Do women assume their mothers are insecure and jealous? I am beginning to wonder, after the same question comes up at every reading or Other Mother book soiree. A hand goes up and someone will ask, almost apologetically, if my real mother was ever jealous of Byrne Miller – the other mother of my memoir’s title. I’ve stopped being surprised by the question, even though in truth it never occurred to me before I wrote the book. I loved both mothers without comparison and assumed the inverse was true. Because my mother was a coach and therefore an other mother to many gymnasts, I never even wondered if she’d mind about Byrne. I knew, with the lucky certainty of the truly loved, that she always wanted the best for me and never declared a monopoly on what the best was.
Last week dear friends in Charleston threw a soiree for the book and for the first time, the discussion quickly moved into deeper, fascinating territory. I was prepared for the jealousy question and I could see by the smiles in Andrea and John’s elegant sitting room that my “no, I think she was relieved” answer met with agreement, and approval. These were confident women, some of them mothers, some them daughters of other mothers. The questions quickly moved on to all the other juicy topics in the book, like Byrne’s insistence that all contracts in life – including identity and marriage – can be rewritten.
As I was signing books, the conversation bubbled over champagne and macaroons and I overheard young women showing off cell-phone photos of their other mothers and older women discovering that they’re considered other mothers. Othermothering works like that; I can’t pinpoint the moment I knew Byrne was my other mother any more precisely than when I became aware of my own name. You know it when you feel it.
The next morning, over breakfast, an artist who’d been at the soiree articulated what’s been gnawing at me. Every time the jealousy question comes up, a little part of me wondered if I am just incredibly insensitive. I never even asked my mother if my relationship with Byrne hurt her feelings. But Donna made me think of it in a new light. We turn to other mothers for new perspectives and because they are not genetically tied to our identity they offer us radical, fresh opinions. I don’t know about anyone else, but I would never broach a subject with my mother that would result in Byrne’s favorite womenism:
But perhaps we are open to the advice of other mothers because we assume too much about our mothers. Just as we think they judge us, we judge them to be too insecure, too old-fashioned, too un-hip, to stay-at-home to understand our careers or love lives and conflicts. We’ve stopped seeing the complexity, the changing nature of the mothers we’ve known since birth. We can all point to the time our mother freaked out – over a hair color, or a boyfriend, or girlfriend for that matter. But do we hold onto those moments, those confirmations of conflict so tightly we refuse to acknowledge that mothers change too?
Because of the book, I researched and found proof that both Byrne’s mothering and othermothering evolved over time. By the time I came along she was much better at it than she had been with earlier “collected” children – the memoir documents other relationships more forced than forged. With me she was burlesque – intriguing rather than intimidating. She drew me into our dance together and only now am I realizing how much she needed me as well.
There are a million benefits to being an other mother. There is no age limit and no experience is required. It’s not a forever commitment. Other mothers are not expected to pay for college tuition. And they don’t have to switch off the nurturing gene when their own nest is empty. But perhaps most importantly, other mothers have a chance to redefine themselves. With their collected daughters they can flirt with unexplored wisdoms and unpracticed reactions.
Byrne always said “You can never be everything to a man, to try is beyond valiant. It’s stupid.” But maybe the same is true of mothers and daughters.
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.”
Today’s the day the whole world can go online and meet Byrne Miller – at least the part of her divulged in “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” Despite the fact that the blurbs on both the front and back cover of my book are male writers (Pat Conroy and Franz Wisner) – most readers, so far, have been women. They’re loving it, which is great since women outspend men on books. And even better, they’re spreading the word and holding Other Mother Soirees because it’s bringing back memories of the important other mothers in their lives.
But here’s what is blowing me away. The few men curious enough to get past the title and the cover photo are sticking with it – even after they realize that Byrne didn’t stay a burlesque dancer and that the sex scenes are couched in elegant dance terms. My husband Gary didn’t have a choice. He was my front-line editor and men who enjoy this book have him to thank. He took each chapter out on the porch with a can of PBR beer and a giant red pen. If I used the word “love” more than absolutely necessary, he scratched it out. “Be more creative,” he demanded. Same thing happened to any mushy, girl-power, coming-of-age moments. And those sex scenes? He told me I was on my own with those.
