Beaufort’s Ex Libris bookclub has been meeting for the last twenty-one years – the young mothers who started it as a sanity-saving break from infants and toddlers now swap stories of their children’s weddings and plans for grandchildren. They’ve been each other’s other mothers and other mothers to each other’s children. They pick their books a year in advance and the menu for their monthly meetings is always the same: M&M’s, bags of popcorn and many, many bottles of wine. But they still have the capacity to surprise each other.
Take this month’s meeting, for example. One of the founding members, Vicki Mix, nominated “The Other Mother: a rememoir” because back in the 90s she used to help Byrne Miller archive programs, press clippings and photographs into giant scrapbooks. We didn’t know each other then, but we both count ourselves among the last generation “collected” by the modern dancer who turned the South on its head. So I wasn’t surprised that another sister-by-Byrne would ask me to talk to Ex Libris.
I never expected what happened next. One of the longstanding members brought a guest to the meeting, someone who had once worked as a designer at WJWJ-TV, and when we went around the room doing introductions she shyly said her name: Deborah Martin. She was holding an 8×10 black and white photo of a group of dancers and pointed to herself, thirty-years ago. The group was the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre and she was one of Byrne’s original dancers!
It gets even better. Not only did Deborah dance for Byrne in the days before the BMDT became purely a presenter of modern dance, she designed costumes for the company.
Byrne was so theatrical, always bedecked in outlandish fashions, that I can only imagine how she must have treasured Deborah’s talents. The sketches she passed around felt like heirlooms – graceful reminders that Byrne’s story was once present tense and active. And that even though Byrne was the star of her own remarkable story there was always a supporting cast. Which included Duncan – Byrne’s husband of 60 years.
The man I was assigned to “cover” as a news story about Alzheimers struggled for the strength to shake my hand and the breath to speak. But Deborah knew a much younger, vibrant Duncan who never missed a single rehearsal.
Deborah knew a different side of Byrne than I would ever encounter – the tough, demanding taskmaster never satisfied until a dance was stage-ready. She wasn’t always the wise, tactful other mother she was by the time I found her. Feelings got hurt but always mended. “We went through a lot together, Byrne and I.”
Deborah left Beaufort and WJWJ long before I arrived to take a job at the same TV station, and she lost track of Byrne’s story. It was only decades later, after she had returned to live on St. Helena Island, that she found out about Byrne’s papers at the Beaufort County Library. But even the giant scrapbooks Vicki Mix had helped archive couldn’t restore a presence as pivotal as Byrne Miller.
“When I saw the newspaper pages, all yellowed and faded, it was just so sad. I couldn’t believe that a life like hers was reduced to artifact.”
I know exactly how she felt. I too, studied those scrapbooks in the research phase of the memoir of my relationship with Byrne. I was never trying to bring Byrne back to life; just to share the greatest love story I have ever known.
Each bookclub that reads “The Other Mother: a rememoir” interprets it in a new way. Ex Libris members shared the perspective of mothers astounded at the selfless love it took for Byrne to nudge me out of her protective nest to start my own career. They loved the ending – the scene where Byrne and I danced a duet of hand shadows in a dark room.
Deborah clutched the book to her chest, close to tears and thanked me for bringing Byrne back to her. And that’s when I realized that for other mothers, there are no endings. Ours are stories that will shape future lives.
I’m trying to be more moderate. Really. But I’m standing at the corner of a National Geographic moment and a slap in the face. I’ve just met Ma Moo Ooh – or at least that’s how I think she spells her name. She is thirteen years old and her job is to pose for photos with tourists visiting her Padaung aunt’s weaving shop on stilts above Inle Lake in central Myanmar.
Right now I’m distracting her but a glimpse at the smile on her aunt’s face tells me it’s okay. We are playing a game. Ma Moo Ooh writes a word in my spiral notebook and I try to copy her beautiful scroll while she collapses in giggles.
It’s part of Padaung custom for girls to begin wearing gold rings around the neck at age nine. Ma Moo Ooh loves her ten rings – it’s teen bling on another whole level and she suffers no lack of self-esteem. Until I ask her what grade she’s in. She looks down. Her parents made her stop school after three years.
