I may never truly understand why I needed Byrne Miller as much as I did when I met her, in my early twenties. But I came a little closer when Pat Conroy told me the story of his re-parenting and the remarkable Julia Rendel.
Before he became a best-selling writer, Pat was a spectacularly unsuccessful teacher. He cared far too much, crossed way too many lines in the race-divided South. Readers of The Water Is Wide know of his ignominious firing from the one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island. Julia Randel’s husband worked for the Beaufort County school district. He was supposed to testify against Pat in the disciplinary hearing.
“Right up until the moment Ms. Randel told him he’d not have a bed to sleep in if he turned against their son,” Pat says. He uses air quotes around the word their, not son. She became a different kind of mother to him after her own son died, on the mound, playing ball with Pat. Her loyalty still amazes him. He laughs but there’s a hint of tears in his eyes as he tells the story. “She’s the kind of person you want to make proud. You’ll see when you meet her.”
And so, one sunny Beaufort Saturday afternoon, Pat drove me to meet his Byrne. Julia Randel’s front yard is big enough for sons to play baseball. She mows it herself, as if the boys might come back from Beaufort High School any minute, drinking CheerWine and munching on Moon Pies. The Buick she still drives squats squarely under the translucent shade of a green roofed carport. I never had the chance to meet Peg Conroy, but somehow I expect the woman who replaced her to be larger than life. She must surely be Southern through and through, able to hold the ends of a cast net in her teeth as she waits for shrimp to shimmy past the dock, able to make a husband be a man.
She is all that, in somewhere shy of ninety pounds. A hunched-over, candy-cane of a woman in a forest green sweater flings her arms wide open before she remembers the screen door is still between us. I am swamped with the sureness that if this frail woman could survive the death of her son and find the strength to mother others, there is a parallel planet of surrogate parents out there. She is the pardon awaiting those who fail: parents who aren’t supposed to exist but simply don’t know what to do with children. I don’t have any children of my own, but in the open arms of Julia Randel I see that I might be someone’s Byrne one day. I will watch for her, or him, listen for the pulses that ting against my emotional armor. It will be an honor.
Pat lets me have the first hug, explains that I’m a writer who once found the mother she needed in Beaufort. Ms. Randel apologizes for not having the groceries put up, as if we had made an appointment. He teases her mercilessly from that moment on, about her filthy pornography collection, her egregious gambling habit and foul-mouthed cussing. She laughs and swats at him through the air, her hand as delicate as bird bones.
“We raised him like one of our own,” she says. “Course we clearly didn’t do a very good job.”