The Other Mother: a rememoir
I belong to a book club founded by Southern women who might possibly be the biggest fans of Harper Lee: the Mockingbirds. They so love this iconic author that I interrupted a shoot in Alabama to send them these pictures from her hometown of Monroeville.
So I couldn’t have picked a worse time to be moving back to Washington DC and missing the meeting where we examine “Go Set a Watchman.” We’ve been procrastinating on scheduling this particular meeting for months in part because of spoilers that this book would devastate readers who have grown up treasuring “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Not me. I had to read Mockingbird in high school in Oregon and it didn’t have the same cultural resonance where there were only three African Americans in the entire student body. If anything, I categorized it as another book that romanticized and elevated white people to savior roles involving African Americans. It didn’t correlate to the race reality I knew, especially having grown up in Apartheid South Africa.
So the shocking revelation in GSAW that Jean Louise’s father Atticus was actually a racist didn’t ruin the book for me. It was easier to believe Atticus’s “change” of character than Scout’s. He was a man of his time all along. It was his noble belief in the law that she, and we, misinterpreted as selfless empathy. If Jean Louise really were the 26-yr-old, holier-than-thou character the author asks us to believe, she’d never have forgiven her father’s change of character in one afternoon.
Her quick forgiveness feels fake, unnatural to the sassy, headstrong character that I enjoyed meeting at the start of the book. Same goes for her uncle. When he tells Scout that it is precisely when those she loves are wrong that they need her the most, I found myself arguing with him. On the surface the advice seems noble but in my experience it also rationalizes going along with the status quo.
Of course I’m not the first to find fault with these aspects of the book, or its literary shortcomings. It reads more like a stage play, full of soliloquies and asides meant to tell, rather than show, what we are meant to understand. But on this front, I forgive Harper Lee.
“Watchman” was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957. I would argue that any novel published, without a give-and-take editing process, 58 years after submission would be equally awkward. It was, essentially, a first draft. Here’s what others have written about the troubling chronology:
“The novel was finished in 1957 and purchased by the J.B. Lippincott Company. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, although impressed with elements of the story, saying that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” thought it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”
I can only relate it to how I would have felt if someone published the first draft of either of my memoirs. The Other Mother was so angst-filled and journalistic that my editor made me burn it down and start over. The initial versions of the book I’ve just finished are similarly awful – I tried to fill it with my sense of injustice against Latin America instead of my own experiences.
So I’m left with the irony of forgiveness. I’m willing to forgive Harper Lee and the character she wanted us to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird but not the character she asks us to admire in Go Set A Watchman.
The speakers for 2015’s TEDxCharleston have about seven more days to get their talks down pat, without sounding rehearsed. But one person has fifteen talks to prepare for: the emcee. Last year that job was mine, and it was terrifying. I had to write and deliver an introduction for each amazing speaker and performer — somehow linking each one of them to the theme: Ripple Effect.
His talk was one of the highlights of the show, so the curators decided to make it a tradition of sorts and invite Vince to be the emcee of this year’s TEDX Charleston. The theme is “Embrace Chaos” and if you’re one of the smart people who bought your tickets before they sold out (in a day) you’re in for a treat. Not only are the speakers intriguing (I know because I wrote the teases for their talks. Spoiler alert — ombudsman John Zinsser is one you won’t want to miss) – so is the charismatic man who’ll be introducing you to them this year. Vince is such a compelling storyteller it will make you wonder if even his pictures could really equal a thousand of his words.
I’m trying to be more moderate. Really. But I’m standing at the corner of a National Geographic moment and a slap in the face. I’ve just met Ma Moo Ooh – or at least that’s how I think she spells her name. She is thirteen years old and her job is to pose for photos with tourists visiting her Padaung aunt’s weaving shop on stilts above Inle Lake in central Myanmar.
Right now I’m distracting her but a glimpse at the smile on her aunt’s face tells me it’s okay. We are playing a game. Ma Moo Ooh writes a word in my spiral notebook and I try to copy her beautiful scroll while she collapses in giggles.