Pat Conroy was the second man to ever read “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” I knew that Pat has cherished the love of many Other Mothers over the course of his life. We’d had long talks about how re-parenting changed us both. He waxes rhapsodic about Julia in particular, the Beaufort woman who “collected” him even when her own son was killed in a freak baseball accident. But I was nervous to share the manuscript with him because I knew that Pat wasn’t a big fan of Byrne Miller. (I suspect two personalities as big as theirs barely fit into a room.) Instead, he got sucked in by the story of Byrne’s husband of nearly 60 years: Duncan Miller. Pat Conroy knows a thing or two about frustrated novelists, as it turns out, and the tragedy of Duncan’s mental illness poisoning his writing was a side to Byrne’s story that broke Pat’s big heart.
The third man to read the entire manuscript is another major writer, only you find most of his work in the editorial pages of The New York Times. Lawrence and I went to graduate school for journalism together and I knew he’d fall in love with the outlandish free spirit of my star. He was so taken with Byrne that he helped me track down odd bits of New York history to fill in the gaps of her early married life in Greenwich Village. And he introduced me to the film archives at Lincoln Center, where I watched clips of the very same dancer that thrilled Byrne in the 20s and 30s: Harald Kruetzberg.
The fourth man to read “The Other Mother” is my brother-by-Byrne and Navajo elder Ben Barney. His reaction was even more important to me because he gave me permission to tell the most intimate and personal of all the stories of Byrne’s collected children. She was not very good at being an “Other Mother” back in the 60’s – when she bulldozed over his religious and tribal beliefs in an attempt to turn him into a dancer. But now, looking back, he sees her as a powerful and transformative force in his life.
“Chapter brought tears to my eyes so far,” he emailed me. “The section you wrote of me is freed, roaming, rolling and nice. I leave it as is.”
The fifth man to read the book was Larry Lepionka – an archeologist who helped me find where I had buried Duncan’s tormented manuscripts. He’s married to a major character in the book – my Byrne sister Lisa – so I was a little worried when Larry told me to come over and discuss a factual error he’d found in the book.
“My wife has no accent at all,” said this Beaufort native who has lived with his Swiss-German stunner of a wife so long that this statement was only partially a joke. In fact, he loved the book as well. “It’s a story of heroines,” he said. “Byrne, you, Lisa and even Wipeout – your brave and lovely dog.” If this book goes into paperback I’m stealing Larry’s lines for another blurb.
But the funniest reaction from a man came from my friend Terry Stone. Regular followers of my blog know him as the man responsible for my only redfish victory. He’s a regular subscriber to Garden and Gun and when not fishing fiercely defends his other territory: the kitchen.
He was deep into the book when he finally asked his wife Jane “Wait a minute, is this a love story?” He was afraid I’d be offended when she ratted on him, but nothing could make me happier. It is a love story, the most amazing one I’ve ever known. It is not the sort of book most guys willingly pick out of a bookstore (except as gifts for their wives, which I’m discovering they love to do.) And then there’s the dance terminology. “I have to admit,” Terry confided, “I did skip over some of the dance parts. My French is rusty.”
There was more. Terry had a hard time believing it was a true story – that’s how amazing this relationship was. For sixty years Duncan watched Byrne undress each night and told her she was marvelous, even after five spinal surgeries had stolen inches from her glorious height and cancer had carved away her uterus. But it was more than holding hands and quoting Shakespeare that grew their love into what I witnessed. True, Byrne had been a knockout Burlesque dancer but their love story withstood challenges that would cripple others. Instead of divorcing over the stress of a schizophrenic daughter, they lived for a time in an open marriage. Instead of letting one person’s career dominate the other’s they took yearly turns following their passions. And even when Byrne realized that Duncan’s mind was self-destructing she refused to let it erode his identity as a writer. She choreographed a stage, a life, for him even when she was the only one in his audience.
I know not every dude will “get” this book. But it says something that the men I most admire do. So here’s my promise – to any man willing to get past a dancer on the cover and the fact that it’s a love story that happens to be true. Let me get through the national launch, the blog tour and the upcoming Kindle and hopefully audio book and I’ll create a series of videos on You Tube to explain the French dance terms for you. You know – the difference been a plie and a pair of pliers. Deal?
I can’t pinpoint when I became aware I had an other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. I remember when I met her, sure. I was a floundering 22-year-old from the backwoods of Oregon and she was an 82-year-old former burlesque dancer from New York who said things like “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence.”
Seven days from now the whole world will meet my other mother: Byrne Miller. November 5th is the national launch of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” and the date her collected children, including me, will have to start sharing her with readers everywhere. What I’ve learned since the fabulous local kickoff of the book in Beaufort, SC is that women of all ages instinctively “get it:” we’ve all needed and cherished the love of other mothers even if we’ve never put our finger on it until this book came along.
