Thirty minutes into the line for Voodoo Donuts, it occurred to me that the Portland I grew up in wasn’t nearly as edgy, earthy or hipster as it is today. I texted my sister, who also grew up in the Rose City and then lived most of her adult life on the East Coast.
“Why wasn’t Portland cool when we were growing up?” I asked.
My attention wandered as I waited for her reply. A witty Millennial functioning as line motivator/donut huckster was describing how one uses the pretzel extruding from the trademark voodoo doll-shaped donuts to stab its belly until raspberry goo oozes forth, ensuring a tasty curse.
“Because we lived there,” my sister texted back. Touché. A response worthy of an ad-libbed line from the fame-inducing series Portlandia.
She’s right, of course. But when I was in high school the town was still in the awkward, pre-pubescent stage long before its voice dropped to sexy. Nobody bragged about being from Portland, except maybe Tonya Harding before she reached for her tire iron.
It still rained, but no Grimm TV series had turned the slick street gloom into glam. Athleta and Lululemon hadn’t yet invented attractive outdoor fitness fashion so our galoshes and parkas made us look like lumpy fourth-graders.
Men still wore flannel shirts and sported beefy beards. But those men were your dads. Not confident Lumbersexuals effortlessly lifting their mountain bikes onto electric street trams.
People were still glow-in-the-dark pale when I lived in Portland. But back then Goth wasn’t in and we were embarrassed by our ethereal skin tones. The joke was Portlanders didn’t tan; they rusted.
We still had coffee and beer but they came from jars of Folgers in your mom’s kitchen and from cartons at the back of gas station convenience stores.
The Portland of today is Darwinian in its greatness. People like me and my sister left and only the hippest have survived. There is evidence everywhere that Portlandia has captured the zeitgeist of a new culture.
If you eat out in Portland you will be told the birthplace of every ingredient. On my Saturday morning hike through one of Portland’s forests I passed ferns and wild orchids whose cousins I ate the night before.
When I stopped to see what the asking price was on this cute little cottage in the Northwest quadrant I realized the owner wasn’t displaying real estate brochures but poetry.
Look closely at this mom’s stroller. It’s attached to a skateboard. I looked around, expecting to see Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen.
In this hometown I barely recognize I’m not sure if life is imitating art or the other way around. If anything, Portlandia overemphasizes the “keep Portland weird” vibe and underplays the city’s friendly sophistication.
We were there, for example, for a major fine-art photography portfolio review and month-long celebration of the art form called Photo Lucida. In my day, a photo exhibit in Portland meant landscapes of neighboring Mount Hood printed on canvas. But so many in-the-know Portlanders turned out for the night the photo review was open to the public that the fire marshal had to shut down the Portland Art Museum.
I live in the South now, a region heralded for its hospitality. But it was in Portland that a parking lot attendant saw me wadding the wrapper from my messy, trendy food cart lunch into my backpack and abandoned drivers to show me the nearest garbage can. Then he ducked into his little key shed and reappeared with a roll of paper towels and hand sanitizer.
I knew I was developing a major crush on my new old hometown when I finally reached the end of the line at Voodoo Donuts. The sweet yeasty smell from my freshly baked, over-frosted voodoo doll wafted up to my cold red nose and I must have swooned. I suddenly couldn’t think of anyone to curse. I was so put-a-bird-on-it, tree hugging, never-shaving again happy that I forgot why I was holding the tiny stabbing pretzel in my fist.
Luckily my aunt Ronell, an old-fashioned kind of Oregonian who still drinks beer out of a can and thinks skateboards are for little kids, was by my side. She put down her traditional maple bar and whispered a name into my ear. It was just the spell-breaker I needed and I plunged the pretzel into the jelly-filled belly of the innocent donut. My sister was right. I’m not chill enough to be born-again Portlander yet.
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.
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!
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.
Earlier this month, the Wall St. Journal had an article about baby boomers impatient to become grandparents. The irony, the article pointed out, was they themselves were the first generation to delay getting married and having kids. And now their grown children are waiting even longer – putting off motherhood until they’ve earned advanced degrees or the right work/life balance.
I call it the Granny Gap – it’s been something I’ve thought about since I started writing “The Other Mother: a rememoir”
I’m lucky enough to have a younger sister who had kids relatively young and took the heat off of me. I’m also lucky enough to have been both othermother and mothered and I contend it could be a practical solution for would-be moms and grandmothers to bide their time.
The average American woman today waits four years longer to have her first child than her own mother did. Other than celebrities and trailblazing women having their first babies when they’re 45 or older, the overall U.S. birthrate has been on a steady decline since 2007. The average age a woman in the U.K starts a family is 30. They’re so freaked out by this across the pond that a pregnancy testing company runs ads of a photo-shopped, grey-haired hag in a Demi-Moore, bare belly pose to scare women into reproducing earlier. The June 28th, 2013 edition of the Daily Mail informed readers that women with university degrees are bulging the belly curve even later by waiting until they turn 35 to make babies. The horror!