“I cried and cried and cried forever,” she tells me in incredibly impressive English. “I love school and never want to quit.” But she did what was expected of her – pitching in to raise the family out of poverty by taking advantage of Myanmar’s exploding tourist industry.
I feel guilty and outraged all at once. Up until now, I confess that I’ve blamed religion for gender inequality in girls’ education around the globe. Religious extremism I should say – remember, I’m trying to practice moderation in my attitudes as well as appetite.
Up until meeting Ma Moo Ooh, I saw the issue of gender-based discrimination as epitomized by Malala Yousafzai. I’m reading her co-written memoir to give a talk about it back in Beaufort, South Carolina. The world will never forget her. She’s the Pakistani schoolgirl who won the latest Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012.
Perhaps because she has written this moving, triumphant memoir, her shooting and the reason for it (advocating for girls’ education) seemed singular to me – a horrific incident perpetrated by terrorists with religious fanaticism at their core.
I am in no way equating Ma Moo Ooh’s situation with Malala’s but what is dawning on me is that I can no longer compartmentalize the issue. It’s not just fanatics like the Pakistani Taliban or Boko Haram to blame but also a worldwide lack of commitment to girls like Ma Moo Ooh and Malala.
I’m not a mother. My outrage is not just because this is happening to little girls who could be our collected daughters. It’s is also rage for the consequences to their lives as women. Two-thirds of the world’s non-literate adults are women. Still. Today. Or at least as recently as 2012 when these results were reported to the United Nations’ Committee on Ending Discrimination against Women.
So if I’m trying to look beyond religious beliefs as the root of this inequality, why is it still happening? UNESCO experts and others who have written about the issue point out that it’s often about money. It’s the opportunity cost of a poor family losing someone to watch over younger siblings or contribute wages when their daughters go to school instead of staying at home. The neck rings that make Ma Moo Ooh feel beautiful and connected to her tribe are also economic shackles that feed her family.
I sit next to a little girl comparing our handwriting and trying not to cry for all the opportunities she will be denied. And now I understand the insistence of advocates ranging from South Africa’s Campaign for Education to the World Bank: insistence that governments have to bear the costs of educating boys and girls. Private donations and non-profits and singular efforts are not enough. Beyond building schools, governments have to make education truly free – no hidden costs for uniforms or textbooks. The United States subsidizes scores of other foreign aid projects – why not also the opportunity costs of daughters going to school instead of dropping out to become shepherds for the family’s animals or babysitters for the younger children?
It’s easy to think of this problem as too intractable to cure. But the uplifting part of all of this is that change is happening. It didn’t happen in time to save Malala from an assassination attempt. But if a girl with a bullet through her brain can still have faith then so can I. So can every other mother.
It’s not easy – one fifth of the world’s children aged 5-17 years are exploited by child labor, but even in Africa, where education disparity is proportionately among the worst in the word, the perception that it is more valuable to educate boys than girls is changing. The introduction of free primary education in Uganda, for example, caused total girls’ enrollments to rise from 63% to 83%, and enrollments of the poorest fifth of girls from 46% to 82%.
Stipend programs and conditional cash transfer programs have been employed in settings as diverse as Brazil, Yemen, Nepal, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar, Gambia and Kenya, and have succeeded in reducing girls’ drop-out rates and delaying early marriage.
But still, I can’t help thinking of how far we have to go. Some 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria last year are still missing and it feels like our country thinks that hashtag activism is the answer. Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls won’t save the next Malala.
And don’t forget the organization that has always considered education a human rights issue: Amnesty International.
If you’re passionate mostly about improving the situation in Pakistan, consider donating to the alliance formed by Oxfam, Plan Pakinstan, Care International: the Girls Education Alliance Pakistan.
But back to the Padaung women and girls in Myanmar. It’s time to get into my boat and head back to my hotel on Inle Lake. I will probably never see Ma Moo Ooh again but I will never forget her. I’m just about to close my little spiral notebook when she wants me to learn another phrase. I repeat it after her and when she is finally satisfied enough to stop giggling at my pronunciation, I write it down the way it sounds to me.
