whom I kept waiting on their yachts, to the exasperation of all who know me, love me, or hire me.

“You’re cursed,” they tell me.

“Maybe,” I shrug. “But one day, I’ll be crazy lucky.”

Because if my rudimentary calculations are correct, at one point in my life when I least expect it . . . all my stars will align like never before, and in a sublime act of supernatural intervention saved up for that one moment, my tardiness will save my life.

Amy: It may sound like rationalization, but we both have great stories about times when being late, through some kind of divine intervention, actually saved lives.

Natasha: My theory begins with my grandfather on my father’s side, Stavro Shaumanduroff, who was famously late for a boat once.

It was the spring of 1912 and he was a handsome, strapping man of eighteen preparing to voyage across the ocean to America. The family had recently fled their home village of Smurdesh, Macedonia, after various invasions and uprisings. A relative of my grandmother, Vasil Chekalarov, was a fierce, legendary revolutionary until Greek troops captured him and chopped his head off, parading it through the village as a warning to others.

The family transplanted to Sofia, Bulgaria with a plan: Stavro would set sail for New York with a third-class ticket and two boyhood friends, work long hours there on a factory assembly line for several months, then return with pocketsful of coveted dollars.

The future of the family, his father told him, was in Stavro’s strong, Slavic hands.

Apparently, it was also at the bottom of his coffee cup.

Before the journey, his mother, Stoyanka, served her son some Typcko Kaфe, then peered into his drained cup to read the coffee grains settled on the bottom. The family gathered around as she squinted.

“Neh,” she said, shaking her head back and forth, pointing to the broken line of sludge in the cup. “Not good. Stavro, you no go this time.”

Her pronouncement caused an uproar. The Shaumanduroff women were respected for their fortune-telling abilities, but this was news no one wanted to hear. Never mind the coffee grinds, he was going!

Stavro took a train to Southampton, England, to meet his buddies and catch the boat. On the morning of April 10th, he stood on a dock looking up, up, up with eyes as wide as the donkey-cart wheels back in Smurdesh.

The Titanic was humongous, shiny and beautiful, and he couldn’t wait to get on her. But as the hundreds of passengers boarded the luxury liner, Stavro couldn’t find his friends; they had missed their train to Southampton. He waited until he heard the triple-blast horns at noon signaling final boarding, then raced to the boat with his father’s words ringing in his ears:

“The future of the family depends on you. You are our hope.”

He reached the vessel just in time to see the lines cast off and Titanic freed from land.

“You’re too late,” a dockworker said. By twenty minutes.

Amy: Later on in this volume, you’ll read about Natasha’s other grandfather, who also made it to the U.S. from Eastern Europe and brought his family over through a series of fortuitous coincidences and lucky breaks. I’m glad it all worked out since it has been such a pleasure putting together this collection of jaw-dropping stories with Natasha. She has shared many of her own stories in this book, and I think you’ll have trouble putting it down. I have come away from working on Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles even more convinced that there are good reasons for hope, that good things do happen to good people, and that our lives can be filled with miracles if we stay open to them.

Natasha: I’ve come away more convinced, too. And I have a second story of divine intervention to share! Let’s skip ahead sixty years to a cloudy fall morning in 1972 in the Windy City, one week before the U.S. Presidential Election. The mood in the Democratic campaign headquarters was somber. The Watergate break-in had happened a few months earlier but the young staffers, including my friend Jamie — a recent Columbia University grad—still knew that George McGovern stood no chance against Nixon.

Jamie’s job in the Chicago press office was to write news releases and distribute campaign schedule updates to the Woodward-and-Bernstein-types covering the election in their smoke-filled newsrooms. The Xerox telecopier transmitted copy at a speed of six minutes per page!

Once in a while, the twenty-two-year-old was given top-secret assignments. Like the time he was instructed to fetch a list of grocery items and hand-deliver them to McGovern’s hotel. The list included a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, Hershey bars, and an orange (the senator had a cold, he was told, off the record).

