Courage and the Cocktail Dress

My Nana is the toughest human being I know. She is not only a child of the Great Depression, but the only Yankee in my family. She is practical, unflappable, and unstoppable. She sent her man off to World War II. She raised three children while Granddad worked days, evenings, and weekends. She survived thyroid surgery as a young woman and, in retirement, did search and rescue as a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

She is also the classiest human being I know. In addition to her toughness, she is the consummate lady, with a classic sensibility in all things. She moves through life with a strength, dignity, and grace that I know I will never be able to emulate.

She has done many impressive things, but ever since I was a child, the Nana story that has awed me the most is the story of how she hacked up her wedding dress, because it’s the story that most perfectly exemplifies her alchemy of strength and class. When Nana was a young wife and mother, she needed a cocktail dress, because these were the Days of Cocktail Yore when everyone had a bar in the basement and people did wacky things like invite their bosses to socially awkward dinners. But there wasn’t money for a cocktail dress. Granddad was working weekdays as a pharmaceutical rep, traveling constantly, and coming home to work evenings and weekends at the family pharmacy. There were three young children. So Nana hacked up her wedding dress to make a cocktail dress.

I used to imagine her taking her shears to that thing and cringe as if I was watching open-heart surgery. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could be so brave, so supremely self- confident as to slice apart a gorgeous piece of clothing and believe she could make it into something that would a) look good and b) not fall apart in the middle of dinner with the boss.

I often think about this story. It’s not the most amazing thing she’s ever done, but it’s stuck with me. That kind of self-confidence is, for a writer, a holy grail.

As I was writing last week about the realization that I needed to annihilate the last third of my work in progress, I had a small epiphany. I felt like Nana hacking up that dress. I felt brave. I could take something I’d labored on for weeks and destroy it in order to make something better. But as I’ve percolated this over the past week, I’ve realized that what I did, and what Nana did, isn’t really bravery. Bravery is doing the thing that terrifies you. I doubt Nana was scared to dismember that wedding dress. And I wasn’t scared to cut the last third of my novel. These were both The Thing That Needed To Be Done. So we did those things.

Yes, my Nana is brave. I hope that I am but I’m pretty sure I’m not. But this isn’t about bravery. This is about just knowing what needs to be done, and committing to doing it. Knowing when something isn’t working, when something else is needed. So, while this doesn’t make me as brave as I’d hoped, it does mean that I know what I need to do, and that is a kind of confidence I want to cultivate. When I hit DELETE, it felt good. The dross was gone. Possibility opened up before me like the blank spaces on a map, the here be dragons spaces, the spaces for magic where anything is possible.

Have you ever dismantled something big? What was it like to stand on the precipice of that moment just before action?

6 thoughts on “Courage and the Cocktail Dress

  1. Does dismantling a relationship count? When I was a sophomore in college, my first serious boyfriend (4 years older, graduated and working in the real world) made a comment to me – almost in passing – when I told him that I’d gone to a Peace Corps meeting and was super excited about joining after I graduated: “But you can’t do that! We’re getting married after you graduate.”

    I didn’t break up with him in that moment, and truth be told it was a while after that before I ended the relationship. But being aware of how much pain I would be inflicting, I knew that this was exactly the right thing to do. And the sense of calm that permeated my entire being allowed me to be present with his pain and end our relationship in a way that I hoped would not cause any long-lasting damage.

    I’d like to think that this decision on my part allowed us both to become who we were meant to be and to have experiences that led us to the people who ended up being our forever people. Making these decisions might not be acts of bravery, but they require a steadfastness to do the thing anyway. To do it knowing that it will result in a different path with a different set of challenges and joys.

    Go, Brenna! I’m pretty sure that you’re an awful lot like your wonderful Nana.

    1. Barb, this absolutely counts! Relationships are, after all, the most important things we build. You are brave, lady! Sometimes the right thing is the hardest, for sure. Thanks for sharing your story. And steadfastness….that’s an excellent word.

  2. Brenna,

    As always, you are an inspiration to me. I don’t know that this matches your call to action questions. It’s just the story that came up in me when I finished reading your post.

    While creating my album, Dream This, one of my more recent songs I had decided to include was “Love Is On Repeat”. This song was inspired by a combination of my love for my wife and a heart condition that I have. I knew that each time I sang the song, I felt the same vigor and expectation as the day I wrote it.
    In the end, I recorded seven full-blown arrangements of the song. It may not be obvious, but fully recorded songs of this sort (by a solo musician) can take weeks to record — and that does not include mixing and mastering.

    It’s still one of my favorite songs to sing, but neither of the arrangements I ended up with feel “complete” to me. I look forward to one day singing this song at a live gig and thinking, “Ah, that was it.” We’ll see.

    Thanks for being right out there with your creative process and the stories you connect with. That keeps me looking for the same depth in my own experience.

    Blessings and hugs,

    1. Stan, I love this–your open-minded big-heartedness in being able to hold both your love for your wife and your heart condition, not separately but together; and your eternal hopefulness and your trust in your work that the “Ah, that was it” moment is out there in the future. This is good stuff. I had no idea that recording a song like this could take so long! That’s amazing, and inspiring. No matter whether we’re writing with words, notes, or both, there is so much work that goes into the process that no one will ever see, and we know we’ve done it right, I guess, if it seems effortless.

  3. It’s very enjoyable to read your writing. Someday, I hope to read that book!
    I so agree that your Nana is one of the classiest ladies ever.

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