Summer is when I miss Byrne Miller the most. Maybe it’s the flowing clothes that catch the breeze, or the near nakedness of swimming in the creek outside her house. It’s the season for abandoning pretensions and inhibitions and the heavy, sticky heat of it reminds me of the woman who freed me. Until I met her, I was a little ball of guilt, trying to fix or placate my far-from-perfect parents. She was already in her 80s and had given up on that foolishness since before I was born.
“Blood relatives are simply people you were born with,” she always said. “Not necessarily people you should stick with. If they can’t make you happy, or vice versa, then I say choose your own family. It works for me.”
I was one of the daughters she chose. She showed me I didn’t have to grow into my genes, that I could pick and chose the traits I would preserve. There’s a bit of armchair psychology in all of this, I realize in looking back. “When the student is ready the teacher shall come” is only a cliché because it is so easy to confirm. My parents are grown-up runaways, suspicious of anything resembling roots or connections. There is nothing I crave more. I plant myself wherever I am and let rhizomes slither out, unseen, below my feet. In the sandy soil of Beaufort, South Carolina they touched something solid and I grafted onto it. Byrne taught me in ways my mother never could – without any genetic responsibility to steer me away from harm. I wasn’t so much a blank slate as photosensitive film. Just by exposing me to other worlds — her worlds of modern dance, writing, radical pacifism — she transformed me.
Children are instinctively aware of the nuances of family biology, how traps are set and reactions triggered. Expectations between parent and child are muscle memories, best unquestioned. Not so with parents we hand select. They have the capacity to catalyze thoughts, challenge assumptions. It can be uncomfortable, this process of discovery. And so writers, who like to pick at scabs, write about it. It doesn’t have to bleed through in memoir form, like it does in my Byrne Miller story. Novelists work it into the characters they imagine.
I have long suspected that writers re-parent themselves, that perhaps even the act of writing is part of the process. I don’t mean the old-school, Transactional Analysis spin on re-parenting. I have no desire to imagine my favorite writers sitting on the knees of their psychoanalysts, calling them daddy. Nor do I mean the Self-Help version of re-parenting: the mantra that we had no control over the stability of our parents but we can give our inner child the love they never gave us. I don’t know if it’s positive, regressive, dissociative or pathological. I have simply observed that writers latch on to people who are the polar opposites of their actual parents and never let them go.
Pat Conroy, the writer who adopted Beaufort as his home town when he arrived here as a military brat, finds delightful coincidence in the way my re-parenting began – with Byrne Miller. The story of his abusive childhood is known to every fan of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. What isn’t as well-known is how he survived it: by finding gentle men and women to replace those who were brutal and broken. One of the earliest women he unconsciously selected belonged to another teenager on the Beaufort High School baseball team. That boy dropped dead on the pitcher’s mound, and Pat met Julia Randel at her son’s funeral. He started checking in on her, and gradually she became the mother he wished Peg Conroy could have been. I asked him about it over lunch not long ago, as part of an interview about re-parenting for an essay I’m working on. He told me he doesn’t believe his picking Julia Randel hurt his mother’s feelings one bit; she had six other children to manage.
“Having Mrs. Randel treat me as one of her own allowed me to preserve my mother’s image. I needed her to be perfect. If I had to accept that my mother was as much of a jerk as my father was, I’d have killed myself. It’d have been too much.”
Pat’s upbringing, if you can call it that, is a horror I recognize only in the way he coped. He navigated by the radar of need, pulsing out invisible signals to almost every sane adult who crossed his path and listening for the echo. His clinging to all these surrogate parents is how I know the truth in what he writes, even though I’ve never been beaten, berated or otherwise brutalized. Re-parenting is the echo-location of acceptance, the chance to reinvent your personal narrative. Surrogate mothers and fathers don’t trade in the currencies of your failures, counting the ways you don’t measure up to genetic code. In your admiration of them they see promise more often than problems.
To find these parental replacements it helps to be socially awkward, more comfortable with elders than peers. Being a loner is a plus since revisionist history is a singular endeavor. Developing a sixth sense for loneliness will get you through doors closed to the over-confident or prematurely successful. Writers tend to notice tender interpersonal details like genuine interest or curiosity without judgment. Re-parenting yourself is surprisingly non-exclusive. You could be the child of wanderers, over-procreators, under-nurturers or simply selfish breeders. Re-parenting is not restricted to children of awful parents. It is a dance anyone can learn. Julia Randel taught the steps to Pat Conroy just as gracefully as Byrne Miller showed them to me.