On the night of October 29th, the staffers worked especially late. With Marvin Gaye and The Temptations playing in the background, they stuffed envelopes until their fingers ached and it was well past midnight. Jamie got back to his apartment, set his alarm for 6:30 a.m. so he could catch the 7:20 a.m. train, and passed out. Every morning he took the same train on the Illinois Central commuter line. He picked it up at 53rd Street and rode it along Lake Michigan past Soldier Field football stadium.

That morning, Jamie’s alarm clock didn’t go off. He overslept until 8 a.m., then rushed to get ready . . . turning on his clock radio to the all-news AM station WBBM as he got dressed. That’s when he heard:

“. . . .breaking news . . .in what may be the worst train wreck in Illinois history, one commuter train rear-ended another at approximately 7:40 a.m. this morning near the 27th Street platform, killing dozens and injuring hundreds of passengers . . .”

It was Jamie’s train. The final death tally was forty-five with over 300 injured. The crash occurred two stops and twenty minutes away from Jamie’s apartment.

Amy: And now let’s advance the calendar again, to the afternoon of December 21, 1988, when the phone rang and I learned that my father’s flight home from London, Pan Am flight 103, had mysteriously crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, only thirty-eight minutes after taking off from London’s Heathrow Airport.

My father worked in London part-time and was flying home that day to join the family for Christmas. With one phone call, everything changed for us. Of course, we were filled with dread, but it all seemed so unbelievable that I rushed to reassure my mother and grandmother, who were panic-stricken, that we really didn’t know anything yet.

Our only hope was that my father was somehow not on the flight. Remember back then, when you could miss your flight and use your ticket on a later flight or even on another airline?

But if my father had missed the flight, why hadn’t he called us to tell us that he was okay? After all, it was already nighttime in London.

We left messages on the answering machine at my father’s house for hours but there was still no word. We grew increasingly worried, but I held onto a little hope. After all, we were the family that was always late!

Finally, when it was very late in London, my father called us to report that he had missed the flight and gone out to dinner, with no idea that his flight had crashed and that his horrified family was waiting for news back in New York. Dad had finally noticed the blinking light on his answering machine and listened to our increasingly frantic messages. He was very shook up when he learned that all 259 people on his flight were killed, along with eleven people on the ground. He came home a couple of days later and we had quite a meaningful Christmas that year. We were all counting our blessings, and I have valued every day with my father since then.

We were relieved to learn as well that Pan Am 103 was not full, meaning that some other poor soul didn’t take my father’s place on standby. Dad’s seat remained empty, so humanity was up one that night!

Natasha: Good thing we’re both from a family that’s always late. As we’ve said, lateness can be divine. A little more than a decade after your father’s missed flight, my former roommate, Alessandra, was pacing back and forth in her Upper East Side loft in Manhattan.

The babysitter was supposed to arrive at 8 a.m. to look after Ale’s eight-month-old son, but she was twenty minutes late and Ale was anxious. She was the CEO of the family-owned shipping company and because they had offices all around the world, it was crucial she be downtown at her desk every day by 8:30 a.m. to field incoming calls from various time zones.

When the apologetic sitter arrived, Ale raced down five flights in her high heels and ran to catch the express subway going south. Her office on the 46th floor at One World Trade Center had magnificent views of the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River.

She got off the subway just before 9 a.m., stepped onto the platform, and smelled smoke. Without any hesitation, Alessandra immediately crossed the platform and got on the train going north, back home to her baby. She had no idea that the first plane had hit her office tower less than ten minutes earlier. But she’d smelled smoke here before—in ’93 when terrorists planted a bomb that detonated. So when she smelled smoke, she smelled trouble. She got out of there on one of the last subway trains running. A few minutes later, the second plane hit.

A sinking ship, a train wreck, and two acts of terrorism—all narrowly missed. You can call it coincidence, luck, or fate. We prefer to think the odds are with us that we each get one fabulously epic and divine intervention in our lifetime that saves us.

We plan to be fashionably late for ours.

~Natasha Stoynoff and Amy Newmark

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