Teresa Bruce

My Portlandia Pilgrimage

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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.

images-1It 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.

The geek selfie -- me with the about-to-be-replaced carpet at PDX
The geek selfie — me with the about-to-be-replaced carpet at PDX

The Bookclub Reveal that Floored Me

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Meet the ladies of Ex Libris
Meet the ladies of Ex Libris

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.


Thats Deborah, second row, second from the right
Thats Deborah, second row, second from the right

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!


Deborah's costume designs for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre
Deborah’s costume designs for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre


Byrne at the wedding of two of her collected children in 1990
Byrne at the wedding of two of her collected children in 1990

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.

Duncan, in rehearsal
Duncan, in rehearsal

“He was always there, in his little leotards,” she said. “He absolutely adored dance and had this delightful giggle I’ll never forget.”


The joyous, ebullient Byrne
The joyous, ebullient Byrne



Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library


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.


Byrne and Duncan Miller
Byrne and Duncan Miller

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.

Me with Deborah, a sister-by-Byrne I never knew I had.
Me with Deborah, a sister-by-Byrne I never knew I had.

The Other Mother’s First Birthday!

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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:

#10 The thrill of seeing my baby in the window of my hometown bookstore

#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.


SC Bookfest
SC Bookfest

#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

The Mockingbirds: Lolita, Louise, Margaret, Bonnie and Maura


#1 My favorite part — talking to bookclubs (including one in a yurt!) and hearing perspectives that always surprise and delight me!


The other mother I didn’t recognize

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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.

tart womenism tb

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.

Fanny Miller - photograph courtesy of the Beaufort County Library Special District Collection
Fanny Miller – photograph courtesy of the Beaufort County Library Special District Collection

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?

Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library

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.

My inheritance, from my Other Mother and her mother
My inheritance, from my Other Mother and her mother

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.



The Granny Gap

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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.


The Original Other Mother

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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.

byrne's toast







Own Bossy – don’t ban it

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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.

Maj. Carolina Jensen
Maj. Caroline Jensen


Tech. Sgt. Amanda Geray
Tech. Sgt. Amanda Geray











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.





Listen To Your Mother

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If you had to fill out an application for motherhood – like it was a job that paid an appropriate salary – I doubt Byrne Miller would have made it to the interview stage. She was more tart than apple-pie – under previous employment she would have listed burlesque dancer on Vaudeville. In fact, in just about every category associated with motherhood, she would have defiantly checked “other.”

tart womenism tb

So it makes sense that she became the “other mother” to hundreds of dancers, students and reporters around the world she called her “collected children.” One of them was me. I didn’t set out to find an other mother and never dreamed I’d write a memoir of our relationship.  I didn’t even realize that I had a mother other than the one who gave birth to me until Byrne Miller was in the emergency room with a life-threatening blood clot. She was an 82-year-old widow and I was a 22-year-old reporter in Beaufort, South Carolina.

“Are you family?” a doctor asked me, flipping through a chart when I arrived. “Yes,” I answered, without hesitation, and in that moment I knew that I had made a choice. Somewhere in the years of knowing Byrne, she had become my other mother, fearless and larger than life. I couldn’t have explained to the doctor or anyone when or how it happened any more than I could pinpoint the first time I became aware of my own name.

The amazing thing to me is that Byrne found it in her heart to be an Other Mother in the first place. Motherhood – the traditional kind — hadn’t exactly been easy for her.  Her daughter Alison was only four when Byrne realized that she heard voices. Not the harmless, “good imagination” kind. But the kind that makes a little girl hold her hands over her ears and beg her mommy to make them go away. It was 1943.

The word schizophrenia comes from the Greeks,” the doctors explained. “Phrenia meaning brain. Splitting of the brain. Most likely inherited from a schizophrenogenic mother.” Byrne watched as her little girl was strapped to a gurney, two metal plates pressed on either side of her shaved head. “Electroconvulsive therapy,”  Bellevue hospital called it, but Byrne knew it as shock treatment.

“She won’t remember anything,” the doctors assured Byrne. She wasn’t allowed to watch the treatment; bone fractures often resulted from  violent spasms thrashing through little bodies. Byrne didn’t need to watch. Her own muscles trembled and contracted, twitching with the guilt and rage of a blamed mother. Alison emerged a shaken, vague, disoriented girl and Byrne a woman who felt she had betrayed her child.  

Eventually, the doctors recommended institutionalization. They were asking her to relinquish motherhood itself and Byrne Miller refused.

Back cover of "The Other Mother: a rememoir" courtesy of Beaufort County Library
Back cover of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” courtesy of Beaufort County Library

 Byrne swept back into Bellevue with a dancer’s walk led from angry hips. “Speak again of taking my child away from me,” she threatened, a cobra about to strike, “and I will attach these wires to your testicles.”

So what did this fiercest of all mothers do instead? She gave up her dance career and moved the family to an isolated farmstead in Connecticut, where she and Duncan transformed a tree house into a bedroom for the girls. It was going great, until Alison told her mother that she danced with the tree.