What I’ve also learned is that there are many different reasons why. Othermothering isn’t the sappy happy apple pie fantasy of nuclear families. It’s real world and defies stereotypes. After I spoke to 65 avid readers Friday at Litchfield Book’s Moveable Feast in Murrell’s Inlet, one grandmother raised her hand. I thought she might ask the question I often get: “Was your real mother ever jealous of your Other Mother?”
But instead she said she bought her ticket to the luncheon the minute she saw the book cover and title. “I figured since my daughter and I don’t always seem well matched this might be just the solution.” The whole crowd laughed right along with her and Litchfield Books sold out of my book within the hour. Most told me it was gift for themselves, and some had Christmas presents for their mothers and other mothers in mind. But when I was signing books after the talk, two different women asked me to inscribe their copies to their daughters. “Can you write something like Dear Jane, have you thought about finding an other mother?”
It reminded me that daughters aren’t always the sweet dears we like to think we are. It dawned on me why I never got the feeling that my own mother was jealous of Byrne. She was probably sick and tired of my twenty-something know-it-all self and relieved that another woman was willing to guide me into another phase of life. Hmmm…. Come to think of it one of my many nicknames growing up was Miss Information.
“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.” — Chapter 42 “The Other Mother: a rememoir”
I may never remember the exact moment I found an Other Mother in Byrne Miller, but I will always remember the moment I realized that all women, instinctively, get it. It happened last night, at the first ever “Other Mother Soirée.”
My friend and fellow writer Barbara Kelly had the idea to combine a celebration of my memoir about Byrne and a tribute to the other mothers in all our lives.
Her soirée invite list started with her own Other Mother – Betty Tenare. In the same way Byrne added me to her collection of daughters, Betty befriended Barbara when she first arrived in Beaufort and folded the nervous newcomer into a circle of support.
Betty sat just to my right as I read this passage from “The Other Mother: a rememoir” and I could literally feel how proud she is of Barbara and of being an Other Mother. Just as Byrne was.
“I didn’t have to ask what Lillian meant by collected daughters. I was beginning to know the silky feel of Byrne’s favor, the web she wove that made me feel more charming, witty and talented than I did with anyone else.”
—Chapter 14 “The Other Mother: a rememoir”
When we weren’t feasting on chef Jamie Darby’s creations, we raised glasses of wine and shared toasts and stories of Other Mothers. Some were literally shared. Like Casey Chucta’s story of how she used to be jealous of all the people “adopted” by her charismatic, theatrical parents Bob and Roxie. But then, when so many people paid tribute to her father at his funeral, she realized how lucky she was to have inherited an extended family. All because her father was an Other Father and her mother a generous, loving Other Mother.
As a writer, it doesn’t get better than witnessing the way a book can connect people. Last night was my first chance since the Beaufort launch to sit back and revel in the power of othermothering. But there will be more opportunities. Two other dear friends, Andrea in Charleston and Audrey in Washington, D.C., are hosting Other Mother Soirées for me at their homes in November. And my TEDx talk in Charleston, on lessons from my Other Mother, keeps getting more views and likes as the national book release gets closer. Who knows, I may be collecting a few daughters of my own as this dance continues.
Let me apologize right up front if you were stuck behind my little white Mazda on I-95 in the late ’90s, headed south from Washington D.C. to Beaufort, South Carolina. You probably passed me in a furious hurry and wagged your finger at the sight of a furry white dog licking the tears streaming down my face as I drove. You are forgiven for whatever blond, female driver accusation you probably hurtled at me. I blame it all on audio books. One in particular: Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.” Not only did this book-on-cassette keep me awake, though admittedly distracted, on the nine-hour drive to visit Byrne Miller, it changed the way I understood aging, love, grief and honesty.
Fast forward a few cars, years and hair colors later, and you’ll understand why I knew I wanted to record an audio book version of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” as soon as it was published. As a kid, I adored hearing my mother read books to me and I never outgrew it. I had to get over the weirdness of hearing my own voice when I decided to become a television reporter and studied delivery techniques with a vocal coach in grad school. I’ve been lucky enough to voice everything from documentaries for ETV to virtual news networks for the Department of Homeland Security and a Short Story America piece which aired on NPR.
