Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A COMMON THREAD:

Purposefulness and moxie span generations


By JENNIFER LIEBRUM
Express Staff Writer

In the South we call them "steel magnolias," and I come from a long line of them. Smart, independent, family-strong and able to do anything equally well in heels or boots. Growing up in Texas, I had the good fortune to be exposed to a colorful, inspiring array of these women.

My first memory of this paradigm of such a woman was a retired R.N. named Thelma Burnett, who had come to care for me and my preemie baby brother while my mother carved out a successful journalism career seeded at the Miami Herald and rooted under unshrinking violet and Houston Post Publisher Oveta Culp Hobby.

I credit Thelma with my moral and ethical foundation. She looked like a black Dolly Parton, coming to work with her ginormous breasts straining against her crisp nurse's whites. Her face was a perfect amalgam of love, concern and unfaltering conviction. She was equal parts mother lion and raging bull. She held us to towering standards and forced us to cut our own switch if the spatula was otherwise employed turning her to-die-for fried chicken.

Her heart was as big as her bust, and her embrace warm enough to heal everything from a bloody knee to a broken heart. She gave unsolicited advice, which usually proved unerringly correct. She said I could love a poor man but I should marry a rich one. She claimed to have shot her romantic slacker husband in the leg just to "get his behind out the house to find a job," and to help her raise their son.

Her deadbeat husband kept running and Thelma never gave chase, remaining a single mom into old age. Her modest home was a bastion of safety, emotional security, organized thinking and trust that I longed for in my own. Thelma didn't smoke or drink or seem to have any of the stress relievers I saw the other adults around me using, save for her church, and she seemed genuinely happy, bearing a broad smile most of the time. The only tears I saw her shed were when she spanked us. It wasn't that the beating hurt her as much as it did us. Her tears were shed in her disappointment in us. "Lord, why oh why has thou forsaken me?" she would recite, driving home the depth of my injury to the universe.

Naively, I never suspected the challenges she faced in her day-to-day life. Everything got done, great food was served, kids looked good and nary a complaint was uttered between her hymnal humming. Her whites stayed white.

Only when I became a crime reporter did I realize what a hostage Thelma's own neighborhood made of her. How she fought to—and did—keep her son on the right track when his environment tried to push him off. It was a place so rough that cops went straight there to find suspects when a crime was committed. And when I asked her if it was hard, she said that of course it was, but she trusted the Lord and in the end, it had all turned out all right.

She left me back in my mother's sights after seeing her son and me off to college in 1983. I resisted my mother's guidance until my feet were firmly on the same career path as hers, and I began to understand where she had been all those years. I learned then how deftly she had duplicated her own will for us in hiring Thelma, providing us with a surrogate with standards that mirrored hers, while she was busy becoming the next woman I would grow to emulate.

It wasn't until recently, when feeling pulled in too many directions at once, that I asked my mom what drove her to perform what seemed like an effortless—often thankless—balancing act. She said I hadn't a clue how hard it had been. And without bitterness, she recalled how she often reserved her own tears for the solitude of her car, so as not to lose ground either at home or at work. The whys she credited to an ingrained work ethic, a well-honed skill set she was determined to use and, not surprisingly, Ms. Hobby, who was willing to give her a shot at the top. Working through the ranks over the next 27 years, my mother rose to a spot second only to the publisher, as the Post's managing editor.

Many a career was launched by Mom's willingness to return the favor, giving back that chance to dozens of budding writers and editors. I have trod this path that was blazed for me, only half-realizing the mentoring I had received. It is since I became a working mother in the last 10 years, relying now on Wood River Valley women to teach me the ropes, that I have come to realize the personal debt I owe these generous guides, these nurturing and loving women of such will and character.

As a writer and mother of 7-year-old twin girls Devon and Gracie, screaming toward 50 with nary a book proposal scripted, I am acutely aware of the legacy I want to pass on to my children, as well as the professional mark I care to leave for myself.

Journalists have a press pass to ask the questions most people won't, or think they shouldn't. Our price for this open-ended ticket to inquire is to retell what we find out, sharing with others the intimacies that we have been gifted. It is both a burden and a curse. Oftentimes, we find out how small we are living our lives.

When I stepped into this position for a few months for the regular editor, Jennifer Tuohy, now nesting with newborn baby Rose and helping Owen navigate his new job as big brother, of all the projects I was entrusted with, Valley Woman was the most daunting. Jennifer set the bar high with the first publication and introduced a spectacular cross section of women. I knew going in that it would be tough to determine which stories to tell this year.

It is in sharing stories that we find common ground, inspiration, direction, validation or commiseration. It is my hope that even if the articles aren't about you, or someone you know, that you will find yourself standing a little taller knowing that these everyday heroes are right here among us, and that their achievements are attainable. Because no matter the geographic differences, we women all have the mettle—it's up to us how we choose to use it.

—Jennifer Liebrum, Editor, Valley Woman




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