A dancing tree resurrected images of gurneys, head braces and wires that bucked and thrashed through her conscience. It portended relapse, the undoing of a glued-together mind that might not quite have dried. “Why don’t I sleep up here with you tonight?” Byrne asked, cloaking her worry.

Byrne stretched out, face up, atop the coiled rag rug and adjusted her pelvis so that the small of her back was supported. She unfurled her fists so that every bone in her hands made contact.

“It is like dancing,” she muttered as the wind through the tree made barely perceptible adjustments to her position. What had seemed delusional was instead a revelation. Alison had found a partner her mother simply hadn’t seen.

 photograph by Gary Geboy
photograph by Gary Geboy

Byrne never did “cure” her daughter. But Alison lived into her 70s, independently, in part because Byrne found a way to let go: othermotherhood. She didn’t define herself by Alison’s successes or failures and Alison was free to choreograph the steps of her own life.

It was just as freeing for me.  Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to show us who we are meant to be. Byrne Miller had no vested interest in my identity so she saw right through me, to me.  Someday I will pay it forward and become someone’s cherished other mother. There is no biological clock for othermotherhood and I won’t need to fill out an application.  I already know what it will feel like.

Byrne was certain that the sun could never cast another shadow. She had swallowed it whole.

Time Travel with Beaufort Rotarians and Byrne Miller

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Photo courtesy Wayne Heath
Photo courtesy Wayne Heath

I just had the privilege of speaking about my new memoir to the oldest group of Rotarians in Beaufort SC. I say oldest not because of the age of its members, but because it was chartered in 1934.  And some things really do get better with age.

I used to love covering the Beaufort Rotary Club luncheons when I was a young reporter at WJWJ-TV.  The ‘90s were the beginning of a pesky objectivity phase in journalism when it became unprofessional to accept donations of any kind from an organization you were filming. But I made all of $16,000 a year back then and the Rotarians always insisted on feeding me lunch before I set up my Beta camera.

We reporters actually argued over who would get to cover luncheon addresses whenever the speakers were remotely newsworthy. If the Sheriff was speaking, we could always corner him afterword and get a soundbite about some ongoing investigation. If it was a county councilman at the podium, there was always some legislation he was pushing that became a news story that day.

t278 copy

The problem was the visual. Back when I was covering the Beaufort Rotary Club, it met in a hotel banquet room that would have taken more lights than WJWJ owned to not look as though I was shooting in a cave. So I’d grab my muddy-looking interviews and hope that back at the station I could find some file footage to cover up the voice-over. The infamous WJWJ archives even made their way into my book “The Other Mother: a rememoir.”

Recycled, three-quarter inch tapes lined the entire back wall of the WJWJ newsroom in a floor-to-ceiling shelving system that housed the television station’s file footage. It fell to an assortment of unpaid, questionably motivated interns each year to alphabetize the index card database. Even after six years of working at the station I couldn’t intuit the way the mind of a Beaufort High School senior worked. Footage of accidents might be listed under “Ax” instead of “Acc.” Coverage of airshows for the Beaufort Marine Corps Airstation could be filed under “P” for planes, “F” for fightertown or “J” for jarheads. — from “The Other Mother: a rememoir” Joggling Board Press 2013

Fast forward twenty years and I was the one behind the microphone, speaking to the Beaufort Rotary Club, and no reporter was in sight. Like the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre, the local media in Beaufort has all but disappeared. But what hasn’t changed is the small-town spirit of Beaufort, South Carolina and the Rotary Club is one of those foundations of community.

Rotarians were regulars at the Golden Eagle Tavern
Rotarians were regulars at the Golden Eagle Tavern

Ever since 1934, members have met for lunch each Wednesday. The only thing that’s changed is the venue. The Golden Eagle Tavern on the Beaufort River was torn down in 1971 and the club has outgrown the dingy hotel banquet room that made for such dark and grainy television footage in the ‘90s. Now the oldest group of Rotarians in Beaufort pledge allegiance and sing “God Bless America” in an enormous hall at the Catholic church on Lady’s Island.

Members have to put a dollar in a plastic bucket to earn the right to brag on another member or plug a personal cause. A financial officer dutifully reports the total expenses for the group last year: a $50 filing fee with the Secretary of State’s office. Each year they hold crab races to raise money for causes like swimming lessons at the Y and scholarships to the Technical College. The club’s biggest fundraiser requires every last member to sell 100 pounds of Vidalia onions each year. It’s small-town America at its finest – hip enough to have a female president named Harriet Hilton and retro enough to sport members with names like Fly Flanagan and Guy McSweeney.

I don’t know if Byrne Miller was ever invited to speak at a Rotary Club luncheon but several of her collected children were in the audience for my talk. Many of them graduated from the old Beaufort Elementary, where Byrne first demanded to teach movement therapy in the 1970s.

