surrogate family

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.