So when Joggling Board Press’s marketing and social media guru, Will Green, said his recording studio at the JBP offices in Summerville was ready for me I had no reservations. He figured we’d get halfway through if we recorded “The Other Mother” for three days straight. I packed an overnight bag but thought we’d get through much more than that. Afterall, I was known as “one-take Teresa” back at WJWJ.
This is me, on day one of the audio book recording. In a closet. Literally. It’s so small the mic stand legs can’t spread far enough to balance without bungee cord assists. If I felt compelled to do a chicken dance my elbows would scrape the walls.
Now I can’t actually say that I’ve never voiced in a closet before. Back in my Ogilvy days, I had to cut the voice track of a video news release in a storage closet of a conference room at the World Trade Center. But that script was one page, about a minute’s worth of copy. “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is 417 pages – with no soundbites to break up the narration.
Will designed his studio so that he gets to sit outside the closet, listening to the recording through comfy hipster headphones at a spacious desk. The “talent” has to pass strict height and girth requirements to even fit in the shoe-box sized recording booth. Even so, the first day was fun. I tried to image that I was curled up in bed, reading the love story of Byrne and Duncan Miller for the first time. Hours sped by and despite the fact that a guy Will’s age is definitely not the target audience, he fell under the spell of the book as well.
Day two I was a little stiff and sore but my voice was holding up. Susan, my editor and the publisher of Joggling Board Press, had plenty of hot tea and honey on hand and made me stop for soothing snack breaks of plump and juicy grapes (She’s clearly got a bit of Other Mother in her.)
Even when you’ve written and rewritten, and edited and re-edited the words in front of your face, there are surprises in a marathon recording session. Like the sheer number of French and Spanish words that somehow ended up in the book. I don’t speak French, unless you count the ballet terms I learned as a kid. I had to rely on my memory of the way those dance terms sounded on the lips of many dance teachers. The street Spanish sprinkled through the pages are much fresher memories and I’ve always found the language lyrical and lovely to speak.
The tough part came when I hit the chapters where I incorporate lyrics from The Doors into the dialog between young Teresa and her common-law-husband. It made perfect sense when I wrote the book. The half-Mexican surfer character, Sonny, listened to Jim Morrison all the time. Songs like “Gloria,” “Light My Fire” and “The End” and were the soundtrack of our relationship.
But when they popped back up in front of me, I had to make a split second decision about how to deliver those lines in spoken form. On the first pass I did it straight.
Now that we know each other a little bit better, why don’t you come over here? Make me feel alright.
I could hear Susan’s guffaw from the other side of the closet wall. My PBS-serious delivery of a familiar lyric was laugh-out-loud funny. We took a break. Listened to the song on the internet. Marveled at the way Jim Morrison manages to sound simultaneously stoned and psychic. He sneers the words and yet they’re seductive. He belts out “make me feel alright” with a raspy earnestness that still makes fathers guard their daughters with shotguns.
I tried imitating it. It was even funnier than saying it straight. I tried sing speaking it. I sounded more ridiculous each minute. Finally we decided I would try to deliver the line with Jim Morrison’s cadence and rhythm since there was no way I could mimic anything else. I climbed back into the closet, took a deep breath and only exhaled when I didn’t hear Susan or Will laughing. We did multiple takes and I’ll leave it to the judgment of a 29-year-old man to pick the version least likely to elicit howls from future listeners.
Day three and I was so claustrophobic, in character and eye-strained that I would have belted out any Jim Morrison lyrics with abandon. My one-take reputation began to crumble. Infusions of Starbucks didn’t even help. As I read each chapter I kept thinking of my likely audience – women of all ages – and how they wouldn’t be charmed by the froggy, come hither instrument my voice was becoming. We took a long lunch break and I let Will and Susan do all the talking, thinking I’d bounce back. Still, by two o’clock I was clearing my throat with more frequency than I finished sentences. I learned exactly where vocal chords begin, lower down than I had assumed before they started stinging and chafing like sand paper on a paper cut.
Ironically, just as I was falling apart, Will was hitting the book’s stride. It’s riveting stuff – electroshock therapy, schizophrenia, burlesque, open marriages, and phony marriages. He was following along so closely that he could almost predict when I would switch words or omit them altogether. At 2:30pm, a shade before the Kindle counter said I’d reached 50% of the book, Will made the executive decision to stop and record the rest when my voice has recovered.
The Other Mother: a rememoir” may be deliciously intriguing, even shocking, but it shouldn’t sound like I’m reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Don’t be nervous. This’ll be fun. Your hair looks fine. No, the questions aren’t hard. Sure, that outfit works on camera.