It’s part of Padaung custom for girls to begin wearing gold rings around the neck at age nine. Ma Moo Ooh loves her ten rings – it’s teen bling on another whole level and she suffers no lack of self-esteem. Until I ask her what grade she’s in. She looks down. Her parents made her stop school after three years.
“I cried and cried and cried forever,” she tells me in incredibly impressive English. “I love school and never want to quit.” But she did what was expected of her – pitching in to raise the family out of poverty by taking advantage of Myanmar’s exploding tourist industry.
I feel guilty and outraged all at once. Up until now, I confess that I’ve blamed religion for gender inequality in girls’ education around the globe. Religious extremism I should say – remember, I’m trying to practice moderation in my attitudes as well as appetite.
Up until meeting Ma Moo Ooh, I saw the issue of gender-based discrimination as epitomized by Malala Yousafzai. I’m reading her co-written memoir to give a talk about it back in Beaufort, South Carolina. The world will never forget her. She’s the Pakistani schoolgirl who won the latest Nobel Peace Prize after being shot in the face by the Taliban in 2012.
Perhaps because she has written this moving, triumphant memoir, her shooting and the reason for it (advocating for girls’ education) seemed singular to me – a horrific incident perpetrated by terrorists with religious fanaticism at their core.
I am in no way equating Ma Moo Ooh’s situation with Malala’s but what is dawning on me is that I can no longer compartmentalize the issue. It’s not just fanatics like the Pakistani Taliban or Boko Haram to blame but also a worldwide lack of commitment to girls like Ma Moo Ooh and Malala.
I’m not a mother. My outrage is not just because this is happening to little girls who could be our collected daughters. It’s is also rage for the consequences to their lives as women. Two-thirds of the world’s non-literate adults are women. Still. Today. Or at least as recently as 2012 when these results were reported to the United Nations’ Committee on Ending Discrimination against Women.
So if I’m trying to look beyond religious beliefs as the root of this inequality, why is it still happening? UNESCO experts and others who have written about the issue point out that it’s often about money. It’s the opportunity cost of a poor family losing someone to watch over younger siblings or contribute wages when their daughters go to school instead of staying at home. The neck rings that make Ma Moo Ooh feel beautiful and connected to her tribe are also economic shackles that feed her family.
I sit next to a little girl comparing our handwriting and trying not to cry for all the opportunities she will be denied. And now I understand the insistence of advocates ranging from South Africa’s Campaign for Education to the World Bank: insistence that governments have to bear the costs of educating boys and girls. Private donations and non-profits and singular efforts are not enough. Beyond building schools, governments have to make education truly free – no hidden costs for uniforms or textbooks. The United States subsidizes scores of other foreign aid projects – why not also the opportunity costs of daughters going to school instead of dropping out to become shepherds for the family’s animals or babysitters for the younger children?
It’s easy to think of this problem as too intractable to cure. But the uplifting part of all of this is that change is happening. It didn’t happen in time to save Malala from an assassination attempt. But if a girl with a bullet through her brain can still have faith then so can I. So can every other mother.
It’s not easy – one fifth of the world’s children aged 5-17 years are exploited by child labor, but even in Africa, where education disparity is proportionately among the worst in the word, the perception that it is more valuable to educate boys than girls is changing. The introduction of free primary education in Uganda, for example, caused total girls’ enrollments to rise from 63% to 83%, and enrollments of the poorest fifth of girls from 46% to 82%.
Stipend programs and conditional cash transfer programs have been employed in settings as diverse as Brazil, Yemen, Nepal, Tanzania, Malawi, Madagascar, Gambia and Kenya, and have succeeded in reducing girls’ drop-out rates and delaying early marriage.
But still, I can’t help thinking of how far we have to go. Some 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria last year are still missing and it feels like our country thinks that hashtag activism is the answer. Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls won’t save the next Malala.
And don’t forget the organization that has always considered education a human rights issue: Amnesty International.
If you’re passionate mostly about improving the situation in Pakistan, consider donating to the alliance formed by Oxfam, Plan Pakinstan, Care International: the Girls Education Alliance Pakistan.
