Why Didn’t Anybody Listen?

This morning, I interviewed Vivian Castleberry, the legendary features editor at the Dallas Times Herald, for an article I’m writing about Texas women.  The Times Herald folded years ago, but Vivian, now 87, is still going strong.

It’s funny to do interviews like this.  Sometimes, they don’t work out at all.  You find yourself asking what you could have sworn were thoughtful, insightful questions — but they sound insipid, even to your own ears.  You have no rapport with the person you’re talking to.  You both fumble with long, awkward silences and curt replies.  It’s like the rest of life: Sometimes, you have chemistry and sometimes, you don’t.  When you don’t, it’s hard to fake it.  You both hang up, sorry you’ve wasted your time.

Talking to Vivian couldn’t have been more different from that worst-case scenario.  She’s funny, articulate and thoughtful, and she’s lived a life most of us can only dream about: She’s had a successful career and marriage and is the mother of five daughters, grandmother of eight, great-grandmother of four.  She made her way in the men’s world of a big-city newspaper and changed it forever for the generations of women who followed her.  (I know, I know.  Newspapers are going down the tubes these days.  But one story line at a time.)

Vivian talked about going to work during World War II, when the men were deployed in troops around the globe.  At the end of the war, when the men who fought in the war came home, women who had worked on the home front, running farms and businesses and beginning careers, were told to go home.  Men needed their jobs more than they did.

But Vivian was one of the women who wouldn’t go home.  She’d always dreamed of being a writer.  Why should she stop doing what she loved?  So, she stayed and flourished.

Listening to her, I thought about my own mother.  She was one of the women who went home and stayed there.  She always insisted she loved being a homemaker and mother; her recurring, frightening depressions had nothing to do with the choice she’d freely made.

I’ve always thought women of my mother’s and Vivian’s generation lived in a particularly tumultuous, difficult time for women.  They were sent home, most of them, to devote their lives to caring for their husbands and families.  It was their duty.  Along the way, they brought up a generation of daughters who became feminists and — implicitly or explicitly — told them their lives had been misspent.

Or maybe it’s not that big.  Maybe it was just my mother and me and those images that still loom so large in my mind.

I see the two of us, talking together.  One is speaking about the joys and rewards of homemaking.  The other is furiously insistent that work outside the home is vital to her life and well-being.

They talked and talked and talked, those two women, over the years and decades till the mother died in 1997.  They talked, but they never really tried to listen.  It was all closed — their minds and hearts, anyway — to each other.  There’s plenty of blame to go around and much of it is mine.  I see her face, hear her voice telling me her story.  But I never could hear it.  My own storms of youth, ambition, passion, stubbornness, a certain self-righteousness, raged too loudly for that.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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6 comments… add one
  • Mei Link

    Love this article Ruth. It made me think about what most women (whether homemakers or career minded individuals)  went through during those hard years of war and the strength they had to rise up proud in spite of being in a “man’s world” then. We’ve come a long way and I am proud to be a WOMAN.

  • I could really see Vivian in this post. Vivid, moving.

  • Wonderful post, Ruth. It so resonated with me. I grew up with an unhappy, dissatisfied mother who felt guilty about her feelings of unhappiness. Everyone told her she should be a happy homemaker but she wasn’t. Oh, she was a good housekeeper, insisting on perfection. But she wasn’t happy. Even she admits that life would have been better for her, and her children, if she’d worked outside of the home. In my mother’s day, you just didn’t do that.

  • Vivian Castleberry sounds like a really amazing woman. These issues–about staying home or working or trying to do some combination of both–are still being faced by every generation of women. It’s so hard to get it right, for both men and women. It seems like you miss your mom, Ruth. Thanks for the reminder to enjoy the time we have with people while they are still with us. Love, Jennifer

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Thanks to you all for your comments.  It’s such a painful topic for me.  I just have to think my mother and I both did our best.

  • Of course you both did your best.  We can’t always hear what the other person is saying.
    My mother was a working woman role model for me, but we have to remember that their generation was really the first to have that work outside/inside the home debate really smack them around. Before that, women who took on any kind of career were rare enough that we still hear their names. The heroes were those of our mother’s (yours and mine, who grew up in the teens and twenties) who made the decision and knew WHY.

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