Personal Writing

Tuna noodle hot dish and a moment of unexpected, life altering hope

Last night I was sitting out on my deck as the sun was setting, doing some writing, reading New York Times recipes, looking out over my pretty back yard and pondering going to bed when the doorbell rang. That happens so rarely that it’s always a little bit exciting and one of the last few, true surprises that seem left in life: who could that be?

Dr. Marry, poor soul, caught my second summer cold and had begrudgingly shuffled off to bed hours earlier, so I had been having a quiet, solitary Friday summer evening until that bell rang.

I opened the door, and there stood my friend, my Master’s advisor, my mentor in so many ways. My eyes recognized her, but my brain dismissively responded, “Don’t be stupid; that’s not her. She lives far away in Canada now.” And I had that split-second moment of uncertainty about which part of my head to trust.

But it was Betsy, and she was standing on my front steps, so I recovered my shock and joyfully invited her in. And we made our way to the deck to enjoy the waning daylight descending to dark while we caught up.

I won’t regale you with the family catching up we did because we have a 20-year history together, and for many of those years, particularly in the first half, we were intimately connected. I met Betsy and her husband Kevin, also a professor in my Master’s program and also a friend and mentor for such different reasons, before I met Dr. Marry, so my history with them is deep.

It’s not hyperbole to say they adopted me while I was in graduate school with my three and a half-year old. It helped that they had an 18-month old boy as well because there weren’t a lot of other faculty or students with little kids that I can recall from those years.

I remember the first time Betsy invited me to their house for supper. It was a Friday afternoon in the spring of my first year of graduate school, and I was alone in the brown paneled office that I shared with five other graduate students when she popped her head around the corner and asked, “Would you and Quinn like to come for supper tonight? It will be very simple, but you are welcome to join us.”

I had gotten to know Kevin a little bit throughout the year, and I liked him. He was young and eager and kind and seemed genuinely invested in students, and he was interested in research that was about more than old white men and their literature.

But I was just getting to know Betsy, and I was so intrigued. It’s not at all accurate to call her exotic because for all intents and purposes, she’s an absolute Iowa farm girl, but she was bohemian and alluring and weird and colorful in a way that I had never encountered (keeping in mind my first degree is in theatre, so I know bohemian and weird people!).

I remember exactly how I felt in that moment: I felt special and seen and recognized as also maybe being weird and colorful in my own way. I felt like maybe Betsy could see beneath the graduate school persona I was trying so hard to wear all day every day: the pencil skirt and sensible high heels lugging a huge leather bag of papers and books back and forth from home to school to hide the young woman who didn’t really believe she belonged in graduate school at all and feared she was going to be discovered and promptly escorted out by one of the senior faculty members who talked in phrases using words like hegemony and paradigm shift and primary source material. But mostly, I felt an enormous sense of hope that maybe we weren’t going to be so alone anymore.

Quinn and I went to Kevin and Betsy’s house, and it was like stepping into a Genie bottle. There were dozens of tiny black and white photos in mismatched silver frames. Ten grottos’ worth of bizarre Virgin Mary iconography were jumbled together as if for sale on the wall of an Eastern bazaar stand. A significant assortment of depression-era pink glassware and dishes were scattered throughout the dining room. There were big green plants everywhere. It was cacophonous and glorious.

Betsy had a then college-aged daughter, Caity, who was in the kitchen making tuna noodle hot dish. I don’t remember if I knew about Caity before this, but I have such a precise memory of looking at Betsy, mother to this young adult and toddler simultaneously, newly hooded with her PhD and taking such charge of everything around her. And I had even more reason for hope. If she could have been a young mother and figured something out to get where she was in that moment, then surely I was going to be ok, too. And from that moment, I was besotted.

Betsy represented something I hadn’t witnessed before: she appeared to be the most successful woman I had ever met. But her success wasn’t out of reach for me because she had achieved it with the same obstacle in her path as mine, a child at a young age.

Something in that moment shifted for me. I won’t lie and say that I stopped feeling like a graduate student fraud, but I started to think that I might learn how to “play the game.” I observed Caity and Betsy’s relationship and imagined that Quinn and I might have a closeness like theirs and that he didn’t have to be a disaster adult because I hadn’t married his dad. I watched Kevin and Betsy interact and felt a glimmer of hope that someday, some man might find me worthwhile, even with a child in tow. I looked around their inviting home and felt, for the first time, that I might not be assigned to poverty for the rest of my life.

Betsy and I went on to become friends and have thousands of conversations and spend hours together; she and Kevin have been with me in some very high and very real low points over the years. Our boys grew up together, and Caity and I worked on multiple film projects together. Kevin and Betsy were among the first people in my life to meet Dr. Marry, and they both signed off on my Master’s paper a few years after this supper. All of that matters to me and makes them both sacred parts of my evolution to who I am today. But they likely have no idea what that casual supper invitation actually did for me all those years ago.

And I was so grateful to see Betsy again last night because it set me off on this wonderful trip down memory lane to the first moment I watched my life take a sharp turn down an incredible path of hope and the weird and colorful woman who started it all.

Dayna Del Val is on a mission to help others (re)discover the spark they were born with through her blog and newsletter, her professional talks and the (re)Discover Your Spark retreats she leads. Dayna works with people to help them not just identify and articulate their dreams but to develop a framework to get going on the pursuit of those dreams—today, in the next few months and for the years ahead. She's at the intersection of remarkable and so, so ordinary, but she knows that pretty much everyone else is, too. She's excited to be sharing this extraordinary journey with you.

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