Blooming late is the story behind hundreds of stories, from Grandma Moses to Albert Einstein, from "The Ugly Duckling" to "Rocky." Somebody emerges from a life of adversity a new person; somebody begins a second life with renewed confidence and success.

In a sense the second chance is always there: The opportunity to restart your life no matter how old you are, to arise from the ashes of your old oppressive life like the phoenix. How to define that new life? It might mean going to law school; becoming a liberated woman; taking up oil painting after limping out of the corporate rat race. It could be a divorce or a marriage. It might mean being "born again," but could just as easily be a breaking off with religion. It could be as innocuous as starting a jogging program or as desperate as pulling your life together after the death of a loved one.

"A late bloomer," write author Carol Coleman and psychotherapist Michael Perelman in their book Late Bloomers (Macmillan, 1985, $15.95), "is a 32-year-old man who is the oldest student in his medical school class. A late bloomer is a 54-year-old woman who publishes her first book. A late bloomer is a 36-year-old homemaker who lands a plum job on television. A late bloomer is a 67-year-old grandmother who joins the Peace Corps . . . "

While a second chance at life is usually welcome, for many it is also daunting -- unknown waters fraught with obstacles. "You may have to be miserable enough to do it," says Coleman, 36. "Misery's a tremendous catalyst. If you don't bottom out and get miserable, you're not going to make those changes. Something has to spur you on . . .

"But unhappiness is part a process of taking a step toward the next step -- the second part of blooming."

For Elizabeth Layton, now 76, there seemed to be no problem with the old life. She was married, had raised five healthy children, and for 15 years was managing editor of a small-town newspaper in Kansas.

But from her twenties, she had developed an almost constant state of depression, and the electroshock therapy she underwent did not help. It wasn't until the late 1970s that her life changed. With her depression as intense as ever, another tragedy hit home: "One of my children died and I was having a struggle getting over that, too. I thought, 'I've got to do something.' "

Layton's sister, who had started taking painting classes, urged her to do the same. Layton enrolled in a contour drawing class at nearby Ottawa University. The change -- although not immediate -- was dramatic: "I think it was about 9 or 10 months after that , I discovered my depression was gone."

Since then, Layton's work has been shown in exhibitions across the country, and she was named one of three Kansas Governor's Artists. She does many drawings for charity, actively encourages others to draw to alleviate depression, and would rather give her work away than sell it. Explains Layton: "When I found out I could do this, I felt it was a miracle. I felt if I sold my drawings it'd go away."

For men who change their lives, bowing out of the rat-race is frequently part of the scenario. David Martin, 49, of Northridge, Calif., had been working 20 years as an engineer with IBM when he "went through what would be called a midlife crisis -- where you are just not happy with what you're doing . . .

"IBM is . . . probably the best at what it does, but it was just too much management, too much organization. I'm the sort of person who doesn't like authority."

In 1980 Martin switched routines with his homemaker wife, Brenda, 47. He stayed at home with their four children and she worked outside the home, as a nurse. Now his day revolves around his wife and children. Although he recently took on a part-time job, he speaks of complete satisfaction with home life.

"You get so involved in your job ," says Martin. "It takes a lot out of you. You're not really there for your family to the extent that I think you should be." With the change, "I started looking after my wife more, generally being more involved with her. You become more of a caring person . . ."

After retiring from 24 satisfactory years as a nurse in the U.S. Air Force, Hugh Maine, now 51, decided he would start anew with a flue. He started a chimney-sweeping company in 1979 and "7,000 chimneys and fireplaces later," he says, "I thoroughly enjoy it."

A resident of Belleville, Mo., Maine says his new life is "definitely a change for the better . . . It gives you a tremendous gratification as far as creating something safe . . . It's almost like preventive medicine."