But back to the Padaung women and girls in Myanmar. It’s time to get into my boat and head back to my hotel on Inle Lake. I will probably never see Ma Moo Ooh again but I will never forget her. I’m just about to close my little spiral notebook when she wants me to learn another phrase. I repeat it after her and when she is finally satisfied enough to stop giggling at my pronunciation, I write it down the way it sounds to me.
Ta-Lye-Bahn-Na. I do a double take. My phonetic spelling out of Ma Moo Ooh’s phrase looks like Taliban. She repeats the phrase. It is musical, as lovely as the expression on her face. “It means thank you, where I come from,” she tells me as she squeezes my hand goodbye.
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!
Byrne’s daughter Jane was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina in the 1960s.
Byrne, then in her 50’s, taught modern dance to her daughter’s fellow Marines and their spouses and gradually became an other mother in Beaufort’s military community. She invited them over to her house for home-cooked meals and advice.
That kind of community support and othermothering is even more important today, when more female members of the armed services are on active duty deployments than ever before.
Turns out Byrne – like most other mothers – just intuitively knew what she was doing, according to Dr. Mark Pisano, a military school psychologist I interviewed. He told me:
“Deployments are really hard on military parents, especially single moms. Even though they are required to have a caregiving plan, when those orders come it is a real stressor. Other mothers can help by doing anything from babysitting, so that mom can have a pampered afternoon, to cooking a nice dinner.”
One of the first people to encourage me to write about Other Mothers was Pat Conroy. We all know the story of his abusive childhood, but what isn’t so 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 pitchers mound in a freak accident 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. He told me he doesn’t think picking Julia Randel hurt his mother’s feelings one bit – she had six other children to manager.
When he introduced me to Julia, this is what he said: “Having Mrs. Randel treat me as one of her own allowed me to preserve my mother’s image. I needed her to be perfect even if I had to pretend.”
The funny part was watching Pat and his other mother in the same room – mercilessly teasing each other, trying to shock me with stories. And this other mother, Julia Randel told me “We raised him like one of our own. Clearly we didn’t do a very good job.”
I read every book about mothers I could when I started writing The Other Mother. Most weren’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother character who resonated with my idea of Other Mothers.
She came in the form of LaRue, the ninety-nine-year-old step grandmother in Franz Wisner’s “Honeymoon with My Brother.” Even though this memoir starts with a jilted groom story, it ends up being a travelogue of the heart. What grounds Franz is his relationship with LaRue. This is how he tells her of the honeymoon with his brother:
“We’re going to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and travel around the world for a year.”
“Wonderful!” she said without pause.
“You know, you’re more than welcome to join us for a stop of two,” I said.
“Well I just might,” she said. “I love travel. It’s one of the few things in life you never regret.”
He writes to her along the way.
“Dear LaRue – I won’t tell you much about our accomodations (felt more like a Ralph Lauren showroom than a middle-of-nowhere safari) because I want you to be under the impression that we roughted it. Don’t want to completely ruin our backpacker image. Love, Franz.”
I knew had finally read the memoir I was looking for. When I asked Franz Wisner for a blurb for “The Other Mother,” he cheerfully wrote back from travels in Spain. “Of course,” he said. “I love the book. Byrne brings back a little of LaRue for me.”
Of course. I just happened to write about Other Mother’s because Byrne was a woman. But there have been meaningful, influencial male figures in my life other than my father. In fact one of the experts that I interviewed for the book is a professor out of the University of Wisconsin named Carl Hedman.
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.”
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.”
If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a Rememoir,” you already know what I got out of having Byrne Miller as my other mother. But the flip side is what the other mother gets out of the relationship.
Parents don’t get security from their kids. Caregiving, according to the Ericksonian theory, is the primary role in mid-life. But what about those of us who don’t have kids or whose children are older? We still have nurturing qualities that could come out in lots of other relationships.
Being an other mother is a healthy way to express that caregiving role. It can make you feel like you’ve contributed something incredibly important, perhaps the most important thing of all.
On a very personal side – I think othermothering can make us better mothers too. I really think it did with Byrne. Alison – her oldest biological daughter – suffered from schizophrenia.
