I love it when readers point out something I didn’t know my memoir said – it reminds me that the love story that at times felt like a fairy tale to me is actually true. And the truth reveals itself in different ways, to different people.
The Other Mother of the book’s title is, of course, the Jewish burlesque dancer turned Johnny-Appleseed of modern dance in the Deep South: Byrne Miller. I chose to use “the” instead of “my” other mother because I recognized that all of Byrne’s collected children can claim her.
What I didn’t realize is that she is only one of several other mothers who come to life on the pages of the book. My sister was one of the first to read it and ask if the title referred to me. I’ve always considered myself “Auntie Mermaid” to her three children, but to Jenny I was also an other mother, someone she knows will always be interested in the details of the kids we both love – no matter how small.
Then there’s the other mother I never considered at all – Byrne’s mother Fanny. She was one of my favorite characters to write about in the memoir. At first she scared me. Afterall, Fanny passed away decades before I even met Byrne.
She spoke more often of her father – the Hungarian immigrant adored by her entire family, from whom she inherited her first love and talent: classical piano. But the Byrne I knew was more determined than dreamy, more practical than prodigy. She endured physical trails more painful than I could describe, yet was stoic – almost puritan in her toughness. “Pain is for the hoi polloi,” she’d say. Where did that side of Byrne come from?
The answer, I realized, is Fanny. She was the woman who gave Byrne the delicate necklace of seed pearls that is one of my most treasured possessions. It was passed down from mother to other mother and finally to me, along with this necklace – a poison pendant Byrne said would protect me should a suitor ever proved unworthy.
But even as I grew to admire and respect the Fanny taking shape on my page, I didn’t see her as an other mother. I wrote right through a truth that readers picked up on right away – -that she was Duncan Miller’s other mother. Byrne’s treasured husband had divorced himself from his own family for some deep dark reason he never revealed. Fanny became the mother he always wanted.
It’s right there, on page 76, Byrne noticing something I had not. “…she’d watched as her husband took to Fanny’s attentions like a forgotten flower, finally watered.”
No wonder Byrne felt so comfortable in her role of other mother, she had been the understudy all her life. I only wish she could have given a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” to Fanny for Mother’s Day.
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.”
The title of the memoir about my relationship with Byrne Miller is called “The Other Mother” so my publisher is offering a free download of the first chapter on Mother’s Day http://www.jogglingboardpress.com
You would think, based on these photos, that both of my “mothers” were dancers. But my mother’s dreams of dance stopped after high school, when she met my father and started having children. Byrne had a different concept of parenting. Instead of carpooling her two daughters from activity to activity, as my mother did, Byrne reversed the steps. Alison and Jane tagged along wherever Byrne lived and danced around the world. When they did not follow in her dancing footsteps, Byrne collected “dancer daughters” and formed her own company, which is how I met her in Beaufort long ago.
I was in my 20s and Byrne was in her 80s at the time. I love my mother, but I needed the kind of encouragement Byrne’s example provided. I became one of her “collected children” and she became my “Other Mother.”
I am certainly not the first woman to have lucked into such a relationship. I’m not talking about favorite aunts, coaches or mentors. “Other Mothers” are not related or responsible for you in any way. They don’t have a vested interest in your identity. They don’t judge themselves by your successes or failures. That’s why they’re free to offer alternative lifestyles, philosophies, religions or, in my case, the confidence to take risks.
You don’t have to be a modern dance pioneer to become an “Other Mother.” Byrne simply had a way of attracting followers to her exuberant positivity. She spoke in colorful anecdotes and analogies I call “womenisms” in the book, things I couldn’t have heard from anyone but an “other mother.” Who really wants to listen to their actual mother talk about sex, for example? But Byrne could entertain her collected daughters for hours with stories of men she knew and loved and what she learned from each of them. “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence,” she told us. And “No woman should try to be everything to a man. It’s beyond valiant. It’s stupid.”
Looking back, I think the best mother’s day present I ever gave my mother was having an “other mother.” Byrne’s presence in my life freed my mother. She knew I had someone to pick up where she left off. She could focus on her own life and goals after years of, in a sense, living through me and my sister. She also knew that being a mother didn’t have to stop when we left home and moved far away. She still has lessons and wisdom to share – and I’m sure that there are young women in Mexico (where she lives) who would be lucky to have her as an “other mother.”