As a brand new published author, I still pinch myself when I’m invited to book club meetings where the members are discussing the book I wrote. Each time it’s a thrill but the setting for such rewarding encounters will never be more exotic than this yurt.
That’s right: a yurt. As in, wall-to-wall luxurious Persian rugs and velvety soft pillows. My camera lens wasn’t wide enough to capture all the women who fit inside but they included the leaders of practically every important committee, museum and social organization in Beaufort, South Carolina. This particular yurt is hidden inside the home of a member of the Peggy Verity book club. If I had to invent a backdrop where the spirit of Byrne Miller would infuse a discussion about her storied life, this would be it. Just stepping inside the yurt reminded me of the night when Byrne taught belly dancing at a bridal shower for one of her collected daughters.
So it wasn’t surprising that, sheltered in such dramatic romance, a dozen denizens of Beaufort society freely discussed everything from open marriages to what, officially, counts as crazy. Some of these worldly women studied modern dance in college, back in the 60s, and nothing about Byrne was as shocking to them as their distinguished public personas might lead you to presume.
I was brought to the yurt by a woman I’d only recently met at an Other Mother Soiree. But when it was Katherine Lang’s turn to pick a book for her regular monthly book club she chose the story of how a complete stranger showed me the person I was supposed to be. The book club in a yurt brought it full circle: me sharing a deeply personal, even intimate story with a group of women who until that moment had been strangers. Many of them had known of the fierce, strong-willed woman who planted the seed of modern dance in the Deep South through the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. But even those who had been season-ticket holders hadn’t known the full story of the woman behind the brave front: the Byrne Miller who did it all while caring for two family members battling schizophrenia.
I think that’s why the book speaks to so many different types of readers. We all fight internal battles invisible to the outside world and it’s a tightrope act to know when to inquire or intervene. Even though I’ve now made my story public, it was still easier for the women in the yurt to ask me about Byrne’s secret battles than my own.
An equal and opposite experience came four days later when my own book club – The Mockingbirds – devoted its monthly meeting to “The Other Mother.” We are a much smaller harem, only a half-dozen women, and I’ve known some of them for ages. The scholarly reader perched above my right shoulder, Lolita Huckabee, even appeared in an earlier draft of the book. (The story didn’t make it through the final revisions, but Lolita and I, long before we met the men we love today, started a man-hater’s club in Beaufort. Judge Ned Tupper was an honorary member.)
So it came as a surprise that Lolita was worried, when the book first came out, that I had shared so much of my personal history with domestic abuse. She’s a book guru and knows that the criteria for publishable memoir is go deep or go home. But Lolita is an other mother to every reporter who has ever passed through Beaufort and feels particularly protective of me – the reporter who came back to make this place home. That friends like Lolita care so much is one reason I did.
Most of the Mockingbirds arrived in Beaufort after Byrne’s time, so they were more interested in my story than hers. Their questions were clearly attempts to reconcile the friend they know in real life and the young woman who narrates the book. I’ve tried to prepare friends for reading “The Other Mother.” I’m not a particularly private person and I like to think I’m a good listener. But even if they’ve heard some of the same stories over glasses of wine on my back porch, it’s startling and disconcerting to read them on the printed page. I tell them to pretend it’s not me, that it’s a story about some other woman who just happens to have the same name.
The beautiful thing is that they can. Not because my hair was dyed blonde back then but because the TV reporter in the story is both me and not me. Identity never stands still, and women are necessary experts in reinvention. If we weren’t, we’d never be wives, or mothers or other mothers. The toughest part of my story is communal and shared, known in the way women have always known the truth. I can’t keep count of the number of women who linger at book signings, a little squeeze of the hand telling me that they too, have been there.
If I could reinvent myself one more time, my new career would be human cheat sheet. I would gladly travel to any yurt in the world to meet with book clubs reading “The Other Mother.” I may have written the discussion guide questions but I’m still discovering the answers.
A quick note to thank all the blog readers – your comments and suggestions have led me to the discovery of another Sister-by-Byrne. I finally got to meet Betty Commanday in person at a cocktail party Saturday night in Beaufort.
It never ceases to amaze me how Byrne touched so many lives, and in such different ways. Betty met Byrne in the 70s when Byrne was teaching in Beaufort County schools and Betty worked in mental health. When Betty went on to get degrees in education, she realized Byrne’s methods of teaching exceptional children were years ahead of her time. As a dancer Byrne knew, intuitively, what would later by studied and proved by developmental experts – that kids with challenges learn better when they’re in tune with their inner creativity and physicality. It sounds so obvious now, but that’s only because trailblazers put the word out with such passion and dedication.
It got me thinking about how I met Byrne – and how she moved me. It was twenty years ago, when I was a cub reporter for WJWJ-TV. She was one of the first people my boss, Suzanne Larson, assigned me to interview. I had just moved here, from out West, determined to leap from this very small pond to a much bigger TV market as quickly as humanly possible. In a tone of voice I’m quite sure was the verbal equivalent of rolling my eyes, I asked Suzanne, “Well, what’s the news hook?”
I recognized Byrne Miller’s name. A banner advertising an upcoming presentation of the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre was strung between the Live Oaks at the corner of Ribaut and Bay. And I imagined a never-ending dance recital, replete with chubby Southern daughters in fluffy tutus. Suzanne saw right through me.
“Well, she’s a dancer so I think you’ll enjoy meeting her.” Clearly I had a thing or two to learn about graciousness. “And Byrne is a respected member of the Beaufort community despite being a Yankee. That alone is newsworthy.”
Little did I know that meeting this woman would change my life, and my outlook on life. Or that years after leaving television, I would be writing a memoir about Byrne Miller and be lucky enough to consider Suzanne one of my many sisters-by-Byrne, if not by birth.