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.
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.
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.
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.
Veterans Day is a graceful, uplifting occasion in the military town that is Beaufort, South Carolina. Each year the parade that passes under the lush live oaks and past the manicured grounds of the National Cemetery is a symbol of the bigness of bravery. We honor soldiers who fight in valiant battalions and platoons, pilots united in squadrons of power. But last night I was reminded of a different type of veteran: women who survive silent, private wars.
A book club calling themselves “the Owls” meets at the Oyster Cay Collection each month and when they decided to read “The Other Mother: a rememoir” they invited me to come talk about the book. I was one part honored and two parts terrified. Since these busy women had taken the time to read my memoir within a month of its publication, the least I could do was come up with insightful answers to the discussion group questions at the end of the book.
I needn’t have bothered. They brought questions of their own. And more importantly, answers. I consider myself so lucky to have known the love and wisdom of one Other Mother: Byrne Miller. And last night I realized she doesn’t have to be my last. If the Owls are any indication, there is an army of funny, life-tested, battle-hardened women out there whose hearts are open to any daughter who claims them.
And just like Byrne, their advice is never outright or predictable. The first question Mary had for me was how long it took me to figure out that Duncan wasn’t the successful novelist Byrne posited him to be. She saw right through the fairy tale romance that had dazzled and inspired the 22-year-old-me. Linda said she suspected mental illness the first time Byrne uprooted her family to compensate for Duncan’s despair. Sally chimed in on this tough-on-Duncan crowd. “What about the fact that because of him, Byrne had to raise her daughters in a tree house without running water. I know how cold it gets in Connecticut!”
They didn’t excuse the other male lead in the story either. Gail realized Sonny was trouble the minute I wrote about how he shoved his hand down Wipeout’s throat to train her how to accept treats. If only these women had been around me when I was still covering for him and all the other secrets in my life.
That’s the reason we need and cherish Other Mothers. It’s a truth the enormity of which I’m witnessing every time I have the chance to talk to women reading this book. The me I wrote about in “The Other Mother” was just following the same survival pattern I had inherited from my mother. It took a woman with no vested interest in my identity, no genetic connection to my past, to help me see a different future.
The bookclub Owls spoke from experience, not a place of judgment. There were nods around the table, stories shared that made me realize I have much to learn about other mothers. It took a big gulp to tell the story I have told in the pages of “The Other Mother” and these women made me feel like it matters. They have all been there.
One woman said my parents could have been hers, and that she saw herself in all my stupid decisions. But here’s the best part. She found the wisdom and strength to break the pattern. She says her daughter doesn’t tolerate abuse of any kind, never settles for less than she deserves.
For me that is proof that veterans of this different kind of battle have not fought for nothing. Our private wounds can heal and change the lives of others. As Byrne would say, “When what is broken can’t be fixed, close the door behind you and walk into another room. The brain has more chambers than the heart.”
Today’s the day the whole world can go online and meet Byrne Miller – at least the part of her divulged in “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” Despite the fact that the blurbs on both the front and back cover of my book are male writers (Pat Conroy and Franz Wisner) – most readers, so far, have been women. They’re loving it, which is great since women outspend men on books. And even better, they’re spreading the word and holding Other Mother Soirees because it’s bringing back memories of the important other mothers in their lives.
But here’s what is blowing me away. The few men curious enough to get past the title and the cover photo are sticking with it – even after they realize that Byrne didn’t stay a burlesque dancer and that the sex scenes are couched in elegant dance terms. My husband Gary didn’t have a choice. He was my front-line editor and men who enjoy this book have him to thank. He took each chapter out on the porch with a can of PBR beer and a giant red pen. If I used the word “love” more than absolutely necessary, he scratched it out. “Be more creative,” he demanded. Same thing happened to any mushy, girl-power, coming-of-age moments. And those sex scenes? He told me I was on my own with those.
