Veterans Day is a graceful, uplifting occasion in the military town that is Beaufort, South Carolina. Each year the parade that passes under the lush live oaks and past the manicured grounds of the National Cemetery is a symbol of the bigness of bravery. We honor soldiers who fight in valiant battalions and platoons, pilots united in squadrons of power. But last night I was reminded of a different type of veteran: women who survive silent, private wars.
A book club calling themselves “the Owls” meets at the Oyster Cay Collection each month and when they decided to read “The Other Mother: a rememoir” they invited me to come talk about the book. I was one part honored and two parts terrified. Since these busy women had taken the time to read my memoir within a month of its publication, the least I could do was come up with insightful answers to the discussion group questions at the end of the book.
I needn’t have bothered. They brought questions of their own. And more importantly, answers. I consider myself so lucky to have known the love and wisdom of one Other Mother: Byrne Miller. And last night I realized she doesn’t have to be my last. If the Owls are any indication, there is an army of funny, life-tested, battle-hardened women out there whose hearts are open to any daughter who claims them.
And just like Byrne, their advice is never outright or predictable. The first question Mary had for me was how long it took me to figure out that Duncan wasn’t the successful novelist Byrne posited him to be. She saw right through the fairy tale romance that had dazzled and inspired the 22-year-old-me. Linda said she suspected mental illness the first time Byrne uprooted her family to compensate for Duncan’s despair. Sally chimed in on this tough-on-Duncan crowd. “What about the fact that because of him, Byrne had to raise her daughters in a tree house without running water. I know how cold it gets in Connecticut!”
They didn’t excuse the other male lead in the story either. Gail realized Sonny was trouble the minute I wrote about how he shoved his hand down Wipeout’s throat to train her how to accept treats. If only these women had been around me when I was still covering for him and all the other secrets in my life.
That’s the reason we need and cherish Other Mothers. It’s a truth the enormity of which I’m witnessing every time I have the chance to talk to women reading this book. The me I wrote about in “The Other Mother” was just following the same survival pattern I had inherited from my mother. It took a woman with no vested interest in my identity, no genetic connection to my past, to help me see a different future.
The bookclub Owls spoke from experience, not a place of judgment. There were nods around the table, stories shared that made me realize I have much to learn about other mothers. It took a big gulp to tell the story I have told in the pages of “The Other Mother” and these women made me feel like it matters. They have all been there.
One woman said my parents could have been hers, and that she saw herself in all my stupid decisions. But here’s the best part. She found the wisdom and strength to break the pattern. She says her daughter doesn’t tolerate abuse of any kind, never settles for less than she deserves.
For me that is proof that veterans of this different kind of battle have not fought for nothing. Our private wounds can heal and change the lives of others. As Byrne would say, “When what is broken can’t be fixed, close the door behind you and walk into another room. The brain has more chambers than the heart.”