I was going through old photos of Byrne the other day and found the perfect example of what she meant to her adopted daughters. Lillian was the first of my “sisters-by-Byrne” that I met in Beaufort and she had finally met the man she was supposed to have been married to all along. A little later than she would have liked, but better than never. At the time, I was secretly jealous. I was still years away from finding my Duncan, which is what Byrne wanted for all of us. A man as wonderful as the one she married twice and lived with for sixty years. What distracted me from feeling sorry for myself was planning Lillian’s bachelorette party.
“Have you ever done belly dancing?” I asked Byrne. We were on her porch, drinking a glass of cheap red wine.
“Oh years ago,” she answered. I could picture her shimmying, with a sculpted belly, on some Vaudeville pedestal. There were probably no disciplines of dance she hadn’t tried before arriving at modern. “It’s all about moving different parts of the body in isolation. Very seductive in a come-hither sort of way.”
“What if I gather all the women who love Lillian in one place, the night before the wedding, and you teach us all belly dancing?” It would be the perfect ritual, the bride’s last night with her handmaidens.
Byrne lifted her arms above her head and pressed her palms together. “We could have some costumes made, loads of see-though silks and tassels,” she said. Her neck stretched from side to side, each cheek coming close to an elbow but never touching. “I must search my old records for the music.”
We became a whirl of preparations. Byrne scoured through her record collection, transferring cuts she liked to cassette tape and counting out the measures. I bought bolts of chiffon and gauze and took them to a seamstress. We guessed on sizes, leaving long elastic cords to cinch unmeasured waists, covering seams with long sashes and braided tassels. We scavenged resale shops for bikini tops, halters and lacy bras to decorate with sequence and glue-on jewels. After each costume was finished I modeled it for Byrne. She ran her hands over the fabric and waved ribbons of scarves through the air to judge how they moved.
Finally, the night before her wedding, Lillian untied the blindfold covering her eyes. There were piles of covered pillows tossed around the floor in inviting heaps. Sticks of incense wafted their spicy scent through the air and strands of twinkling Christmas tree lights wrapped around fans and coat racks.
Byrne stood with both arms extended to her harem. Music swirled in front of her like a snake in a medina. Women stripped the clothes from their bodies, dove for the stack of costumes and glued plastic rubies into each other’s belly buttons. Lillian stood next to Byrne, matching her rhythmic movements just as she always had, through years of classes. But in this master class there were no corrections, just hips pivoting in the candlelight. We were vessels, each of us, filling with her spirit.