“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.”
As readers of my new book “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” now know – my mermaidenhood is fishy, to say the least. I come clean in the book, as all memoirists should. There’s a whole chapter disclosing how my scaly side came about and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the book for you by giving away any important details.
Instead, this is a blog about consequences. My publisher, Susan Kammeraad-Campbell, is a big believer in mermaids herself so she saw no harm in putting proof on the invite that we mailed out to supporters and friends of Byrne Miller – my other mother. I figured it’d come out soon enough anyway, since its one of the photos actually in the book.
What I didn’t count on is the whirlpool of confusion it would create for two of my favorite little girls in the known universe. Ann is a 10-year-old who lives in Beaufort (top photo) and Marina is my niece, ( bottom photo) an almost 9-year-old who lives in Florida. Both girls saw the invite with my mermaid picture. Both girls were shocked – for different reasons.
For Anne, it was more about the picture. She’s never known me before I dyed my hair black, so there’s that issue. (It seems a lot of people have that issue. I’m so not a blonde anymore. Just accept it.) She’s also never seen my mermaid tail. And that’s a problem, since we are swimming buddies who spend hours each summer cavorting in the creek behind my house. I’ve always told her I was a mermaid, but she wrote it off as just another inane thing her silly friend says to make her laugh. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out. Anne came to the launch but was suddenly shy, as if she wasn’t sure who the heck I really was anymore.
Marina had seen the picture before. She was scared that by putting it on the invitation everyone would find out and it wouldn’t be a family secret anymore. We have lots of secrets in my family – this is probably the only good one. My mermaidenhood is something like an exclusive club – even her older brothers are sworn to secrecy. Her concern is entirely logical, given that the reason I’ve always given her for my tail not showing itself anymore is that I’ve been suspended by mermaid management. On account of the first time my nephews saw my tail, in the bathtub, conveniently captured in the photograph. It happened before Marina was born but such is the way of legends.
And now I’ve gone and blown it. Outed myself. Normally when I do stupid things I ask my younger sister Jenny to help get me out of trouble. Before my suspension by mermaid management excuse, Jenny told the boys that the reason my tail isn’t visible to anyone but family is because of the secret (suntan) lotion I carefully smear all over every time I swim. Earlier this summer, when we had a family girl’s trip to Weeki Wachee and saw a mermaid show where some of the performers did NOT have tails, it was Jenny who explained that river and spring mermaids are different. She’s always got my back, or tail as the case may be.
Marina turns nine this weekend and for her birthday she wanted a “mermaid encounter” at Weeki Wachee instead of a party. Weeki Wachee closes for the winter so Jenny booked the “encounter” for last Sunday.
I was supposed to go, along with my mermaid sister Lolita, but a blown tire blew our chances. We had to content ourselves with a phone call after the “encounter.” The conversation with a very tired little mermaid went something like this:
Me: I’m so sorry we missed it. We wanted to swim down the Intracoastal but even with our tails it’s too far.
Marina: That’s okay Auntie Mermaid. I had fun anyway.
Me: Did you get to swim with a mermaid?
Marina: Yes, her name is Christa.
Lolita: Oh Crista – we know her.
Me: (silently) way to go Lolita!
Marina: Is she a friend of yours too Auntie Mermaid?
Me: If I remember correctly, she has blond hair…or maybe blondish brown… or
Marina: Yes! She has blond hair and it gets kinda brown when it’s wet.
And so, thanks to both my actual sister and my mermaid sister, Anne still thinks I’m silly and Marina still believes I’m a mermaid. Now if I can just make sure neither one of them reads the book until they’re, like, twenty….
A sixteen-year-old girl from Beaufort High School bought a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” on the night of it’s launch. Here’s why that makes my heart do a grand jete. It isn’t a YA book about young love, vampires or zombies. It isn’t about a celebrity or anyone her friends tweet about. It will never be made into an app or video game. So why did she part with hard-earned babysitting money to buy a 417-page book about my relationship with a former burlesque dancer named Byrne Miller?
“I danced for Ms. Miller in the Nutcracker when I was four,” she told me. “And I never knew she was so amazing until tonight.”
Almost five years of research, writing, rewriting and planning this book’s introduction to the world was worth it in that instant. Byrne was Other Mother to me and many other former dancers in the audience of the USCB Center for the Arts. We were all drawn to her exuberant positivity and consider ourselves lucky to be her collected children. One of the best parts of writing “The Other Mother” was the reuniting with many of them, telling and retelling the stories Byrne planted in each of our hearts.
But I wrote the book so that the next generation of young women would have the chance to know Byrne Miller too. I told the unbelievably big crowd of book and Byrne lovers that all young women deserve the wit and wisdom of an Other Mother.
I’m a first-timer. I have no other book launches or signings to compare to Byrne’s kickoff celebration. All I knew was that I wanted it to be an event worthy of the woman with a whim of iron who introduced modern dance to the Deep South. I also wanted it to be an homage to my adopted hometown – the place Byrne and Duncan Miller chose, as I did, to live and create. Beaufort is more than a setting in this work. It is a central character.
