Some of you have asked about one of the quotes I feature on the “Womenisms” home page. It’s understandable. Not every octogenarian offers advice like this to her adopted daughters: “…have at least one affair. It builds confidence.” Especially when that octogenarian was married to the love of her life, Duncan Miller, for almost sixty passionate years.
I’ve learned, in the process of writing the memoir, that Byrne’s advice wasn’t literal. Our relationship never was. If I eventually got around to hinting at a moral dilemma I was facing, it wasn’t her style to launch into pronouncements or directives. She just told stories about her own life, and if I paid close enough attention, I found the link myself and figured out what to do. That’s why I call it re-parenting – it was nothing like how actual parents react.
In my twenties, I went through what I now recognize as a decade of hyper-drama – when every man HAD to be THE one or I would make him so. Which mostly led to incredible bouts of jealousy when I figured out they weren’t. The only clue I had that Byrne did not approve of the men I dated was her never calling them by their given names. Junior became “that junior person,” a quirky cameraman the “million-year-old-man,” an athletic kayaker “Neptune” and a sexy guitarist “The Rolling Stone.”
As I grew closer to Byrne, I slipped bits of my personal relationship problems into discussions on the porch, over a glass of wine. She always listened, and then launched into stories from her own life. The one I remember the most was how her husband, Duncan, was mobbed by beautiful models. He was one of Advertising’s early, brilliant, “Mad Men” and she was the tall and gangly mother of his two children. One model was particularly persistent, and early in their marriage, Duncan seemed to be wavering.
“She was so beautiful and so insistent,” Byrne described her. “Duncan was always speaking of her. ‘She’ thought this. ‘She’ mentioned that.”
I smiled at Byrne’s studious avoidance of the woman’s name. “I didn’t mind the she-part, it was when ‘she’ was replaced by ‘we’ that I knew I had to do something,” she said.
That something amazed me. Byrne invited the woman to dinner, every night, just the three of them in their tiny Manhattan apartment. Within a week, the model’s beauty paled in comparison to her obsequiousness and Duncan begged to be rid of her. Jealousy was a waste of time, Byrne implied, and the implication was that if I was clever I could make any man see that.
The trouble came when I tried. I was living with an abusive man, consumed by jealousy of my TV reporting career and almost any man I interviewed. The police chief. The town judge. It didn’t matter. So after Byrne told me the model story, I decided to turn the tables in my life. I invited my boyfriend with me, to a trial, so that he could see that the judge and the police chief were just doing their jobs. Not flirting with me. But he interpreted my first-name-basis familiarity, and the good-ol-boy comradery they extended to me, as nothing short of an existential threat. A few days later, he drove our truck into a Live Oak. With me in the passenger seat. I’m convinced the only reason he braked, at the last minute, was to save the life of my dog, Wipeout.
At first I was furious with Byrne. Her advice hadn’t worked. But it was unfair fair to burst into Byrne’s world and call it a lie. Or tell her when I tried to be like her I almost ended wrapped around a tree. She didn’t know the real reason I spent more waking hours with her than I did with Junior. I hadn’t come right out and asked her for advice on how to handle his anger or his jealousy. The story she told about the woman in Manhattan belonged to another time, another kind of love. It wasn’t mine to copy.
I had to learn to love Byrne’s stories for what they meant to her, for how they let her glide over pain and disappointment with such grace and style. Stories like Duncan the brilliant writer. Duncan the devoted husband. Duncan who would never leave her. The truth might well be darker, the whole Duncan less triumphant than the parts. Behind all the confidence and charisma Byrne presented to her audiences, me included, off stage she was a woman, in her eighties, who didn’t want to be alone. The love she treasured was dying a little every day and I resolved not to be the one to take its comfort from her.