The Other Mother: a rememoir is one year old today! November 5th was the national release date and the start of a fabulous dance with readers. If I had to make a David Letterman-style “Top 10 list” of the first year of a book’s life it would look something like this:
#9 The pinch-myself moment when I saw it in the main Columbia library during the SC Book Fair – where I got to be on a memoir panel.
#8 Book signings galore — it turns out men love to buy the book for their wives, and women for their sisters, aunts and other mothers.
#7 A sold-out crowd at Litchfield Books’ Moveable Feast luncheon – where one woman told me she bought the book as a gift for her daughter, hoping she’d “get herself an other mother right quick!”
#6 A blog tour that introduced Byrne to dancers and readers around the country and got rave reviews you can check out on the “reviews” tab of my website.
# 5 An “Other Mother’s Day” PR campaign that introduced the book to newspaper readers in North Dakota, Utah, Ohio and Pennsylvania; morning talk radio listeners in New York and Providence and public radio fans in Berkeley, California.
#4 Hearing all the stories of how other mothers transform us at the fabulously elegant Other Mother Soiree’s hosted for the book in Beaufort, Charleston and Washington DC
#3 Signing 18 copies of the book for Pat Conroy to give as gifts to all the daughters and mothers in his life!
#2 Winning the Independent Book Publishers Association’s 2014 Benjamin Franklin Award for Best New Autobiography/Memoir in New York
#1 My favorite part — talking to bookclubs (including one in a yurt!) and hearing perspectives that always surprise and delight me!
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.”
Sorry diamonds, this girl has a new best friend: reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Truth be told, diamonds and I never have been well acquainted – but all that could change if I can amass enough “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” reviews before Christmas.
It’s a happy accident, really, that the book is out in time for men to impress their wives by tucking it under the Christmas tree – or more likely for women to wrap up for their mothers and other mothers. But the only way Byrne’s story spreads beyond this rarefied world of people who actually knew her is if enough readers leave reviews on those two particular sites: Amazon and Good Reads. Crazy but true — rankings and algorithms too complicated for my feeble brain depend on it. The new reality is that other than loyal local publications like Lowcountry Weekly, Beaufort Gazette and the Charleston City Paper – not many national book reviewers have a platform anymore.
Writers have spilled enough doom-and-gloom about this to keep barkeeps in tips for the next ten years, so I’m choosing to look on the bright side. The internet is full of talented bloggers who fight the good fight to keep books top of mind. The fact that there are fewer gate-keepers means we can all crash the gates! Every reader’s opinion matters on Amazon.com and GoodReads. In many ways it’s a more egalitarian world without the literary elite controlling which books are anointed and which pilloried. My friend and mentor, Pat Conroy, always says “The New York Times giveth, and the New York Times taketh away.” He finds most conventional reviews capricious and mean-spirited and vowed long ago never to accept offers to snarkily critique the work of fellow writers in national publications.
That said, he still writes his books long-hand – so his fabulous blurb on the cover of my book is not likely to end up as a review on Amazon.com no matter how much he loves “The Other Mother” (and he says he’s giving it away as Christmas presents so I know he really does) But miracles do happen, especially at Christmas, so in the spirit of information sharing I’ve made a how-to list to help those less internet savvy join in this modern word of mouth. (Conroy – I’m talking to you.)
To leave “The Other Mother” a review on Amazon (and you don’t have to have finished the book – even your initial thoughts count) just click on this link to my Amazon review page. If you want inspiration, just scroll down and check out the insights others have already left. Then just hit the Leave a Review button and start typing.
Once you register with GoodReads their review system work almost the same way. You start by going to my book page and give the book a “rating” – in stars – first. Find the stars by looking under the thumbnail picture of the bookcover and the green “READ” button. Then click on the underlined title of the book itself and it’ll take you through to another page where you scroll down to “My Reviews” and type whatever you’d like in the blank field. Just hit save and you’re done.
See? Easier than dressing up in a red velvet suit and playing Santa. May mistletoe dangle wherever you innocently hover.
I have my friend Scott Graber to thank for the fact that I can’t stop thinking about Africa these days. He’s gone and written a novel called “Ten Days in Brazzaville,” about a love affair in and with the Dark Continent. I spent part of my childhood in Africa. (Look for the kids with matching homemade brown slacks – the cute blonde with the purse is my little sister and the boy with the blue sweater is me –holding hands with my South African cousins.)
When Scott realized we shared a love of writing, and Africa, he invited me to join his writers group. Pat Conroy popped in once in a while, mostly to make sure that our fearless leader, Bernie Schein, wasn’t telling too many egregious lies in front of the only woman in the group: me.
It was in the early days of our critiques that Scott read the first chapter of what would become “Brazzaville.” There were do-nothing agents and publishing recessions in the intervening years, but he has overcome all obstacles and actually finished the thing. Which sounds even better on the page than it did in a room trying to ignore Bernie Schein’s infamous cackle. I say “sounds” because that is how I read Scott Graber – he writes with a voice entirely his own, so true to his storytelling self that his pages put you on a Lowcountry porch sharing a bottle of wine while a marvelous story unfolds.