After sharing some crowd-pleasing passages from “The Other Mother,” I watched from the back of the auditorium as two groups of dancers performed modern and contemporary pieces choreographed in Byrne’s honor. I confess when the idea for making the launch more than a typical book signing first occurred to me, I was worried that the dancers I’d invited would wear the kinds of costumes you see at recitals or that their moves would mirror what you see on music videos. Byrne was an unrepentant dance snob and even twelve years after her death I’m certain she could still summon lightning bolts of judgment.
But the moment the music started I felt my muscles lengthen, my posture correct itself and tears roll down my cheeks. These Beaufort Middle School and High School dancers are the living, breathing legacy of what Byrne Miller started decades ago. On the night of the worldwide debut of a book in her honor, they were lyrical, expressive and as committed as any modern dance company the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre ever brought to Beaufort. And if even one of them loves reading “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” I will be as proud as Byrne surely is.
Regular moms make cute little photo albums when their babies arrive. I’m about to bring a new book into the world — “The Other Mother: a rememoir” so why not create an album for my baby too?
So here goes. It takes more than the author to make a book. It takes a great story — burlesque dancer choreographs a life with unrequited novelist and teaches a young TV reporter the dance of truth, becoming her “Other Mother.” It also takes a partner — and for almost five years my husband Gary has been cheering me on.
But “The Other Mother: a rememoir” wouldn’t have happened without — okay here comes the baby analogy — without midwifery of my publisher and editor: Susan Kammeraad-Campbell of Joggling Board Press. She took the manuscript of a former journalist and helped me deconstruct it. The story started fifty years before I was even born and I was trying to tell it chronologically, through stories Byrne told me over glasses of wine on her screened porch. It felt distant and restrained — nothing like the story that emerged after she showed me how to polish and string together the pearls.
And so began four years of research, writing and rewriting — interrupted by documentaries and video work to pay the bills. The former journalist in me loved the deep dive into Byrne and Duncan’s past. Even things I hadn’t thought important, turned out to be pivotal.
Eventually the research phase was finished and Susan and I began the process of editing each pearl — chapter by chapter. Coming up with
a title was the hardest part… we called it everything from “Dancing with Byrne” to “The Adagio” before settling on the phrase that defined
her. Once we had that, the marketing phase began. I gave a TED talk and created business cards featuring Byrne’s sassiest womenisms.
Byrne would have loved the design process — Torborg Davern did the spectacular cover and Shanna McGarry made the interior just as beautiful. Will Green got the social media ball rolling, making me Tumble, Tweet, Pin and Blog while the advance review copies went out to media, literary competitions and bookstores. So far the reviews are amazing — from Lowcountry Weekly and the Beaufort Gazette.
While the books were being printed — in Minnesota, USA thank you very much — we got to work planning the launch. Byrne taught
me well. Everything can be a party — from combing through mailing lists to figure out who died, remarried or moved, to
addressing envelopes. Byrne’s “collection” of children is still growing — even in her absence — because of this book. I’m sure
she’s leaping through the air somewhere at the thought of it.
Yesterday, the books finally arrived from the printer. Six pallets worth. All of which had to be muscled from the end of Susan’s driveway to her warehouse — good thing for girl power. But at the end of the day I got to hold, in my hands, my baby. I just wish its Other Mother could have been there too, directing the new arrival.
When you grow up in Oregon, as I did, the Civil War is just another date to memorize for history tests. I was functionally illiterate in “The War Between The States” when I moved to South Carolina in 1989 – stunned at the degree of relevance it still seemed to have in my adopted home town. This was before Ken Burn’s series on PBS and all I knew of the war I knew through photographs. The faded, sepia-toned images of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner fixed my understanding of it as a distant madness.
Civil War Era Photography is the subject of a talk tonight at the Beaufort County Library’s Special Collections room – a place near and dear to my memoirist heart. Dr. Robert Lisle will explain the tools some 300 male photographers used to create the images that captured that distant madness. It’s part of the library’s month-long commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial called “One County Reads The Civil War.” Lots of libraries use history to lure in readers – but no other library has a Grace Cordial leading the charge. I counted nearly 40 programs, lectures, readings, showings and tours listed in the library’s brochure – and that’s only the adult section of events.
I plan on going to several, starting with the photography talk tonight. Images capture history in a way that never feels archaic or wordy. The power of photographs to change public perception of war is undeniable – who can forget images like this?
But for me, the photographs of one photographer in particular, go deeper than documentation. They explain why the war mattered. In my PBS documentary “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” I used the archival photographs of Henry P. Moore extensively. He traveled to visit the Third New Hampshire Regiment camped in South Carolina in 1862 and 1863. But when the day’s work of documenting soldiers was done, he turned to the plantations of St. Helena, Beaufort and Edisto Island.
I’d seen the shocking photos of the backs of slaves, criss-crossed with the slashings of whips. What Moore’s photographs showed me was the Gullah strength of character, the grinding everydayness of survival, the power of faith and promises when there is nothing else. In the end, photography isn’t about tools and equipment – it is about having something to say.