Before Byrne started “collecting” daughters, she wanted so much to have Alison follow in her footsteps. To dance, to say the right things, meet the right people. But she was able to let Alison be the most independent person she could be because she could transfer some of those ambitions and expectations to “collected” daughters – like me.
She wasn’t a perfect mother — no woman is — and being an othermother gave her a do-over. It was her chance to apply the things she’d learned earlier in life and break out of the bounds she’d set for herself. Don’t we all owe ourselves a do-over once in a while?
I’ve discovered the one drawback to creating a family: when you lose a sister you found on your own, it is as hard to accept as losing a blood relative. It was too soon to have to say goodbye to Lisa Lepionka – I was just beginning to realize how much she means to me. I’m using present tense because she will always be in my heart and, if I am a worthy sister, in my actions.
If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a rememoir” you already know Lisa – or at least the part that intersected with Byrne Miller’s incredible life. She is the wise “collected daughter,” the tall Swiss-German dance student and mother herself who became an anchor in Byrne’s life. Byrne depended on Lisa’s judgment so completely that she entrusted her with the care of Alison, her only surviving biological daughter.
I met Lisa in a modern dance master class of a company Byrne brought to Beaufort, though I knew of her from interviewing her professor husband in my other life as a TV reporter. Writing that phrase “professor husband” still makes me smile: Lisa was actually his younger student when she fell in love with Larry Lepionka, across the continent at a University frequented by hardworking immigrants like herself. He is responsible for bringing her to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, by way of colleges in New England and dissertations in Switzerland and archeological digs in Africa. No wonder she seemed so exotic and confident to me; I was a twenty-something rookie who had never witnessed devoted, respectful partnerships that defined marriages like Lisa and Larry Lepionka’s or Byrne and Duncan Miller’s.
Where Byrne was flair and drama, Lisa’s was a calm devotion – to her husband and her son and daughter. I thought she was unflappable, that literally nothing scared her. Not even Byrne. The longest sentence I ever heard Lisa say was when she stopped Byrne from impetuously marching out of a terrible hip-hop dance performance at Spoleto. I held my breath, wondering how Byrne would react to Lisa’s declaration that it was disrespectful to members of the audience who were actually enjoying the performance. When Byrne sat back down without another word I knew that Lisa had a power none of us did. She was unflinchingly fair, deliberately kind and genuinely open-minded.
So I was stunned to find out that Lisa was actually intimidated by Byrne. It came out in one of many long talks, masquerading as interviews, during the writing of the book. Which made me respect her even more. She was brave even when it didn’t come easy.
It didn’t come easy this year. Yet she was so brave – meeting the news of every worsening diagnosis with the quiet determination to do whatever she needed to do to fight it. She told me that’s how she was raised. As soon as she or any of her five siblings were able to help around the house that’s what they were expected to do. “If you can do it yourself, you don’t ask someone else to do it for you,” she said as we were washing dishes one night after dinner.
From Lisa I learned that it is possible to be tough and gentle at the same time. That maybe the sign of truly loving something is fiercely demanding its best. Like public education. Lisa went down fighting for it to improve and for teachers to get the respect and remuneration they deserve. And the arts. If you support the arts you buy season tickets, you defend freedom of expression and you educate yourself as to the difference between attempt and mastery.
I’ve lost many friends and family members this year and each time I’ve figured out what to do and how to help by remembering how Lisa helped Byrne through hospitalizations and then Duncan’s illness and death. You don’t wring your hands and tell an ill or grieving friend to “call if there’s anything they need.” Lisa taught me you roll up your sleeves and show up. You change the garbage liners, you hang out the laundry, you check if the milk’s gone bad in the fridge. You ask what time your friend needs to be at the doctor’s, the lawyer’s, the funeral home and then tell her when you’ll pick her up.
So many of Lisa’s friends and family did just that, that she left us fully aware of her treasured place in our hearts. Sweet travels, my wise sister. We will dance together again — just on a different stage.
Lisa’s memorial service is Friday, September 19th, at the First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort at 4:30pm.