Elgin McLay, now in her late fifties, was formerly "an average homemaker, wife, mother and worker." After her children grew up, she went back to school, obtained a communications degree and became a well-paid advertising director. But time came for a third life recently when she found herself a widow approaching retirement age. "I had ruled out trying to find another mate," she says. "I decided I'd be happier single and working. . . I had done my grieving and was looking around for what to do with the rest of my life."

She had requirements for the future: to develop a skill or profession she could practice in a small city, "like Spokane," and "to be my own boss and do something socially significant."

McLay opted for law school. After completing her law degree at Catholic University, she passed the Washington state bar in 1982, set up legal shop in Spokane and, she adds, is "very busy, thank you.

"I did not take up the practice to make money. I had sufficient money from retirement and my husband's estate," McLay says. As an attorney who does much pro bono work, "I rarely make much more than enough to cover my office and expenses . . . It's very rewarding."

Law school was also late bloomer Wanda White's answer. Now an anesthetist at Walter Reed Hospital, White (now in her mid-forties) feared being forced into early retirement in the medical world. When she and her husband divorced and her son left for college, White found the freedom to pursue the education she had wanted earlier.

"When I graduated from high school in the '50s, there were only three professions available to women -- nursing, teaching or becoming a secretary," says White. "The doors weren't open. The tuition was high. I had a young child."

With financial help from her boss, White took part-time courses in health administration and earned a degree. And that stirred her interest in law, which led to another degree last year. "I really wanted to make my mark and go as far as I could go. I felt law was the answer."

Lillian O'Connor, 81, a retired educator, decided it was time to go back to school seven years ago. As a board member of the Paris-based World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations, she had been working on revisions of canon law to present to the Vatican. "I thought . . . I should know some theology," she says. When O'Connor earned her master's degree in theology last year from the Washington Theological Union she was 80.

For most re-bloomers, the second life isn't an arbitrary change so much as a reaction to adversity, says Barbara Mary Johnson, 56, who interviewed 100 women between the ages of 35 and 65 for her book Saying Yes to Women: How Christian Women at Life's Turning Point Can Discover Unexpected Growth and Joy (Augsburg Publishing, 1981). The subjects -- almost all of them affected by divorce, says Johnson -- took approximately five years to reach a satisfactory level of improvement, "trying out different things, taking classes, maybe changing a job, trying a part-time job, different volunteer work."

Although "it's often more difficult for older people to switch careers or change jobs" because of age discrimination, write authors Coleman and Perelman, ". . . some discrimination, . . . is self-imposed. We start believing the negative stereotypes about aging, and like a prophecy fulfilled, we are defeated before we begin."

The answer, they say, "is to fight those beliefs."

Many second-lifers speak of the difficulty of starting over and keeping one's motivation high. Says Elizabeth Layton: "It's hard to take that first step. To actually get out and go and say, 'I'm going to do something.' Just to leave the house is something."

"It was a lot of hard work," acknowledges White, who completed her degree in four years part-time by taking courses through three summers. "The best adjective [for my success] would be 'perseverance.' "

There's no denying the physical problems of old age. O'Connor took six years to get her recent degree, because "I couldn't take a full 15 hours a semester at my age . . .

"Physically I can't do all the things I want to do and go to classes on a regular schedule. [When you're older] you're not as rested when you wake up. You get up and have to wait in a chair and see if you can get rested."

In spite of this, she emphasizes, "there is no day for quitting."

Most of the women interviewed by Johnson were helped immensely in their quests, with support from peers or friends. "I would say talking to friends was one of the high things," says Johnson. "There was also prayer, help from sermons. But even higher than that was talking to friends."

But friendly advice can have its drawbacks. When White was divorced, she says, her friends told her "at my age I should be out dating, having a good time and looking for a husband." But for White, a self-admitted workaholic, happiness meant improving herself and her position in life. "One of my favorite quotes," White says, "is, 'The past cannot be changed but the future is what you want it to be.' Another is, 'The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and, if they can't find them, they make them.' And that was George Bernard Shaw."