When I started writing the memoir of my relationship with Byrne Miller – “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – I collected recommendations. I devoured any memoir recommended by a trusted friend, even some from dubious readers. My goal was to be different from all of those memoirs, while at the same time learning all I could about the genre.
What struck me was the fate of mothers in those memoirs. I wasn’t a fan of the genre and expected to be inundated with Mommy Dearest airing of dirty laundry. I was curious about mothers in memoir mostly because I was trying to decide how much of my mother’s story to include in my other mothers’.
One of my favorite research reads was Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” The title actually refers to her father – the champion liar. “His stories got told and retold before an audience of drinking men he played dominoes with on days off… Certainly not much of the truth in any technical sense got told there,” she writes.
But it was her mother’s story that stuck with me. “All Mother’s marriages, once I uncovered them in my twenties, got presented to me as accidents.” She was a flawed but fascinating character and I moved on to another memoir searching for mothers.
In Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of a white African childhood, “Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight,” I met a mother I recognized. One who loses not just one child, like my own mother did, but two. A mother who can’t fight the grief head on and a daughter who found a way to write about it. “I watch Mum carefully. She hardly bothers to blink. It’s as if she’s a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking riverbed, waiting for rain to come and bring her to life.”
In Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” I found a mother whose crazy had crossed over into her daughter’s seemingly perfect life. The first line crystallizes a feeling that every embarrassed daughter will recognize– but a hundred times worse. “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
So far my search for the best way to write about mothers wasn’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother.
She came in the form of LaRue, the ninety-nine-year-old step grandmother in Franz Wisner’s “Honeymoon with My Brother.” Even though this memoir starts with a jilted groom story, it ends up being a travelogue of the heart. What grounds Franz is his relationship with LaRue. This is how he tells her of the honeymoon with his brother:
“We’re going to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and travel around the world for a year.”
“Wonderful!” she said without pause.
“You know, you’re more than welcome to join us for a stop of two,” I said.
“Well I just might,” she said. “I love travel. It’s one of the few things in life you never regret.”
He writes to her along the way.
“Dear LaRue – I won’t tell you much about our accomodations (felt more like a Ralph Lauren showroom than a middle-of-nowhere safari) because I want you to be under the impression that we roughted it. Don’t want to completely ruin our backpacker image. Love, Franz.”
I knew had finally read the memoir I was looking for. When I asked Franz Wisner for a blurb for “The Other Mother,” he cheerfully wrote back from travels in Spain.
“Of course,” he said. “I love the book. Byrne brings back a little of LaRue for me.”
The benefits of othermothering aren’t limited to older women like Byrne Miller, or to women whose children are all grown. I believe it can be a release valve for women without children too – call it my case for crowdsourcing motherhood.
Here’s how I got to this idea: I’m astonished by the social media frenzy around women freezing their eggs to give Mr. Right more time to show up, or those who choose single motherhood over co-parenting – not because I’m some Betty Crocker throwback but because I’m awed by the guts it takes to be a mother of any stripe these days. Let me “out” myself – I’m a happily married writer and filmmaker without children. Can you blame me? Just think about the range of the modern stereotypes pre-judging almost every style of mothering.
If you’re an ambitious “Tiger Mom,” then you might as well wear a scarlet letter “A” for child abuser. If you’re a hippy BFF mom then clearly you’re too needy to form adult friendships.
If you’re a helicoptering, Baby Boomer mom then everyone knows your kids will fail to launch and will eat up your data plan photographing themselves instead of getting jobs. And speaking of jobs, let’s not forget you working moms – from “Lean In” corporate climbers to single moms for whom “stay at home” means sick days without pay. According to recent studies at least 50% of your neighbors think your kids are “disadvantaged” thanks to your non-traditional tendencies.
Other mothers are held to a much more humane standard. We get no flack about our age or biological clock. Nobody expects us to consider it a full-time job. We don’t pay college tuition. And we are privy to secrets no-one would dream of telling their mom.
I’m sure that some people will interpret my decision to opt-out of full-time motherhood as selfish at best, or at worst question whether I’m really a woman. But my experience on the receiving end of othermothering gives me confidence that I have a way to pay it forward. More than just coveting my role as best-aunt-in-the-universe, I love that my younger sister relies on me to be an “Other Mother” to her three children and that one of my best friends welcomes my commitment to her non-verbal daughter. I am fine-tuning my emotional radar to young women I sense need impartial support and nurturing. Someday I will be a Byrne for one of them.
One day I hope you’ll look up “rememoir” in Wikipedia and see the word credited to me, and “The Other Mother.” Right now each time I type it, Word underlines it red as a misspelling, like a red flag of warning. Something’s different here! Pay attention!
It would have been simpler just to call “The Other Mother” a memoir. But I invented the word rememoir because it’s the truth as I remember it. I am the only one who could tell this story – it’s about a relationship that defined me. The thoughts, dialog and emotions I write about come from my own recollection, from the stories Byrne shared with me, the womenisms she told her other collected daughters, quotes she gave to reporters (including me), letters she invited me to read and events she documented in her personal journal. I sifted through these memories and arranged them in a way that represents the truth to me.
