Memoir is usually written in first person, a slice of biography told by the person who lived it. But “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is only half traditional memoir. I visualize the book as having two movements: one is mine and the other is Byrne and Duncan’s story. That other half is why I call it rememoir – it is the truth of their lives as they and I remember it.
This doesn’t mean that I just sat around and typed out conversations from memory. I’ve used every available source to get at the truth – from interviews with other “collected children” to newspaper articles written about Byrne and Duncan wherever they lived around the world. Another great source of information is Byrne’s papers – including a sporadic journal – which she donated to the Beaufort County Library’s Special Collections.
I’m blogging from Santa Fe today because I had the chance to see, first-hand, one of the places the Miller’s lived and left a lasting mark. They moved here after a sojourn on St. Thomas in the 60s. Right away, Duncan managed to get selected to write a stage play for the annual Santa Fe Fiesta. It was a big honor, especially for an outsider. The headline of a July 31st, 1966 article in the New Mexican declared “Miller Pair to Direct Fiesta Melodrama.”
The melodrama portion of the fiesta continues today – a new one staged each fall in conjunction of the burning of Old Man Gloom. But I’ve always wanted to see why Duncan chose the title and topic he did. His melodrama was called “The Sinister Secret of the Sawdust Sepulcher, or, A Capital Conspiracy.”
I knew from archival research that he was referring to the newly built New Mexico capitol – a controversial building that replaced the traditional capitol dome with what was called a Territorial Design. Duncan hated it and thought the round, stuccoed building looked like sawdust. Apparently he had company – it was quite a controversy in the mid-60s.
But I wanted to see if for myself, to see if Duncan was just being curmudgeonly. The first thing I noticed was how unpretentious and egalitarian it is. We pulled our boat of a rental car right up in front and parked without any meters or guard gates. We walked into the building itself, cell phone camera clicking, without being stopped. Guides, not guards, greeted us with information brochures and invitations to look at all the local art on display. The heavy wooden doors to the House and Senate chambers were unlocked – practically inviting admirers. I wouldn’t call the architecture beautiful but it felt so American to me, in the best possible way. Government by and of and for the people.
I walked out of the capitol thinking Duncan arrogant, even a little mean spirited for satirizing the statement the architect was trying to make at the time. Byrne used to tell me he never liked it here in Santa Fe – too dusty, monochromatic and void of water. He didn’t see the beauty in it she did, that now some 68,000 people who live here do. But then again, to be fair, in the 60s it wasn’t nearly the artsy-glamorous mountain town it is today. Compared to Charleston, where Duncan was from, it must have seemed a desert outpost. He took no comfort in the company of other artists and writers who had discovered the town and made colonies and studios here.
I have no script of “The Sinister Secret of the Sawdust Sepulcher, or, A Capital Conspiracy.” For all I know Duncan might have meant it as a joke, making fun of the controversy more than protesting the architecture. But given how happy Byrne told me he was to leave Santa Fe for Beaufort in 1969, I suspect he lived here as an expat in his own country.
It’s part of the mystery of rememoir. One of my dearest sisters-by-Byrne is a yoga instructor in Savannah. Judean said that when her mother died, her siblings had such different memories — even resentments — that she wondered if they were remembering the same woman. She told me to expect the same confusion as I wrote about my “Other Mother” and the man who shaped her life.
What it comes down to is being true to the truth of the person I knew, and I knew Byrne’s Duncan. All I have left is Byrne’s memory of the man who wrote that snarky play. She saw the Santa Fe Fiesta and it’s annual burning of Zozobra (Old Man Gloom) as a way to discharge demons. She hoped Santa Fe’s dry mountain air would clear the cobwebs in Duncan’s mind and allow his creativity to blossom. When it didn’t, she didn’t judge him – as I find myself doing.
What I learned on my tour of the Santa Fe capitol is how difficult it is to withhold judgment. Byrne could, because her love for Duncan was so strong and tested. Santa Fe released the gloom and reaffirmed her faith in the power of their partnership instead.