The Other Mother
I know the Friends of the Beaufort Library plan their annual fall book sale a year ahead of time but I could swear the timing of this one was personal. As my regular blog followers know, last week one of the many heroines in “The Other Mother: a rememoir,” Lisa Lepionka, passed away. Her husband Larry wrote, in a beautiful obituary, that in lieu of flowers Lisa would have preferred a contribution to the Friends of the Library at 311 Scott Street in Beaufort.
Two days before her memorial service also happened to be the date I was scheduled to give a talk about the book to the Library’s book club, in the exact location where I did most of the research for it — the District Collection archives. Though it came 25 years too soon, Lisa’s way of honoring the library was so fitting. She checked out more books from the Beaufort County Library than probably anyone other than her husband. And it was Lisa who oversaw the delivery of all of Byrne Miller’s personal papers to the District Collection, as was our shared Other Mother’s wish upon her death.
I too, owe a debt of gratitude to the library — as most writers do. Not only was it crucial in verifying all that I remembered about Byrne Miller, it was the setting of one of the most important lessons I learned from my wise, collected sister Lisa. It was in the early 90s and Byrne’s beloved husband Duncan had died. On the anniversary of his death I wanted to give Byrne a card, decorated with lines from the many novels Duncan had written. So naturally I went to the library to do my research.
I started in the microfiche sections, scrolling through roll after roll of newspaper coverage and finding nothing about Duncan. I checked the fiction shelves under Miller, comma, Duncan and found nothing. It was the same with the card catalog and when I pushed the L-through-N drawer back along its metal rails I felt like I was abandoning a tiny wooden coffin. Nothing I had been told about Duncan, or rather nothing I had assumed about his success, was verifiable. Then I saw Lisa browsing through a back issue of The New York Times. Here’s a little excerpt.
I would have recognized my sister-by-Byrne anywhere. She sat just like Byrne, with perfect posture, even in a sagging, low-slung reading chair. Her silver hair flowed down her back, gathered like a bouquet of flowers with a twist of ribbon. She smiled to herself as she read, as though delighted with how the words were arranged on the page. If the Beaufort County Library was at that moment a stage, Lisa was bathed in a warm spotlight, and I had somehow fallen off into the orchestra pit.
It was Lisa who told me that Duncan’s six, full-length novels were never published — a fact the Byrne had never considered important enough to mention. And here’s the lesson I took away from Lisa, that afternoon, in the Beaufort County Library.
It was me who was being unfair. Lisa spoke as though Duncan not being published was entirely the fault of editors in New York, in no way passing judgement on Duncan’s gift or Byrne’s omission. She needed no proof of Duncan’s talent, her loyalty to him was her own. It was years later before I realized that her compassion, her open-mindedness, extended to everyone she encountered. She forgave, even when others might not have.
So, for Lisa as well as for the Friends of the Library, I hope that this weekend’s book sale raises so much money that the Library’s shelves are overflowing with books — celebrated or not. And that we all keep reading, as though the words on the page are dancing just for us.
When I started writing the memoir of my relationship with Byrne Miller – “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – I collected recommendations. I devoured any memoir recommended by a trusted friend, even some from dubious readers. My goal was to be different from all of those memoirs, while at the same time learning all I could about the genre.
What struck me was the fate of mothers in those memoirs. I wasn’t a fan of the genre and expected to be inundated with Mommy Dearest airing of dirty laundry. I was curious about mothers in memoir mostly because I was trying to decide how much of my mother’s story to include in my other mothers’.
One of my favorite research reads was Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” The title actually refers to her father – the champion liar. “His stories got told and retold before an audience of drinking men he played dominoes with on days off… Certainly not much of the truth in any technical sense got told there,” she writes.
But it was her mother’s story that stuck with me. “All Mother’s marriages, once I uncovered them in my twenties, got presented to me as accidents.” She was a flawed but fascinating character and I moved on to another memoir searching for mothers.
In Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of a white African childhood, “Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight,” I met a mother I recognized. One who loses not just one child, like my own mother did, but two. A mother who can’t fight the grief head on and a daughter who found a way to write about it. “I watch Mum carefully. She hardly bothers to blink. It’s as if she’s a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking riverbed, waiting for rain to come and bring her to life.”
In Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” I found a mother whose crazy had crossed over into her daughter’s seemingly perfect life. The first line crystallizes a feeling that every embarrassed daughter will recognize– but a hundred times worse. “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
So far my search for the best way to write about mothers wasn’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother.
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.”
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.
My Florida nieces and nephews call me Auntie Mermaid – (it’s explained in “The Other Mother: a rememoir and deep in the archives of this “womenisms” blog), but my sister calls me their Other Mother. Not so much because I have any sort of daily interactions with them, but more because she uses me as a sounding board on how to raise them.
Which isn’t really fair, when I drop in for a visit. I know so much more about their lives than they ever suspect. My go-to activity is always grilling them about whatever books they’re reading and visiting Weeki Wachee or Blue Springs State Park but they’re much more interested these days in showing me pictures of themselves on their I-Pods.
So I was pleasantly surprised when my two littlest, a 13-year-old nephew and a 9-year-old niece asked if we could play book club on my last overnight. I guess my sister must share some of our conversations with them – she’s up to speed on how much fun I’ve had meeting with book clubs reading “The Other Mother.”
“Sure,” I said, a little taken aback. “But grownup book clubs involved lots of wine and gossip. How do you play book club?”
They were inventing it on the spot.
“Let’s blow up the air mattress and just read, snuggled up next to you,” Marina said.
So we did. The rules became this. Read quietly to yourself for ten full minutes (an eternity in today’s non-screen-related attention span) and then take turns telling each other what we read.
“It’ll be like getting to read three books at once,” declared my 13-year-old nephew.
I learned all about a boy who saves his Florida school from a sinkhole and a babysitter so mean she’s almost worthy of a hit squad. When it was my turn, I gingerly danced around the subject of “Wild” – skipping the heroin-addicted protagonist’s casual sex drive and settling on “a girl who bravely hikes through California and Oregon even though her boots make her feet bleed.”
I was sure it was a one-time event: this book club/slumber party with Auntie Mermaid. Perhaps an attempt to stave off another visit to look for manatees or mermaids. They’d never stick to ready, I thought. Afterall – devoted Other Mother that I am, I know that kids in Marina’s age group typically spend 6 hours a day in front of screens, not books. For Raiden’s age group it’s even worse – 9 hours of screen time a day.
The next weekend I got to drop in on them again, this time when my sister had rented a condo near St. Augustine. There were walks on the beach, turtles to point out, sofas to bounce on and a prized new DVD of “Frozen” to distract them. But guess what? They wanted another session of book club.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Aside Posted on
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A 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?
3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
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.
I’ve just been asked to emcee the 2014 TEDx Charleston – I’m allowed to go public with the news today because the women who run it have just released the names of this year’s speakers. Up until today only the theme was public information: Ripple Effect.
If it all sounds rather clandestine, it’s because it is. Being involved with TEDx is a little like an affair. Press embargoes, trips to the most romantic city on earth: Charleston, late nights meetings about with a mysterious “TED.”
Somewhere Byrne Miller is winking with approval. It was at the inaugural TEDx Charleston in 2013 that I had the chance to introduce her, in spirit, to a world of You-Tube viewers. My talk was called “The Wisdom of Quitting: Lessons from my Other Mother.” Back then I agonized over whether the sophisticated, well-mannered Charleston audience would be shocked by Byrne’s most outrageous womenism.
I needn’t have worried. The audience saw past Byrne’s cheek to her wisdom and have become enthusiastic supporters of “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” But the organizers of TEDx Charleston all looked at each other with knowing smiles. This team of dedicated and well-connected women, led by the indomitable Edith Howle, run an entirely independent event. There is no TED headquarters handling all the logistics. These women have to plan everything from speaker selection to ticket sales, catering, media coverage and after-party venues.
So why the smiles at Byrne’s affair advice? It turns out all of them joke that “TED” is their shared, demanding, artistic, maddening lover.