Pat Conroy was the second man to ever read “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” I knew that Pat has cherished the love of many Other Mothers over the course of his life. We’d had long talks about how re-parenting changed us both. He waxes rhapsodic about Julia in particular, the Beaufort woman who “collected” him even when her own son was killed in a freak baseball accident. But I was nervous to share the manuscript with him because I knew that Pat wasn’t a big fan of Byrne Miller. (I suspect two personalities as big as theirs barely fit into a room.) Instead, he got sucked in by the story of Byrne’s husband of nearly 60 years: Duncan Miller. Pat Conroy knows a thing or two about frustrated novelists, as it turns out, and the tragedy of Duncan’s mental illness poisoning his writing was a side to Byrne’s story that broke Pat’s big heart.
The third man to read the entire manuscript is another major writer, only you find most of his work in the editorial pages of The New York Times. Lawrence and I went to graduate school for journalism together and I knew he’d fall in love with the outlandish free spirit of my star. He was so taken with Byrne that he helped me track down odd bits of New York history to fill in the gaps of her early married life in Greenwich Village. And he introduced me to the film archives at Lincoln Center, where I watched clips of the very same dancer that thrilled Byrne in the 20s and 30s: Harald Kruetzberg.
The fourth man to read “The Other Mother” is my brother-by-Byrne and Navajo elder Ben Barney. His reaction was even more important to me because he gave me permission to tell the most intimate and personal of all the stories of Byrne’s collected children. She was not very good at being an “Other Mother” back in the 60’s – when she bulldozed over his religious and tribal beliefs in an attempt to turn him into a dancer. But now, looking back, he sees her as a powerful and transformative force in his life.
“Chapter brought tears to my eyes so far,” he emailed me. “The section you wrote of me is freed, roaming, rolling and nice. I leave it as is.”
The fifth man to read the book was Larry Lepionka – an archeologist who helped me find where I had buried Duncan’s tormented manuscripts. He’s married to a major character in the book – my Byrne sister Lisa – so I was a little worried when Larry told me to come over and discuss a factual error he’d found in the book.
“My wife has no accent at all,” said this Beaufort native who has lived with his Swiss-German stunner of a wife so long that this statement was only partially a joke. In fact, he loved the book as well. “It’s a story of heroines,” he said. “Byrne, you, Lisa and even Wipeout – your brave and lovely dog.” If this book goes into paperback I’m stealing Larry’s lines for another blurb.
But the funniest reaction from a man came from my friend Terry Stone. Regular followers of my blog know him as the man responsible for my only redfish victory. He’s a regular subscriber to Garden and Gun and when not fishing fiercely defends his other territory: the kitchen.
He was deep into the book when he finally asked his wife Jane “Wait a minute, is this a love story?” He was afraid I’d be offended when she ratted on him, but nothing could make me happier. It is a love story, the most amazing one I’ve ever known. It is not the sort of book most guys willingly pick out of a bookstore (except as gifts for their wives, which I’m discovering they love to do.) And then there’s the dance terminology. “I have to admit,” Terry confided, “I did skip over some of the dance parts. My French is rusty.”
There was more. Terry had a hard time believing it was a true story – that’s how amazing this relationship was. For sixty years Duncan watched Byrne undress each night and told her she was marvelous, even after five spinal surgeries had stolen inches from her glorious height and cancer had carved away her uterus. But it was more than holding hands and quoting Shakespeare that grew their love into what I witnessed. True, Byrne had been a knockout Burlesque dancer but their love story withstood challenges that would cripple others. Instead of divorcing over the stress of a schizophrenic daughter, they lived for a time in an open marriage. Instead of letting one person’s career dominate the other’s they took yearly turns following their passions. And even when Byrne realized that Duncan’s mind was self-destructing she refused to let it erode his identity as a writer. She choreographed a stage, a life, for him even when she was the only one in his audience.
I know not every dude will “get” this book. But it says something that the men I most admire do. So here’s my promise – to any man willing to get past a dancer on the cover and the fact that it’s a love story that happens to be true. Let me get through the national launch, the blog tour and the upcoming Kindle and hopefully audio book and I’ll create a series of videos on You Tube to explain the French dance terms for you. You know – the difference been a plie and a pair of pliers. Deal?