There will always be a place for the pure biography. At its best, it is research elevated to an art form. But in this age of instant access to worldwide “facts,” readers want something more than readily knowable facts when they buy a book.
I’m not frightened by this, as a writer I find it freeing. Truman Capote gave us the nonfiction novel, with every cold blooded detail recorded and reconstructed by his photographic memory. Not everyone can do that. So luckily there’s a whole genre out there of creative non-fiction, and now there is novelization, the art of imagining the story and thoughts behind a person already in the public eye, like “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” but no longer an anonymous character.
Rememoir, a remembered memoir, is even more personal – it finds the story in a personal truth, told by the imperfect human being who experienced it.
Earlier this month, the Wall St. Journal had an article about baby boomers impatient to become grandparents. The irony, the article pointed out, was they themselves were the first generation to delay getting married and having kids. And now their grown children are waiting even longer – putting off motherhood until they’ve earned advanced degrees or the right work/life balance.
I call it the Granny Gap – it’s been something I’ve thought about since I started writing “The Other Mother: a rememoir”
I’m lucky enough to have a younger sister who had kids relatively young and took the heat off of me. I’m also lucky enough to have been both othermother and mothered and I contend it could be a practical solution for would-be moms and grandmothers to bide their time.
The average American woman today waits four years longer to have her first child than her own mother did. Other than celebrities and trailblazing women having their first babies when they’re 45 or older, the overall U.S. birthrate has been on a steady decline since 2007. The average age a woman in the U.K starts a family is 30. They’re so freaked out by this across the pond that a pregnancy testing company runs ads of a photo-shopped, grey-haired hag in a Demi-Moore, bare belly pose to scare women into reproducing earlier. The June 28th, 2013 edition of the Daily Mail informed readers that women with university degrees are bulging the belly curve even later by waiting until they turn 35 to make babies. The horror!
“If the phenomenon continues for another generation,” the article contends, “it means some grandparents will have to wait an extra 20 years, until the age of 70, to have their first grandchild.”
Let me clear my throat. If there is indeed an impending granny gap, othermothing is a low-tech way for women on both ends of it to meet their nurturing needs. Not to mention the chief beneficiaries of multiple mothers providing emotional support: the children both mothers and grandmothers cherish.
This May 11th marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day in the United States, a holiday responsible for $16 billion dollars worth of flowers, chocolate, spa treatments and restaurant dinners spent on moms each year by grateful children.
But the woman who started the holiday a century ago, Anna Jarvis, had no children of her own, making her what I consider the quintessential other mother.
I wrote in “The Other Mother: a rememoir” that I couldn’t have pinpointed the exact time when Byrne became my other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. You just know what an other mother is when you’re lucky enough have one. She’s that special aunt, coach or older friend who doesn’t have any genetic ties so you can talk to her about things you’d never tell the woman who changed your diapers.
All I know for sure is that the term other-mothering dates back long my book or Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day campaign.
“You have to remember nuclear families are pretty new in all of human history,” says Dr. Hedman, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin. “We can’t be everything to everyone. Having other mothers helps relieve the tension and make parents happier.”
I think he’s onto something. I met my other mother when I was 22 and she was 82. My biological mother lived across the continent and was grateful that another wise, caring woman was there to offer me advice and love.
She’s be the first one to agree with the opening of the flap copy of my book: “Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we were meant to be.”
I remember every Mother’s Day I spent with my other mother. The florist in Beaufort, South Carolina – Bitty’s Flowers — could barely keep up with bouquets for Byrne Miller. They came from her collected children around the country: proof of how we all need and cherish the love of other mothers.
Thanks to Byrne Miller’s love of the indecent, ill-mannered, un-reserved, show-offy wild azalea, there is now a shrine to the little-bit-slutty bloom right next to my house. Every day I crawl into the opening of a wild, un-gardened garden just for inspiration.
Byrne’s legacy may be that she is considered the Johnny Appleseed of modern dance in the South. But she started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her parents, orthodox Jews in depression-era Manhattan, both played. She practised as religiously as a later-acknowledged agnostic could, but it didn’t happen. Still, she loved classical music for the rest of her life. One of her secret dreams was to have an entire symphony at her disposal, a private concert in a grand hall.
When I duck into the un-garden, I know why she left it to its own devices. Big bumble bees buzz from bloom to bloom, so intent on doing what they do that they literally bump into me. I close my eyes and feel Byrne all around me. It’s a bee-symphony. Commissioned by her.
Byrne Miller liked to compare azaleas to the other spring flowers that grace Southern gardens. Take the camellia on her front bluff, overlooking the Beaufort River. “Pink Perfection” is no exaggeration. Its petals are demure, obedient. They present from the bud like a corps de ballet, each one in its place.
Not so the wild azalea. In Byrne’s world they are modern dance. Luscious, vivid, almost shocking when they burst upon the season. Each petal is almost see-through, scandalous, fluttering for attention in the breeze. The colors are crimson and fuchsia, all the better to entice the eye. Honey bees have room to wiggle, squirm, roll around inside.
So, of course, she loved them. Wouldn’t think of trimming or pruning any of the wild bushes that still surround her little house on the Beaufort River. “The azaleas I leave to their own devices,” she said. “They’re utterly indecent already. Show-offs, just like me.”