Listen To Your Mother

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If you had to fill out an application for motherhood – like it was a job that paid an appropriate salary – I doubt Byrne Miller would have made it to the interview stage. She was more tart than apple-pie – under previous employment she would have listed burlesque dancer on Vaudeville. In fact, in just about every category associated with motherhood, she would have defiantly checked “other.”

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So it makes sense that she became the “other mother” to hundreds of dancers, students and reporters around the world she called her “collected children.” One of them was me. I didn’t set out to find an other mother and never dreamed I’d write a memoir of our relationship.  I didn’t even realize that I had a mother other than the one who gave birth to me until Byrne Miller was in the emergency room with a life-threatening blood clot. She was an 82-year-old widow and I was a 22-year-old reporter in Beaufort, South Carolina.

“Are you family?” a doctor asked me, flipping through a chart when I arrived. “Yes,” I answered, without hesitation, and in that moment I knew that I had made a choice. Somewhere in the years of knowing Byrne, she had become my other mother, fearless and larger than life. I couldn’t have explained to the doctor or anyone when or how it happened any more than I could pinpoint the first time I became aware of my own name.

The amazing thing to me is that Byrne found it in her heart to be an Other Mother in the first place. Motherhood – the traditional kind — hadn’t exactly been easy for her.  Her daughter Alison was only four when Byrne realized that she heard voices. Not the harmless, “good imagination” kind. But the kind that makes a little girl hold her hands over her ears and beg her mommy to make them go away. It was 1943.

The word schizophrenia comes from the Greeks,” the doctors explained. “Phrenia meaning brain. Splitting of the brain. Most likely inherited from a schizophrenogenic mother.” Byrne watched as her little girl was strapped to a gurney, two metal plates pressed on either side of her shaved head. “Electroconvulsive therapy,”  Bellevue hospital called it, but Byrne knew it as shock treatment.

“She won’t remember anything,” the doctors assured Byrne. She wasn’t allowed to watch the treatment; bone fractures often resulted from  violent spasms thrashing through little bodies. Byrne didn’t need to watch. Her own muscles trembled and contracted, twitching with the guilt and rage of a blamed mother. Alison emerged a shaken, vague, disoriented girl and Byrne a woman who felt she had betrayed her child.  

Eventually, the doctors recommended institutionalization. They were asking her to relinquish motherhood itself and Byrne Miller refused.

Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library

 Byrne swept back into Bellevue with a dancer’s walk led from angry hips. “Speak again of taking my child away from me,” she threatened, a cobra about to strike, “and I will attach these wires to your testicles.”

So what did this fiercest of all mothers do instead? She gave up her dance career and moved the family to an isolated farmstead in Connecticut, where she and Duncan transformed a tree house into a bedroom for the girls. It was going great, until Alison told her mother that she danced with the tree.

A dancing tree resurrected images of gurneys, head braces and wires that bucked and thrashed through her conscience. It portended relapse, the undoing of a glued-together mind that might not quite have dried. “Why don’t I sleep up here with you tonight?” Byrne asked, cloaking her worry.

Byrne stretched out, face up, atop the coiled rag rug and adjusted her pelvis so that the small of her back was supported. She unfurled her fists so that every bone in her hands made contact.

“It is like dancing,” she muttered as the wind through the tree made barely perceptible adjustments to her position. What had seemed delusional was instead a revelation. Alison had found a partner her mother simply hadn’t seen.

 photograph by Gary Geboy
photograph by Gary Geboy

Byrne never did “cure” her daughter. But Alison lived into her 70s, independently, in part because Byrne found a way to let go: othermotherhood. She didn’t define herself by Alison’s successes or failures and Alison was free to choreograph the steps of her own life.

It was just as freeing for me.  Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we are meant to be. Byrne Miller had no vested interest in my identity so she saw right through me, to me.  Someday I will pay it forward and become someone’s cherished other mother. There is no biological clock for othermotherhood and I won’t need to fill out an application.  I already know what it will feel like.

Byrne was certain that the sun could never cast another shadow. She had swallowed it whole.

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