I can’t pinpoint when I became aware I had an other mother any more than when I became aware of my own name. I remember when I met her, sure. I was a floundering 22-year-old from the backwoods of Oregon and she was an 82-year-old former burlesque dancer from New York who said things like “Every woman should have at least one affair. It builds confidence.”
Seven days from now the whole world will meet my other mother: Byrne Miller. November 5th is the national launch of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” and the date her collected children, including me, will have to start sharing her with readers everywhere. What I’ve learned since the fabulous local kickoff of the book in Beaufort, SC is that women of all ages instinctively “get it:” we’ve all needed and cherished the love of other mothers even if we’ve never put our finger on it until this book came along.
What I’ve also learned is that there are many different reasons why. Othermothering isn’t the sappy happy apple pie fantasy of nuclear families. It’s real world and defies stereotypes. After I spoke to 65 avid readers Friday at Litchfield Book’s Moveable Feast in Murrell’s Inlet, one grandmother raised her hand. I thought she might ask the question I often get: “Was your real mother ever jealous of your Other Mother?”
But instead she said she bought her ticket to the luncheon the minute she saw the book cover and title. “I figured since my daughter and I don’t always seem well matched this might be just the solution.” The whole crowd laughed right along with her and Litchfield Books sold out of my book within the hour. Most told me it was gift for themselves, and some had Christmas presents for their mothers and other mothers in mind. But when I was signing books after the talk, two different women asked me to inscribe their copies to their daughters. “Can you write something like Dear Jane, have you thought about finding an other mother?”
It reminded me that daughters aren’t always the sweet dears we like to think we are. It dawned on me why I never got the feeling that my own mother was jealous of Byrne. She was probably sick and tired of my twenty-something know-it-all self and relieved that another woman was willing to guide me into another phase of life. Hmmm…. Come to think of it one of my many nicknames growing up was Miss Information.
A sixteen-year-old girl from Beaufort High School bought a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” on the night of it’s launch. Here’s why that makes my heart do a grand jete. It isn’t a YA book about young love, vampires or zombies. It isn’t about a celebrity or anyone her friends tweet about. It will never be made into an app or video game. So why did she part with hard-earned babysitting money to buy a 417-page book about my relationship with a former burlesque dancer named Byrne Miller?
“I danced for Ms. Miller in the Nutcracker when I was four,” she told me. “And I never knew she was so amazing until tonight.”
Almost five years of research, writing, rewriting and planning this book’s introduction to the world was worth it in that instant. Byrne was Other Mother to me and many other former dancers in the audience of the USCB Center for the Arts. We were all drawn to her exuberant positivity and consider ourselves lucky to be her collected children. One of the best parts of writing “The Other Mother” was the reuniting with many of them, telling and retelling the stories Byrne planted in each of our hearts.
But I wrote the book so that the next generation of young women would have the chance to know Byrne Miller too. I told the unbelievably big crowd of book and Byrne lovers that all young women deserve the wit and wisdom of an Other Mother.
I’m a first-timer. I have no other book launches or signings to compare to Byrne’s kickoff celebration. All I knew was that I wanted it to be an event worthy of the woman with a whim of iron who introduced modern dance to the Deep South. I also wanted it to be an homage to my adopted hometown – the place Byrne and Duncan Miller chose, as I did, to live and create. Beaufort is more than a setting in this work. It is a central character.
After sharing some crowd-pleasing passages from “The Other Mother,” I watched from the back of the auditorium as two groups of dancers performed modern and contemporary pieces choreographed in Byrne’s honor. I confess when the idea for making the launch more than a typical book signing first occurred to me, I was worried that the dancers I’d invited would wear the kinds of costumes you see at recitals or that their moves would mirror what you see on music videos. Byrne was an unrepentant dance snob and even twelve years after her death I’m certain she could still summon lightning bolts of judgment.
But the moment the music started I felt my muscles lengthen, my posture correct itself and tears roll down my cheeks. These Beaufort Middle School and High School dancers are the living, breathing legacy of what Byrne Miller started decades ago. On the night of the worldwide debut of a book in her honor, they were lyrical, expressive and as committed as any modern dance company the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre ever brought to Beaufort. And if even one of them loves reading “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” I will be as proud as Byrne surely is.