A Village of Other Mothers

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If Byrne had been a psychotherapist in the 1980s she might have been accused of re-parenting me. If I’d met her when I was still competing she’d have been called some sort of life coach. If she had been a journalist or writer she might have been labeled  a mentor. But none of these definitions describe the role she played in my life, or the role I believe many “Other Mothers” play in the emotional development of women.


I do not claim first dibs on the term othermothering. In the state where I now live it goes back to when slave mothers were sold off the plantation and other women took over the caregiving of the babies forced to stay behind. Anthropologists call these substitute mothers “Fictive Kin” and in her book “Black Women and Motherhood,” University of Maryland professor Patricia Hill Collins says “the tradition of othermothering constitutes a challenge to the notion that children are the private property of parents.”

It’s no coincidence that the pop-culture expression “it takes a village to raise a child” stems from African parenting traditions, according to philosophy professor emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Dr. Carl Hedman. “We only hear about the negative stereotypes in the black family but in this sense they’re way out ahead.”

He should know. 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.”

Family Drawing 2012 copy

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.”

Perhaps the same forces were at work when Byrne Miller added me to her collection of daughters.

Me with several of my "sisters by Byrne"
Me with several of my “sisters by Byrne”

On affairs and jealousy

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To defying jealousy!

 Some of you have asked about one of the quotes I feature on the “Womenisms” home page.  It’s understandable. Not every octogenarian offers advice like this to her adopted daughters: “…have at least one affair. It builds confidence.” Especially when that octogenarian was married to the love of her life, Duncan Miller, for almost sixty passionate years. 

          I’ve learned, in the process of writing the memoir, that Byrne’s advice wasn’t literal. Our relationship never was. If I eventually got around to hinting at a moral dilemma I was facing, it wasn’t her style to launch into pronouncements or directives. She just told stories about her own life, and if I paid close enough attention, I found the link myself and figured out what to do. That’s why I call it re-parenting – it was nothing like how actual parents react.  

          In my twenties, I went through what I now recognize as a decade of hyper-drama – when every man HAD to be THE one or I would make him so. Which mostly led to incredible bouts of jealousy when I figured out they weren’t. The only clue I had that Byrne did not approve of the men I dated was her never calling them by their given names. Junior became “that junior person,” a quirky cameraman the “million-year-old-man,” an athletic kayaker “Neptune” and a sexy guitarist “The Rolling Stone.” 

          As I grew closer to Byrne, I slipped bits of my personal relationship problems into discussions on the porch, over a glass of wine. She always listened, and then launched into stories from her own life. The one I remember the most was how her husband, Duncan, was mobbed by beautiful models. He was one of Advertising’s early, brilliant, “Mad Men” and she was the tall and gangly mother of his two children. One model was particularly persistent, and early in their marriage, Duncan seemed to be wavering. 

          “She was so beautiful and so insistent,” Byrne described her. “Duncan was always speaking of her. ‘She’ thought this. ‘She’ mentioned that.” 

          I smiled at Byrne’s studious avoidance of the woman’s name.  “I didn’t mind the she-part, it was when ‘she’ was replaced by ‘we’ that I knew I had to do something,” she said. 

          That something amazed me. Byrne invited the woman to dinner, every night, just the three of them in their tiny Manhattan apartment. Within a week, the model’s beauty paled in comparison to her obsequiousness and Duncan begged to be rid of her. Jealousy was a waste of time, Byrne implied, and the implication was that if I was clever I could make any man see that. 

          The trouble came when I tried. I was living with an abusive man, consumed by jealousy of my TV reporting career and almost any man I interviewed. The police chief. The town judge. It didn’t matter. So after Byrne told me the model story, I decided to turn the tables in my life. I invited my boyfriend with me, to a trial, so that he could see that the judge and the police chief were just doing their jobs. Not flirting with me. But he interpreted my first-name-basis familiarity, and the good-ol-boy comradery they extended to me, as nothing short of an existential threat. A few days later, he drove our truck into a Live Oak. With me in the passenger seat. I’m convinced the only reason he braked, at the last minute, was to save the life of my dog, Wipeout. 

          At first I was furious with Byrne. Her advice hadn’t worked. But it was unfair fair to burst into Byrne’s world and call it a lie. Or tell her when I tried to be like her I almost ended wrapped around a tree.  She didn’t know the real reason I spent more waking hours with her than I did with Junior.  I hadn’t come right out and asked her for advice on how to handle his anger or his jealousy. The story she told about the woman in Manhattan belonged to another time, another kind of love. It wasn’t mine to copy. 

          I had to learn to love Byrne’s stories for what they meant to her, for how they let her glide over pain and disappointment with such grace and style. Stories like Duncan the brilliant writer. Duncan the devoted husband. Duncan who would never leave her. The truth might well be darker, the whole Duncan less triumphant than the parts. Behind all the confidence and charisma Byrne presented to her audiences, me included, off stage she was a woman, in her eighties, who didn’t want to be alone.  The love she treasured was dying a little every day and I resolved not to be the one to take its comfort from her.

Mothers of a different kind

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          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.”

The brilliance of re-parenting

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          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.

The Re-parenting Dance

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          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.

Eiko+Koma are Byrne’s children too

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Eiko+Koma with Byrne in 1995


          Not all of Byrne Miller’s “adopted” children are as famous as the legendary modern dancers Eiko+Koma, but she made each and every one of us feel utterly treasured.   For almost a century she created this family and filled it with students and friends – starting with her husband. Duncan Miller was estranged from his own parents – some deep dark secret that she said he never shared with her and she never pried. She just simply offered him her love, and set about creating a new life with him. 

          I’ll never forget the moment I realized I was joining this celebrated circle, the moment when my re-parenting began. It was after the Martha Graham master class I wrote about in an earlier blog. I was waiting outside the Silver Slipper for a ride home with a woman I met in class, Lillian. She would become my first sister-by-Byrne. 

          “I’m one of her adopted daughters,” Lillian said. “We’re scattered around the world, wherever she’s danced.” 

           I didn’t have to ask what Lillian meant by adopted 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. 

          Of course I knew her love for me was not exclusive. But a little part of me didn’t accept it, until the night Mark Dendy performed for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre, in Beaufort, South Carolina. After the performance,  Byrne introduced Dendy to the astounded audience as if he was her own invention and then reclined in a chair that stage hands whisked in from the wings. The audience asked the questions Dendy heard everywhere he performed. How long do the dancers have to practice each day? What qualities does you look for in a dancer? Where will you be going next

           He was charming and deferential, yet every answer paid homage to the woman who had brought him here. 

          “You all have no idea how lucky you are,” he said. “Or should I say how lucky ya’ll are?” There was laughter and a murmur of agreement. “Byrne Miller isn’t just the Grande Dame of modern dance. She’s its Johnny Appleseed as well. Performances like this would not be possible without her vision and determination.” 

          By then the other dancers had gathered on the stage, after changing into street clothes. Each of them brought a flower to present to Byrne. They leaned over Byrne’s chair, offering first one cheek then the other for her kiss. She was clearly accustomed to such admiration yet received each dancer as though they were the last that she might ever meet. 

          A pang of jealousy stabbed through me. I recognized the way she scanned their faces, moving her head in an orbit of observation so that her damaged eyes could draw wholeness from periphery. She was adopting every one of them as she had adopted me.