“If the phenomenon continues for another generation,” the article contends, “it means some grandparents will have to wait an extra 20 years, until the age of 70, to have their first grandchild.”
Let me clear my throat. If there is indeed an impending granny gap, othermothing is a low-tech way for women on both ends of it to meet their nurturing needs. Not to mention the chief beneficiaries of multiple mothers providing emotional support: the children both mothers and grandmothers cherish.
This May 11th marks the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day in the United States, a holiday responsible for $16 billion dollars worth of flowers, chocolate, spa treatments and restaurant dinners spent on moms each year by grateful children.
But the woman who started the holiday a century ago, Anna Jarvis, had no children of her own, making her what I consider the quintessential other mother.
I wrote in “The Other Mother: a rememoir” that I couldn’t have pinpointed the exact time when Byrne became my other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. You just know what an other mother is when you’re lucky enough have one. She’s that special aunt, coach or older friend who doesn’t have any genetic ties so you can talk to her about things you’d never tell the woman who changed your diapers.
All I know for sure is that the term other-mothering dates back long my book or Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day campaign.
“You have to remember nuclear families are pretty new in all of human history,” says Dr. Hedman, professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin. “We can’t be everything to everyone. Having other mothers helps relieve the tension and make parents happier.”
I think he’s onto something. I met my other mother when I was 22 and she was 82. My biological mother lived across the continent and was grateful that another wise, caring woman was there to offer me advice and love.
She’s be the first one to agree with the opening of the flap copy of my book: “Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we were meant to be.”
I remember every Mother’s Day I spent with my other mother. The florist in Beaufort, South Carolina – Bitty’s Flowers — could barely keep up with bouquets for Byrne Miller. They came from her collected children around the country: proof of how we all need and cherish the love of other mothers.
I remember when sassy was a bad word, as in “don’t you sass me young lady, I’m your mother.” It was only as an adult that “sassy” became a positive label – overused and cliché when used to describe Southern women – but still largely self-applied in a you-go-girl kind of way.
So when I heard of Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban the word bossy I was conflicted. I agree with the premise of her much denounced book – I’m not happy unless I’m leaning in. Any former almost-Olympian knows that lean in is a synonym for compete. With all you’ve got.
So I wanted to get on board with Sandberg’s clever, intentionally oversimplified plot to encourage young girls to lead. As the ban bossy website points out, between elementary and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys and they’re less likely to want to lead, even as adults. Ban Bossy is an ingenious PR campaign that keeps Sandberg’s feminist platform in the limelight and brings an important issue some warranted attention.
But I’m also a writer. We celebrate words, particularly those rich in nuance and connotation. Banning a word is as knee-jerk unthinkable to writers as burning a book. And I’m terrible at keeping up with political correctness. My nieces had to remind me for years that “stupid” is on the does-not-fly-anymore list. I get that kids can be cruel and hearing a bratty sub-teen turn the word stupid into a sibilant, drawn out insult makes me cringe. But so does substituting “ill-conceived” or “misguided” when I find myself describing things that are just plain stupid.
I was still trying to find my inner Beyoncé or Jane Lynch (check out their video supporting the bossy ban) when I happened to meet two Thunderbirds at an airshow in Florida this weekend. Major Caroline Jensen is the fourth female pilot to fly with the Air Force’s premier flight team. And Tech Sgt Amanda Geray is the first female line chief in the team’s 61-year history.
Perhaps it was because we were at an official reception and they were in full Air Force role model mode but neither of these two accomplished young women had heard of the Ban Bossy campaign.
“Ban the actual word bossy?” 30-year-old Geray asked. “You’ve go to be kidding. I am the boss. Just ask any of the mechanics on my line.” Maybe it’s because she was born and raised in North Pole, Alaska (for real, check out her bio) but Geray is utterly confident that her skills prove her equality. She’s proud to have been the girl in high school shop class, the girl who fixed cars, the girl who could hold her own.
Pilot Jensen had to think about it for a second. “The thing is, I’ve worked my whole life to be the boss. I love being called bossy. It’s how I got here. I wouldn’t want to be called anything else.”
That’s when it hit me. I’m no gender-barrier-breaking Thunderbird but I do direct mostly-male film crews. In corporate shoots overseas, I’ve been ignored by grips and gaffers who assumed that my husband was the boss. And I’ve enjoyed setting them straight – I’m not going to lie. When a crew in Latin American bought me a baseball cap that said “Director” – just so it was clear they knew who the jefé was – I laughed and said I wanted one that said “Dictator.” Just ask my younger sister. Deep down I’m bossy and proud of it.
What I realized when I heard the Thunderbirds say the same thing, in their own way, is that when you own a word, even celebrate it, you erase any derogatory intent. Sassy, Gay, Feminist, Bossy whatever – if you appropriate the label you define it for yourself. Girls don’t need to be protected from words that might hurt their feelings. They need bossy role models and bigger dictionaries.