“You can do it!” Those four words have a lot of power. We all need cheerleaders in our life to spur us on, to keep us in the game. But the best cheerleader you can have? You. I learned this from my Aunt Ray, the role model who taught me more about being a woman in business than anyone.
Aunt Ray was the first female vice president for Revlon. She was on the frontier of women not just working, but seeing their work as a career–as a vocation. She lived a glamorous, single life in Manhattan, shopping at Barneys and Bloomies and taking in first -run Broadway plays before anyone else. She’d come back to her second home in Detroit on weekends, and when she’d swing by with her Revlon samples I’d force my way through my sisters to sit next to her. She claimed I was always glued to her side, asking about marketing and sales and customers. I don’t remember any of that, but her mind was like a steel trap, so I have to believe it’s true.
I was the favorite of all her nieces, she told me. It turns out, she told plenty of her nieces that too. It didn’t detract from our love, and it didn’t make her urging me on—“You can do it Su-Su!” (her nickname for me) any less real. She set a bar for me to achieve, and when I reached it, she just reset it. I wanted to make her proud.
She was a walking contradiction in some ways, loving to watch and order from QVC but then calling to cuss out management for their skimpy hostess dresses. She urged me to save every penny but spent weekends at Detroit’s Greektown in the casinos. As she aged, she could be cranky on the phone, so when I called to wish her a happy 90th birthday, I was taken aback by how happy she sounded. “Su-Su!” she gushed, “I found a life insurance policy that says if I make it to 90, I collect $100,000!” Always playing the odds, that was Aunt Ray. And onto the casinos she went.
She showed me all the ways I could be my own cheerleader, especially in the really hard times. When I lost my mom and sister within a month of one another, she was there, whispering in my ear, “Tell yourself right now to never, ever give up!” And so I pressed on. One of the mom’s best friends, she kept the pilot light on for my mother’s memory after she passed, always entertaining me with funny stories. “Did I tell you about the time we were both working together, and a guy named Jim complimented your mom on her burgundy dress? She said ‘Jim, it’s not burgundy. It’s corduroy!” Mom had a little Edith Bunker in her, which we all adored.
Lukewarm relationships were impossible for her; she was fierce expressing love. At 90, Aunt Ray’s heart was failing. Of all the parts that could quit on her, I thought that oversized heart of hers would live on forever. I was many states away by this time, and my cousin Lisa dropped in a lot to help her. Lisa told me that with her failing heart, with every stubborn, painful step from TV room to kitchen, Lisa could hear her whisper “You can do this Ray! You can do it!” Cheering herself on, as always. She made it to 98 years and passed away this summer. Two weeks before she passed, wheelchair-bound, she was at the casinos.
And so, these memories of this incredible woman still urge me on today. The most lasting is a reminder that when times are good, or the chips are down, your best cheerleader in life is the dealer herself. It’s you.