And this particular story takes me back to the Africa of my childhood. I remember it most vividly in sounds. Coins jingling in the pockets of my indulgent grandfather – always enough for me and Jenny to buy some “sweeties.” The rap of rulers on school desks – giggling girls on one side of the classroom and bragging boys on the other. Waves crashing on beaches netted to keep the sharks away. Drums beating to pace the Zulu dancers I begged to watch perform every weekend in Durban. The thrill of it pounded through my veins, frightening and fascinating. I didn’t know that these real Africans had to show pass books to ride buses back to their settlements while I, an intruder from the United States, hopped from foot to foot and slung imaginary spears into the milky sky of innocence.
It was decades later, when I returned to visit my grandmother after grandpa died, that the sounds of my happy Africa connected with its discordant truth. I’ve struggled with my nostalgia, instituted my own guilt divestiture plan over the years. And when I turned the pages of Scott’s book, I realized I may have left Africa in my childhood but it has never left me.
I may never truly understand why I needed Byrne Miller as much as I did when I met her, in my early twenties. But I came a little closer when Pat Conroy told me the story of his re-parenting and the remarkable Julia Rendel.
Before he became a best-selling writer, Pat was a spectacularly unsuccessful teacher. He cared far too much, crossed way too many lines in the race-divided South. Readers of The Water Is Wide know of his ignominious firing from the one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island. Julia Randel’s husband worked for the Beaufort County school district. He was supposed to testify against Pat in the disciplinary hearing.
“Right up until the moment Ms. Randel told him he’d not have a bed to sleep in if he turned against their son,” Pat says. He uses air quotes around the word their, not son. She became a different kind of mother to him after her own son died, on the mound, playing ball with Pat. Her loyalty still amazes him. He laughs but there’s a hint of tears in his eyes as he tells the story. “She’s the kind of person you want to make proud. You’ll see when you meet her.”
And so, one sunny Beaufort Saturday afternoon, Pat drove me to meet his Byrne. Julia Randel’s front yard is big enough for sons to play baseball. She mows it herself, as if the boys might come back from Beaufort High School any minute, drinking CheerWine and munching on Moon Pies. The Buick she still drives squats squarely under the translucent shade of a green roofed carport. I never had the chance to meet Peg Conroy, but somehow I expect the woman who replaced her to be larger than life. She must surely be Southern through and through, able to hold the ends of a cast net in her teeth as she waits for shrimp to shimmy past the dock, able to make a husband be a man.
She is all that, in somewhere shy of ninety pounds. A hunched-over, candy-cane of a woman in a forest green sweater flings her arms wide open before she remembers the screen door is still between us. I am swamped with the sureness that if this frail woman could survive the death of her son and find the strength to mother others, there is a parallel planet of surrogate parents out there. She is the pardon awaiting those who fail: parents who aren’t supposed to exist but simply don’t know what to do with children. I don’t have any children of my own, but in the open arms of Julia Randel I see that I might be someone’s Byrne one day. I will watch for her, or him, listen for the pulses that ting against my emotional armor. It will be an honor.
Pat lets me have the first hug, explains that I’m a writer who once found the mother she needed in Beaufort. Ms. Randel apologizes for not having the groceries put up, as if we had made an appointment. He teases her mercilessly from that moment on, about her filthy pornography collection, her egregious gambling habit and foul-mouthed cussing. She laughs and swats at him through the air, her hand as delicate as bird bones.
“We raised him like one of our own,” she says. “Course we clearly didn’t do a very good job.”
Mine was not an abusive childhood but a smothered one. My younger brother was crushed under the wheels of the family truck – an accident that happened at home, in a split second, when my mother was watching my baby sister. He was almost four and I spent the next thirty years trying to replace him. I became whatever my father needed, even when it was a silent partner while he raged against the world that took my brother from him. I stopped being a kid when my brother died and took on the role of chief mediator between my parents and, when all else failed, distraction in the guise of “perfect” daughter. I found Byrne Miller when I got my first job in Beaufort, South Carolina and left my parent’s war zone for good. I slipped into Byrne’s life the very same year her youngest daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Now, nine years after her death, I am writing a book about our relationship from the very house we once, briefly, shared.
“You don’t see the irony in that?” Pat Conroy says. We are having lunch and discussing Byrne, and her similarity to the women who became his surrogate mothers. As I described in the last blog, Pat feels not a shred of guilt about re-parenting himself. He thinks the reason I do is because I haven’t come to grips with my mother and father, like he did when he spilled their secrets to the world.
“Byrne needed you as much as you needed her. That’s the survival instinct. It frustrates the hell out of parents like ours when their children figure out how to get what they need.”
We deserved each other, not that I was the only member of her created family. I have dozens of brothers and sisters by Byrne, not birth, most of them former members of her modern dance company or students who grew up but never outgrew Byrne. We count among our clan Navajo tribal elders, DC lawyers, motion picture set designers and Lowcountry oystermen. One day Byrne decided we should all meet. It was the occasion of her 87th birthday.
