"You know when you've really made it?" my brown-haired aunt with big eyes asked me, leaning over the table we were sitting at towards me.
"When?" I asked, almost in a whisper.
"When you can take yourself out to dinner. All by yourself." She finished the last part with a flourish of her hands and a big smile.
I remember exactly where we were when the conversation took place. We were having dinner together. I don't know how old I was, but I remember I was old enough that I felt the gravity of what she was saying, and the importance of carrying on the tradition of being a strong woman. I felt like an adult that she had taken it upon herself to let me in on this secret-of-the-woman, and I held on to the memory like a fragile egg you are afraid you will break. After that dinner I went about becoming an adult with careful precision, waiting for the day that I could say that I was successful.
Unfortunately, life doesn't work out the way you plan it. I dropped out of college, got married and struggled to make ends meet. My aunt and I lost touch as I fumbled my way through my twenties as if I was in a dark room trying to find the light switch. I felt like I was a disappointment to my family as I made one mistake after another, and then another. I withdrew. I was hurting with my failures, nursing my wounds like a cat cleaning itself in a corner after a fight.
Every once in a while, I would recall her advice. Usually, it was as I was bussing tables at the restaurant where I worked. I would see women come in with business suits and sit alone. I would think of my aunt S, who defied her traditional background and never married.
"Have lots of boyfriends," she told me once.
I guffawed. It was not advice I was expecting to hear from a family that defined itself by hard-work and traditional gender roles.
It was just another nugget of advice that I received on the rare occasion we would chat. The truth is, I probably needed to talk to the strong women in my family more when I was flailing around in life. But, shame stopped me from ever picking up the phone.
Ten years or so later on an ordinary night, as I sat holding my seven-month-old daughter, I got a phone call. My once-wise aunt had died, and was suspected of killing herself. My heart dropped, and all of her words came rushing back to me. She had changed in the years before her death, to a person no one recognized. The once bright-eyed, independent woman had fallen deep into something- whether it was despair, addiction, or merely an accident- we didn't know. She left a cat that suffered from trauma of some kind and had gone as crazy as a cat can get. I lived across the country, and there was little that I could do for it. I recall being on the phone with my father, pleading with him to take the cat.
"Nance, you don't understand this cat is crazy!" My dad said, using my familial nickname.
"I don't know what happened with S, but you and I both know, she would want someone to take the cat" I argued back, in my best litigious-tone.
My father relented and "Milo the cat" found his new home. He hid under couches and beds for six months before one day suddenly appearing when my dad was sitting in his favorite chair reading the paper. He hopped up on his lap and started to purr. That's where Milo has been ever since, loving the person that gave him a second chance. S. would have wanted it that way, I am sure.
The grief of losing such a role model for me was a juxtaposition from what other's memories of my Aunt. I didn't get to see the woman she had turned into, and I only had positive memories of the person that for others had caused so many problems. I am grateful that my memories of her stand alone. She will always remain a strong, resilient woman in my mind. Maybe that's not who she frankly was, but it was who I needed her to be.
Writing has been a path back to my old memories such as these. Yesterday I had what I would call, my first piece of success. I had written something that was nationally published. To be honest, I wasn't sure how to celebrate, or if I should celebrate at all. As my husband and mulled over what to do for dinner, it suddenly hit me.
"I need to take myself out to dinner."
"What?" my husband asked, looking at me like I had two heads.
"I had success. I need to take myself out."
My husband followed me, confused as I put on make-up and got out of the sweats I had been wearing.
I kissed the kids good-bye.
"You're going out to dinner by yourself, Mommy? But why?" My daughter asked.
"Because when you do something great, this is how you can treat yourself" I answered her back, a smile on my lips.
"Okay... so, you're going out to dinner..." my husband said, finally comprehending that I did in fact, want to go alone.
I didn't understand at the time why it was so important to do this, only that I needed to do it. The funny thing is, I wasn't afraid of the way that young-Nancy imagined I would be. I strode into the restaurant confidently,
"Just one," I told the hostess, my chin held high.
I sat down and had a lovely dinner, all by myself. I didn't play on my phone or read a book. I listened to the conversations around me. I watched the lights hanging from above and the art on the wall. At some point, I saw a young girl watching me from a table nearby. I smiled, and she smiled back. This singular moment I had had so many years ago with my Aunt suddenly came full circle as I sat alone. I felt like I was setting an example for the next generation to follow in.
While I didn't feel my aunt's presence, I knew that she would be proud. It took a while for me to reach my own definition of success, but now that I'm here, I understand the point she was making so long ago. It wasn't just about taking myself out to dinner. It was about being comfortable in my skin. The dinner was just the placeholder for the idea of doing something scary. She used the example of what a confident woman would do, but it could have been anything- going to the movies, taking a trip- whatever it is that we think we cannot do. The truth is, we can. We just have to believe in ourselves enough to do it.
This morning, the first thing my daughter asked was if I had fun last night at dinner by myself. I told her the truth: I did. I hugged her and I hoped that I had set the right example. One day, many years from now, I will take my daughter out to dinner, and I will give her the same piece of advice my Aunt S. gave me. In some small way, she lives on, in the strength and independence I exude. Although she didn't have a happy ending, I honor her by carrying on to find my own.