The Other Mother

A Library in the Limelight

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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 couldn't have verified the "pearls" of Byrne's story without the Special Collections at the Beaufort County Library
I couldn’t have verified the “pearls” of Byrne’s story without the Special Collections at the Beaufort County Library


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.

Duncan in Connecticut
Duncan in Connecticut


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.


Me with several of my "sisters by Byrne" Lisa is wearing white
Me with several of my “sisters by Byrne” Lisa is wearing white

Mothers in Memoir, still Mommy Dearest?

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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.”

the glass castle

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.”





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







Book Clubs, kid-style

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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.

Camp Book Club
Camp Book Club


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.

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

That scandalous TED(x)

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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. 

Book Club in a Yurt

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As a brand new published author, I still pinch myself when I’m invited to book club meetings where the members are discussing the book I wrote. Each time it’s a thrill but the setting for such rewarding encounters will never be more exotic than this yurt.

The Peggy Verity Book Club reading "The Other Mother"
The Peggy Verity Book Club reading “The Other Mother”

That’s right: a yurt.  As in, wall-to-wall luxurious Persian rugs and velvety soft pillows. My camera lens wasn’t wide enough to capture all the women who fit inside but they included the leaders of practically every important committee, museum and social organization in Beaufort, South Carolina. This particular yurt is hidden inside the home of a member of the Peggy Verity book club. If I had to invent a backdrop where the spirit of Byrne Miller would infuse a discussion about her storied life, this would be it. Just stepping inside the yurt reminded me of the night when Byrne taught belly dancing at a bridal shower for one of her collected daughters.

So it wasn’t surprising that, sheltered in such dramatic romance, a dozen denizens of Beaufort society freely discussed everything from open marriages to what, officially, counts as crazy. Some of these worldly women studied modern dance in college, back in the 60s, and nothing about Byrne was as shocking to them as their distinguished public personas might lead you to presume.

I was brought to the yurt by a woman I’d only recently met at an Other Mother Soiree. But when it was Katherine Lang’s turn to pick a book for her regular monthly book club she chose the story of how a complete stranger showed me the person I was supposed to be. The book club in a yurt brought it full circle: me sharing a deeply personal, even intimate story with a group of women who until that moment had been strangers.  Many of them had known of the fierce, strong-willed woman who planted the seed of modern dance in the Deep South through the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. But even those who had been season-ticket holders hadn’t known the full story of the woman behind the brave front: the Byrne Miller who did it all while caring for two family members battling schizophrenia.

I think that’s why the book speaks to so many different types of readers. We all fight internal battles invisible to the outside world and it’s a tightrope act to know when to inquire or intervene. Even though I’ve now made my story public, it was still easier for the women in the yurt to ask me about Byrne’s secret battles than my own.

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

An equal and opposite experience came four days later when my own book club – The Mockingbirds  – devoted its monthly meeting to “The Other Mother.” We are a much smaller harem, only a half-dozen women, and I’ve known some of them for ages. The scholarly reader perched above my right shoulder, Lolita Huckabee, even appeared in an earlier draft of the book.  (The story didn’t make it through the final revisions, but Lolita and I, long before we met the men we love today, started a man-hater’s club in Beaufort. Judge Ned Tupper was an honorary member.)

So it came as a surprise that Lolita was worried, when the book first came out, that I had shared so much of my personal history with domestic abuse. She’s a book guru and knows that the criteria for publishable memoir is go deep or go home. But Lolita is an other mother to every reporter who has ever passed through Beaufort and feels particularly protective of me – the reporter who came back to make this place home. That friends like Lolita care so much is one reason I did.

Most of the Mockingbirds arrived in Beaufort after Byrne’s time, so they were more interested in my story than hers. Their questions were clearly attempts to reconcile the friend they know in real life and the young woman who narrates the book. I’ve tried to prepare friends for reading “The Other Mother.” I’m not a particularly private person and I like to think I’m a good listener. But even if they’ve heard some of the same stories over glasses of wine on my back porch, it’s startling and disconcerting to read them on the printed page. I tell them to pretend it’s not me, that it’s a story about some other woman who just happens to have the same name.

Yes, that's actually me
Yes, that’s actually me
And that's me too -- with members of the Owls book club
And that’s me too — with members of the Owls book club

The beautiful thing is that they can. Not because my hair was dyed blonde back then but because the TV reporter in the story is both me and not me. Identity never stands still, and women are necessary experts in reinvention. If we weren’t, we’d never be wives, or mothers or other mothers.  The toughest part of my story is communal and shared, known in the way women have always known the truth.  I can’t keep count of the number of women who linger at book signings, a little squeeze of the hand telling me that they too, have been there.