“I’ve lived in so many places, and gotten into so many projects, that most of my “children” do not know one another,” her invitation letter began. “I’d like to have one great party together while I still have all my marbles.”
The fact that everyone came to her bidding and slipped into the supple moves of kindred spirits was vindication of her philosophy.
“I am so thrilled,” she toasted the gathering on the bluff outside her marsh front home. “I have chosen each and every one of you and I stand before collective proof of my utter brilliance.”
I have my own tradition now. On the anniversary of her birth, convinced she is listening in, I invite my sisters and brothers by Byrne over to the house to raise a glass of champagne. We toast to her utter brilliance.
Summer is when I miss Byrne Miller the most. Maybe it’s the flowing clothes that catch the breeze, or the near nakedness of swimming in the creek outside her house. It’s the season for abandoning pretensions and inhibitions and the heavy, sticky heat of it reminds me of the woman who freed me. Until I met her, I was a little ball of guilt, trying to fix or placate my far-from-perfect parents. She was already in her 80s and had given up on that foolishness since before I was born.
“Blood relatives are simply people you were born with,” she always said. “Not necessarily people you should stick with. If they can’t make you happy, or vice versa, then I say choose your own family. It works for me.”
I was one of the daughters she chose. She showed me I didn’t have to grow into my genes, that I could pick and chose the traits I would preserve. There’s a bit of armchair psychology in all of this, I realize in looking back. “When the student is ready the teacher shall come” is only a cliché because it is so easy to confirm. My parents are grown-up runaways, suspicious of anything resembling roots or connections. There is nothing I crave more. I plant myself wherever I am and let rhizomes slither out, unseen, below my feet. In the sandy soil of Beaufort, South Carolina they touched something solid and I grafted onto it. Byrne taught me in ways my mother never could – without any genetic responsibility to steer me away from harm. I wasn’t so much a blank slate as photosensitive film. Just by exposing me to other worlds — her worlds of modern dance, writing, radical pacifism — she transformed me.
Children are instinctively aware of the nuances of family biology, how traps are set and reactions triggered. Expectations between parent and child are muscle memories, best unquestioned. Not so with parents we hand select. They have the capacity to catalyze thoughts, challenge assumptions. It can be uncomfortable, this process of discovery. And so writers, who like to pick at scabs, write about it. It doesn’t have to bleed through in memoir form, like it does in my Byrne Miller story. Novelists work it into the characters they imagine.
I have long suspected that writers re-parent themselves, that perhaps even the act of writing is part of the process. I don’t mean the old-school, Transactional Analysis spin on re-parenting. I have no desire to imagine my favorite writers sitting on the knees of their psychoanalysts, calling them daddy. Nor do I mean the Self-Help version of re-parenting: the mantra that we had no control over the stability of our parents but we can give our inner child the love they never gave us. I don’t know if it’s positive, regressive, dissociative or pathological. I have simply observed that writers latch on to people who are the polar opposites of their actual parents and never let them go.
Pat Conroy, the writer who adopted Beaufort as his home town when he arrived here as a military brat, finds delightful coincidence in the way my re-parenting began – with Byrne Miller. The story of his abusive childhood is known to every fan of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. What isn’t as 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 pitcher’s mound, 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. I asked him about it over lunch not long ago, as part of an interview about re-parenting for an essay I’m working on. He told me he doesn’t believe his picking Julia Randel hurt his mother’s feelings one bit; she had six other children to manage.
“Having Mrs. Randel treat me as one of her own allowed me to preserve my mother’s image. I needed her to be perfect. If I had to accept that my mother was as much of a jerk as my father was, I’d have killed myself. It’d have been too much.”
Pat’s upbringing, if you can call it that, is a horror I recognize only in the way he coped. He navigated by the radar of need, pulsing out invisible signals to almost every sane adult who crossed his path and listening for the echo. His clinging to all these surrogate parents is how I know the truth in what he writes, even though I’ve never been beaten, berated or otherwise brutalized. Re-parenting is the echo-location of acceptance, the chance to reinvent your personal narrative. Surrogate mothers and fathers don’t trade in the currencies of your failures, counting the ways you don’t measure up to genetic code. In your admiration of them they see promise more often than problems.
To find these parental replacements it helps to be socially awkward, more comfortable with elders than peers. Being a loner is a plus since revisionist history is a singular endeavor. Developing a sixth sense for loneliness will get you through doors closed to the over-confident or prematurely successful. Writers tend to notice tender interpersonal details like genuine interest or curiosity without judgment. Re-parenting yourself is surprisingly non-exclusive. You could be the child of wanderers, over-procreators, under-nurturers or simply selfish breeders. Re-parenting is not restricted to children of awful parents. It is a dance anyone can learn. Julia Randel taught the steps to Pat Conroy just as gracefully as Byrne Miller showed them to me.