The old Beaufort Elementary - where Byrne first taught and many Beaufort Rotarians went to school
The old Beaufort Elementary – where Byrne first taught and many Beaufort Rotarians went to school

You’d think after spending five years writing a book about Byrne and Duncan Miller I’d have heard all the stories. But after my presentation, a physician in the audience elaborated on Byrne’s incredible toughness (she survived five spinal surgeries and still taught modern dance into her eighties). “We’ve done medical studies on dancers,” he said. “And it turns out they can take three times as much physical pain than ordinary people.”

Duncan in Connecticut

byrne's toastA former neighbor of Byrne’s told a story of how Duncan used to complain about a barking dog who lived two doors down. I knew only the utterly romantic and melancholy Duncan – a writer who adored his charismatic, modern dancer wife. But it turns out before he lost his speech and memory to Alzheimer’s, Byrne’s muse could also be that quintessential cranky old man yelling “get off my lawn.”

It’s a good thing he was married to a woman with a self-described “whim of iron.” Rotarians who were members of Byrne’s board of directors remembered how prickly Byrne got too — when anyone suggested she book more classical, ballet companies for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre.

“Ballet they can see anywhere,” Byrne would say of her audience. “I will make them the elite; connoisseurs of modern dance in the Deep South.”

I had to chuckle. The genteel, very Southern members of the Rotary Club of Beaufort ended their meeting by reciting what they call the Four Way Test: questions all Rotarians are supposed to ask themselves before they speak or act.

1. Is it the TRUTH?

2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?


4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

So would Byrne have made a good Rotarian? She always spoke the truth, even when it wasn’t fair to all concerned. She was more concerned with building sophisticated audiences than goodwill, but would do anything for a friend. And I can’t speak for all concerned, but having Byrne Miller as an other mother was certainly beneficial for me.

Photo courtesy Wayne Heath
Photo courtesy Wayne Heath

Rants and realizations

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It took some newly discovered other mothers to get me past the apoplexy of a news story while I still should have been basking in the glow of the holidays. The journal Science published a Harvard study about the effect of expanded Medicaid benefits on the frequency of emergency room visits among a select group of Portlandians.

My ears perked up at the mention of Portland – we’d just visited for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. But quickly those ears began to burn. The report was sloppily characterized to condemn “Obamacare” as a failure because the study subjects visited emergency rooms more frequently once they had access to Medicaid coverage than before they did. The tone of the story was one of condemnation and “we told you so” – as though these lower-income people were at once greedy, ignorant and hypocritical.

I say my ears burned, because those of you who’ve read “The Other Mother: a rememoir” now know, I was raised in trailer-park economic conditions in the backwoods of Oregon. My parents were “guilty” of relying on emergency rooms whenever my sister and I got hurt or sick and for their own, irregular health care. I never had a family doctor or preventative anything, and it wasn’t because my parents were lazy or on welfare. They both worked outside the home – my father left the house at 4am and didn’t return until after dark from his low-paying, unregulated, unsafe job as a truck driver.

Which is why my parents relied on emergency rooms. Ear infections, epileptic seizures, heart murmurs, strep throat, dislocated thumbs… off we went to the nearest hospital. There were no doctor’s offices open when my parents could take us – even had my father been able to afford insurance. Neither of my parents’ jobs offered paid sick leave so if they had to stay home because of an illness we were short that month on rent or groceries.

So to hear the Harvard researchers blithely attribute the results of the Portland study to “limited education” about what constitutes emergencies made me dash off an emotional post on Facebook. It wasn’t fair to knock Medicaid and give lousy employers a pass. I know of no poor person who wouldn’t rather sit in a nice comfortable doctor’s office watching cable cooking shows and thumbing through Oprah magazine than wait, sometimes for hours, in an understaffed ER.

Here’s where my newly discovered Other Mothers came in.  It turns out Byrne Miller isn’t the only woman with patience, understanding and a different world view to share. Even though they (mostly) agreed with me, these women (and a few men) gently prodded me to dig deeper into all sides of this issue that had become so emotional.

One book-loving Other Mother is an artist who holds out hope that as Obamacare rolls out, other health care providers will figure out how to make non-critical care more accessible.

“The future holds opportunities for a new type of healthcare industry utilizing technology, and career opportunities for yet to be named professions. There will be those smart enough to capitalize on this, routine tests, immunizations, and treatment for simple accidents etc., will be done in shopping malls, convenience centers etc.”

But another Other Mother is a nurse, and she warned of an impending shortage of well-trained health care providers.

“Healthcare insurance availability is but one aspect of “the system,” and increasing those able to afford/obtain insurance is a plus. However, issues of “enough” medical personnel and systems designed to be truly “patient-centered,” are huge. … MD’s, Nurse Practitioners, Pharm.D, are, and will remain, “critical” to providing comprehensive care as they are prepared to assess the “big picture,” rather than just ” give the shot.”

I realized that my initial reaction was mightily influenced by my own life experiences.  Valuable as those are, I needed a reminder of how important the insights of Other Mothers are – we are never too old to see a different point of view, especially when its shared by someone who really “gets” us.  And we are never too young to pay it forward and become the other mother someone else will need and cherish.