If I could reinvent myself one more time, my new career would be human cheat sheet. I would gladly travel to any yurt in the world to meet with book clubs reading “The Other Mother.” I may have written the discussion guide questions but I’m still discovering the answers.

All I want for Christmas are Amazon and GoodReads reviews

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Sorry diamonds, this girl has a new best friend: reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Truth be told, diamonds and I never have been well acquainted – but all that could change if I can amass enough “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” reviews before Christmas.

Mark Shaffer's shot of my sleeveless Night On The Town Christmas booksigning
Mark Shaffer’s shot of my sleeveless Night On The Town Christmas booksigning

It’s a happy accident, really, that the book is out in time for men to impress their wives by tucking it under the Christmas tree – or more likely for women to wrap up for their mothers and other mothers. But the only way Byrne’s story spreads beyond this rarefied world of people who actually knew her is if enough readers leave reviews on those two particular sites:  Amazon and Good Reads. Crazy but true — rankings and algorithms too complicated for my feeble brain depend on it. The new reality is that other than loyal local publications like Lowcountry Weekly, Beaufort Gazette and the Charleston City Paper – not many national book reviewers have a platform anymore.

Writers have spilled enough doom-and-gloom about this to keep barkeeps in tips for the next ten years, so I’m choosing to look on the bright side.  The internet is full of talented bloggers who fight the good fight to keep books top of mind. The fact that there are fewer gate-keepers means we can all crash the gates! Every reader’s opinion matters on and GoodReads.  In many ways it’s a more egalitarian world without the literary elite controlling which books are anointed and which pilloried. My friend and mentor, Pat Conroy, always says “The New York Times giveth, and the New York Times taketh away.” He finds most conventional reviews capricious and mean-spirited and vowed long ago never to accept offers to snarkily critique the work of fellow writers in national publications.

That said, he still writes his books long-hand – so his fabulous blurb on the cover of my book is not likely to end up as a review on no matter how much he loves “The Other Mother” (and he says he’s giving it away as Christmas presents so I know he really does) But miracles do happen, especially at Christmas, so in the spirit of information sharing I’ve made a how-to list to help those less internet savvy join in this modern word of mouth. (Conroy – I’m talking to you.)

To leave “The Other Mother” a review on Amazon (and you don’t have to have finished the book – even your initial thoughts count) just click on this link to my Amazon review page. If you want inspiration, just scroll down and check out the insights others have already left. Then just hit the Leave a Review button and start typing.

Once you register with GoodReads their review system work almost the same way. You start by going to my book page and give the book a “rating” – in stars – first. Find the stars by looking under the thumbnail picture of the bookcover and the green “READ” button. Then click on the underlined title of the book itself and it’ll take you through to another page where you scroll down to “My Reviews” and type whatever you’d like in the blank field. Just hit save and you’re done.

See? Easier than dressing up in a red velvet suit and playing Santa. May mistletoe dangle wherever you innocently hover.


Why Blog Tours Rock

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I’m on tour with “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – right now, from the comfort of 75-degree Beaufort, South Carolina, where I watched dolphins gliding through the creek this morning. Yes, tour – only this book tour isn’t the usual sit-near-the-bookstore-door-and-politely-tell-tourists-where-the-bathroom-is kind of tour. It’s a virtual tour, with each stop over a ten-day period “hosted” by a blogger I’ve come to know and admire. Or, in the case of a fellow writer Ann-Marie Adams – a Q&A everyday of the tour!

What? Doesn't it look like we're working?
What? Doesn’t it look like we’re working?

The beauty of blog tours is their flexibility – and not just because I can jump into online conversations in my slippers. What’s been so fun about this one is reaching out to a wide variety of bloggers to see if they’ll read the book and share their thoughts and questions with new audiences. Some are planning on posting reviews and others on challenging their readers to pose questions of their own. It is as creative as the bloggers themselves – and if this collection of writers is any indication – you might want to subscribe to their blogs now and follow them for years to come.

So here are the official blogs stops on “The Other Mother: a rememoir” tour:

annmarie Beaufort and Philadelphia readers might already know Ann-Marie Adams. She’s a study in reinvention herself – which is why I knew she’d love Byrne’s “womenism” that “there is no contract on earth, especially between a man and a woman, that cannot be rewritten.” Like Byrne, she’s taken her gift with words and illustration and segued it into a career ranging from a lobbyist for Cornell University to the Hilton Head Island Hospitality Association. Her blog “SC Mornings” kicked off the tour and every day she’s pulling quotes from the book, turning them into a provocative question and blogging my answers as well as comments shared by her readers near and far.