Ta-Lye-Bahn-Na. I do a double take. My phonetic spelling out of Ma Moo Ooh’s phrase looks like Taliban. She repeats the phrase. It is musical, as lovely as the expression on her face. “It means thank you, where I come from,” she tells me as she squeezes my hand goodbye.
Byrne’s daughter Jane was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina in the 1960s.
Byrne, then in her 50’s, taught modern dance to her daughter’s fellow Marines and their spouses and gradually became an other mother in Beaufort’s military community. She invited them over to her house for home-cooked meals and advice.
That kind of community support and othermothering is even more important today, when more female members of the armed services are on active duty deployments than ever before.
Turns out Byrne – like most other mothers – just intuitively knew what she was doing, according to Dr. Mark Pisano, a military school psychologist I interviewed. He told me:
“Deployments are really hard on military parents, especially single moms. Even though they are required to have a caregiving plan, when those orders come it is a real stressor. Other mothers can help by doing anything from babysitting, so that mom can have a pampered afternoon, to cooking a nice dinner.”
One of the first people to encourage me to write about Other Mothers was Pat Conroy. We all know the story of his abusive childhood, but what isn’t so well known is how he survived it: by finding gentle men and women to replace those who were brutal and broken.
One of the earliest women he unconsciously selected belonged to another teenager on the Beaufort High School baseball team. That boy dropped dead on the pitchers mound in a freak accident and Pat met Julia Randel at her son’s funeral.
He started checking in on her, and gradually she became the mother he wished Peg Conroy could have been. He told me he doesn’t think picking Julia Randel hurt his mother’s feelings one bit – she had six other children to manager.
When he introduced me to Julia, this is what he said: “Having Mrs. Randel treat me as one of her own allowed me to preserve my mother’s image. I needed her to be perfect even if I had to pretend.”
The funny part was watching Pat and his other mother in the same room – mercilessly teasing each other, trying to shock me with stories. And this other mother, Julia Randel told me “We raised him like one of our own. Clearly we didn’t do a very good job.”
Of course. I just happened to write about Other Mother’s because Byrne was a woman. But there have been meaningful, influencial male figures in my life other than my father. In fact one of the experts that I interviewed for the book is a professor out of the University of Wisconsin named Carl Hedman.
While his wife was getting her master’s in nursing in the 70s, their family lived in a multi-racial commune.
“ I don’t know why society is so locked into private attempts to be happy,” Hedman says. “Having other mothers to help raise our two sons was good for our marriage.”
Even the way he pronounces commune, more like the what-you-do-with-Mother-Nature verb than the wacko-hippy connotation, confirms what he sees as the benefit of othermothering. The Hedmans stuck with group housing even after their own boys were grown.
“It eased the empty nest syndrome. I could still be a father figure in everything from teaching little boys to ride bikes to helping one of them cope with the stress of getting through Yale.”
If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a Rememoir,” you already know what I got out of having Byrne Miller as my other mother. But the flip side is what the other mother gets out of the relationship.
Parents don’t get security from their kids. Caregiving, according to the Ericksonian theory, is the primary role in mid-life. But what about those of us who don’t have kids or whose children are older? We still have nurturing qualities that could come out in lots of other relationships.
Being an other mother is a healthy way to express that caregiving role. It can make you feel like you’ve contributed something incredibly important, perhaps the most important thing of all.
On a very personal side – I think othermothering can make us better mothers too. I really think it did with Byrne. Alison – her oldest biological daughter – suffered from schizophrenia.
Before Byrne started “collecting” daughters, she wanted so much to have Alison follow in her footsteps. To dance, to say the right things, meet the right people. But she was able to let Alison be the most independent person she could be because she could transfer some of those ambitions and expectations to “collected” daughters – like me.
She wasn’t a perfect mother — no woman is — and being an othermother gave her a do-over. It was her chance to apply the things she’d learned earlier in life and break out of the bounds she’d set for herself. Don’t we all owe ourselves a do-over once in a while?
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.