When the Same first came into being, it was as an idea for a space for women to share their own stories and those of women whose stories they wanted to share with the world. In the beginning, we thought we would only publish nonfiction and interviews. While we’ve expanded our vision to encompass many more forms of writing in which women share pieces of themselves with the world, we still have a soft spot for the true-life stories of the women around the world who contribute to the Same. We are excited to bring you an interview by Leslie Leonard this week. She has interviewed her mother, Rita Long.
My most solid memories of my mother are colorful ones, the bright-dyed red of her hair, the green-sequined dress with pads that puffed up her shoulders like a great bird’s, the shine of her large, costume-jewelry rings on her thin hands. Women, I think, learn femininity from their mother. My friends had learned their braided hair talents, their giggled secrecy, had learned how to match their pastel clothing from their mothers. From my own mother, I inherited her snake-skin makeup bag, her social hostessing, her deft fingers, her hard-eyed looks. It is, obviously, impossible to explain the ways in which my mother has influenced my life. There aren’t words enough to even capture or ensnare the feeling, to hold it still long enough for description. I hope that she might influence someone else as well.
Leslie Leonard: Tell me about yourself: How old are you? What was your life like growing up?
Rita Long: I am…wow I am sixty! My family was very poor so we moved around a lot. I remember moving out in the middle of the night before rent was due. But we always stayed in North Alabama. I went to several different schools so I never had many permanent friends, but I learned how to make friends quickly. I helped raise my three younger brothers so I spent a lot of time with them and their friends so I never had many female “girlie” friends.
LL: Can you speak to the differences (and similarities) between being a woman today compared to when you were younger? Any specific experiences that demonstrate this?
RL: There is a huge difference between women today and when I grew up. Growing up, women were not as supportive of each other. There was always jealousy or a desire to keep other women down – especially in the workplace. There was an attitude of “I got mine, you get yours.” Women didn’t help each other out because they were focused on lifting themselves up and couldn’t risk their job or their position on trying to help out another woman. I can’t remember a single time that another woman complimented my clothes or my work or was supportive. I remember being promoted at work and hearing rumors asking who I might have slept with. I worked for the government and the women who got successful became worse than the men, trying to show out and prove their worth by being harder than the men, more critical. These days, women walk arm in arm and kiss and hug each other and support each other in the workplace and help to uplift one another – that solidarity just wasn’t done when I was growing up.
LL: What is the most scared you have ever been?
RL: I worked an extra job at the hospital for Christmas money one year as a candy-striper and elevator girl. One of my supervisors caught me late one night and tried to force himself on me. I tried to stab him in the thigh with a letter opener that was on his desk – he left the position soon after so I didn’t have to deal with a horrible situation. Also, the day when my boys’ dad was killed on duty and I had to tell them what had happened. That’s a day you don’t forget.
LL: What are you most proud of yourself for?
RL: For becoming a program manager, for finally earning my degree, for raising three successful children, for learning how to maintain healthy relationships and friendships – something that’s new for me.
LL: What is your biggest regret?
RL: I don’t believe in having regrets. We can’t change the past so we don’t have any other choice but to either embrace what has happened or let it hinder us. I choose to embrace it and hopefully learn from it.
LL: Are there any opportunities that you wish you would have taken, but didn’t? Why didn’t (or couldn’t) you?
RL: Hell yeah. I had an opportunity to go to college right after high school but getting married was cheaper and helped me get out of the house faster and, before I knew it, I was a young mother. Who knows how things might have turned out otherwise. I was also going to enlist in the military but took a desk job with the government instead – that would have been an adventure.
LL: Is there anything that you think young women need to know?
RL: Yes! That you are enough and that you don’t need anyone else to complete you. That you can be completely happy and successful by yourself. I wish that someone had taken the time to tell me that. I think that women, especially women in the South, are told that being married or having a man or having children or having a household are the only things that will make you happy or make you worthwhile. It’s fine to have someone who compliments you, but those things are never a requirement for happiness.
LL: Has there been a defining moment in your life (or more than one)? Can you tell me about that time?
RL: I think the biggest one would have to be when I was young and married and knew that I was unhappy, but had nowhere to go and then found out that I was pregnant. I didn’t want to stay married, but I didn’t think that I could make it alone. I finally did get a divorce, which doesn’t sound like a huge thing, but I think to be able to step back from a situation, to take my children and my money and to find a way to make it on my own rather than being miserable, it was huge.
LL: Have you ever had to struggle for your voice to be heard – tell me about that?
RL: It’s a continuous struggle. I am one of very few women in a supervisory role at my company and my position is normally held by a man so I feel that I have to put in more time and take less time off in order to be taken seriously. I do twice the work for the same amount of pay and less prestige and respect. The men that work under me often treat me less formally than they do male supervisors so it’s tempting to be harder. It’s easier to understand the women that I worked with when I was younger.
LL: I’d like you to locate your strongest memory and describe it to me in as much detail as possible. What about this moment stands out to you? Why do you think it might be significant?
RL: The day that I turned thirty I sat at my desk at work and sobbed. I was pregnant for a third time and married and miserable and I fully believed the idea that women diminish as they get older, that at thirty you could be expired in a way. Thirty was a milestone for me, but it was also a turning point. I spent an entire day thinking about my life and what I had accomplished and trying to address the anxiety of being a thirty-year-old woman in my position. I was unhappy. So I made changes. These days it’s hard to choose just one happy memory: childbirth all three times, riding the bus with the football players and my first love, throwing up shots of fireball on a cruise ship, having lunch in Prague, seeing buffalo at Yellowstone. So many things have changed between being the skinny tomboy packing clothes in the middle of the night and skipping school lunch, being a young woman married, and unhappy, and facing down other women at work, and the woman that I am today, happy and fulfilled. I am happy and successful, but it shouldn’t have taken me sixty years to finally feel it. There are things that I wish I had learned earlier—things I wish other women learn sooner.
Leslie Leonard is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in nineteenth-century American literature. Originally from Alabama, she currently lives in western Massachusetts with her partner, both of whom are enjoying the strange transition to New England life. Leslie’s past and future publications can be found on her website: magnoliapoet.wordpress.com. As an LGBT+ woman raised in the South, and as a newly-minted academic, Leslie hopes to bring varying perspectives forward in her writing.