The only other semi-local blog stops on the tour are two of my favorites – and they couldn’t be more different.

steph writesStephanie Hunt writes even more than I do – from Charleston Magazine (I’m still pinching myself over her November issue review) to SKIRT to her own, fascinating blog called Charleston Grit. We discovered we have a mutual friend through Byrne – one of Stephanie’s closest friends is a modern dancer who used to make the trek to Beaufort for Byrne Miller Dance Theatre master classes. The cool thing is, Stephanie’s blog tour stop will include the review she wrote for the magazine – available for the first time only on-line!

hotlouiseLouise Hodges is a chameleon – a very sassy chameleon. She turned a small-business incubator grant into the way-environmentally-cool Green Bug All Natural line of pesticide free bug sprays, right here on Lady’s Island. In her business blog she writes about everything from how to get rid of bed bugs to why Monsanto is the scourge of the earth. The connection to Byrne might not be obvious, but Byrne Miller’s first professional writing gig was writing for a magazine in the 1930s called Nature’s Path. But Byrne would have loved her for another reason. She can sing and hustle a tambourine with the best of them – which is handy since her husband is in a band.

The point of a blog tour is reach – so I’m also excited that several far-from-Beaufort bloggers have agreed to host a stop. Not all of these will be posting between December 1 through 10 – but start following them now so you won’t miss it when they go live with “The Other Mother” tour.

heatherdanceDance fans will be twirling in their imaginary tutu’s because Heather DeSaulniers has signed on. She’s a former professional ballet dancer, now dance critic and host of her own dancer’s blog which got tapped as one of the top ten dance blogs in the country. I love her blog because, unlike dance critics in New York, she isn’t about impressing you with snarky reviews. While Byrne herself was a tough dance critic (she wrote for Jacob’s Pillow and reviewed Spoleto dance performances in The Beaufort Gazette) she would have seconded every Heather motion.

Then there’s possibly the coolest indie bookstore west of the Mississippi – Santa Fe’s Collected Works. Byrne Miller Dance Theatre began in Santa Fe, in her home studio on Canyon Road, and while I was out there doing research for the book I stumbled onto Collected Works. It’s the kind of bookstore that builds community, that author’s dream of reading at.

cwbooksOnly it’s too far away for an actual tour stop so I was thrilled when reviewer Christopher Johnson said he’d read “The Other Mother” and ask questions via the official bookstore blog. I can’t wait to get his questions (no pressure Christopher, I know you’re swamped) because he never falls back on the usual, pat Q&A. Check out this question he posed of poet Shaun T. Griffin “What is the difference in your mindset when you are working on a poem or a translation or a book of scholarship? Do these works all come from the same place inside of you or are they separate places?” My writer friends — commence drooling.

labelsimageI knew I wanted Melanie Page to be on the tour when I read her “about” quote at Grab The Lapels. She went straight for Maya Angelou’s “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch and you’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Any blogger who writes about women writers and books about women is kick ass. Plus that quote reminds me of one of my favorite Byrne “womenisms:” – “A whim of iron simply rejects rejection.”

The final two stops on the blog tour might not be what you’d expect. They’re in the category known as mommy-bloggers and why not? The title of the book is “The Other Mother” and I’m curious to know what these modern-day moms think of Byrne’s unconventional parenting techniques (her daughters lived in a treehouse, for a spell) and the concept of other-mothering.

powermomI’ve always believed that needing and cherishing the love of other mothers, as I did, in no way competes with biological parents. While it’s cliché now to say it takes a village – there’s a reason cultures over the world and through the ages have embraced the concept.

Now we’ll get a chance to see what hip young mom and pro-blogger Andrea thinks – I learned of her Northern Virginia Housewives blog through the friend who hosted my Other Mother Soiree last week in Washington DC. And no – she’s not in any way connected to the hot mess of the other “real housewives” of NOVA. She’s just getting the book now, so it’ll be a while before she can join in but I can’t wait.

amythemomAnd last but not least is Motherhood and Miscellany. Amy had me at Oshkosh, Wisconsin – which is where she blogs from. Followers of my blog know that the family that “adopted” me when I married Gary is all from Wisconsin. So when Amy said yes, I poured a glass of Leinenkugel and sent a book off to the wilds of northern Wisconsin. I especially loved her “The Mother Comparison Game” post. It reminds me of why Othermothering can be so rewarding. I admire any woman who becomes a parent in this era of labeling – if you’re ambitious you’re a “Tiger Mom” and if you’re too involved you’re a “Helicopter Mom.” I’m hoping Amy’s blog will help “Byrne” the tables and encourage women to stop judging and start loving. Let the comments flow!