I’m not proud to admit I served up these platitudes to countless interviewees back when I was a reporter and anchor at the PBS affiliate in Beaufort, SC: WJWJ-TV. And when I left the newsroom to make public relations films in Washington DC, I re-warmed those same tired sayings to ease the anxiety of corporate CEOs and newly minted spokespeople.
Today was payback. I found out what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the camera because my former co-anchor and friend Juan Singleton interviewed me for the TV program he now hosts for the City of Hardeeville.
I knew this day would come. I’m grateful for the chance to introduce new audiences to “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” because I believe in the book and want it to be a best-seller for Joggling Board Press. I’m eternally grateful that my first TV interviewer was Juan, instead of a recent J-school graduate who will probably never read the book or care about an octogenarian dancer who started out doing burlesque in the Great Depression. But it was still waaaay harder than I thought it would be.
First of all — where is it written that I look nothing like I did back in my anchor days and yet Juan Singleton hasn’t aged a day?
Second — I’ve ditched more than my blond, anchor helmet hair. I no longer own any TV-friendly suits in bold colors. That purple suit in the top photo? It belonged to my grandmother Nellie — who turns 90 this December. A tad out-of-date, wouldn’t you say?
Now it’s not like I’ve completely forsaken my TV identity. It was really helpful in my Ogilvy days — I actually enjoy “media training” clients. And when I’m not writing books and screenplays, I still use my reporting skills for simulated news programs for clients like the Department of Homeland Security.
Those gigs are for “field reporting” — and nowadays reporters can even get away with wearing leather jackets. But for Juan’s interview segment, I had to be an author. And I realized as soon as I got on set this morning that there was a good reason I always told guests not to wear black. It disappears on camera, especially when the backdrop is Charlie Rose serious. Suddenly forced to go sleeveless, the only thing more mortifying was realizing that my dress showed just as much bare leg as bare arm on the two-shot. I’d fire me, if I gave anyone that kind of wardrobe advice.
Once the cameras started rolling, I tried to forget about my various wardrobe malfunctions and concentrate on my message. I’m one of a long list of writers reading excerpts from their books at the inaugural literary festival called a “Novel” Wine tasting” at September Oaks Vineyards in Ridgeland, SC on October 26th.
Phew, I managed to get that out in one sentence. Although my husband Gary, who was sneaking pictures during my interview on my cell phone, says I talked about twice as fast as my genteel, Southern born-and-bred host.
It was Juan’s open-ended questions that presented a bigger challenge. I was a master at those too, back in the WJWJ day. We all were. I think Suzanne Larson set the world record for asking one, strategically open-ended question and letting the interviewee answer for something like 17 minutes straight. We all loved it when a Byrne Miller Dance Theatre concert was coming up. You just had to introduce Byrne and she’d seduce the cameras, and our audience.
But I knew Juan’s entire segment was supposed to be about 7 minutes. Suddenly this process I’ve always brushed off as easy, wasn’t! How was I supposed to describe what an Other Mother is, how I met Byrne Miller, what she meant to me, why I wanted to write the book — in just 7 minutes? The same queasy nerves that attacked right before my TEDx talk in Charleston threatened to make an appearance, until I remembered one my favorite Byrne Miller womenisms.
“Innate intelligence is surpassed by impeccable instincts.” — Chapter 4, The Other Mother: a Rememoir
It was TV, not brain surgery. I wasn’t being summoned to testify in front of a senate subcommittee. Juan Singleton was not the late Mike Wallace, going for the jugular. He just wanted to know more about a woman I loved enough to write a book about. (It turns out Byrne taught him a dance class or two back in her days at Beaufort Elementary.) I took a deep breath. Nobody would know if I messed up a detail from the book; that’s the beauty of becoming the expert in all things Byrne Miller. I could rely on my old TV instincts and just tell the story.
Which is when another of Byrne’s womenisms popped into my head.
“There is not a contract on earth that can’t be rewritten.” — Chapter 33, The Other Mother: a Rememoir
So what if Juan’s interview segments are normally seven minutes? It’s not set in stone. I just had to make him forget the stopwatch. It’s easy, when I’m talking about Byrne Miller. Hardeeville residents can watch the program on TV. The rest of us will get to watch it online — sometime next week — on the city’s website. As I used to say every night at 6:30 pm, “This is Teresa Bruce, reporting.”