One day I hope you’ll look up “rememoir” in Wikipedia and see the word credited to me, and “The Other Mother.” Right now each time I type it, Word underlines it red as a misspelling, like a red flag of warning. Something’s different here! Pay attention!

It would have been simpler just to call “The Other Mother” a memoir. But I invented the word rememoir because it’s the truth as I remember it. I am the only one who could tell this story – it’s about a relationship that defined me. The thoughts, dialog and emotions I write about come from my own recollection, from the stories Byrne shared with me, the womenisms she told her other collected daughters, quotes she gave to reporters (including me), letters she invited me to read and events she documented in her personal journal. I sifted through these memories and arranged them in a way that represents the truth to me.

Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories -- this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary

Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories — this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary

There will always be a place for the pure biography. At its best, it is research elevated to an art form. But in this age of instant access to worldwide “facts,” readers want something more than readily knowable facts when they buy a book.

I’m not frightened by this, as a writer I find it freeing. Truman Capote gave us the nonfiction novel, with every cold blooded detail recorded and reconstructed by his photographic memory. Not everyone can do that. So luckily there’s a whole genre out there of creative non-fiction, and now there is novelization, the art of imagining the story and thoughts behind a person already in the public eye, like “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” but no longer an anonymous character.

Rememoir, a remembered memoir, is even more personal – it finds the story in a personal truth, told by the imperfect human being who experienced it.

Earlier this month, the Wall St. Journal had an article about baby boomers impatient to become grandparents. The irony, the article pointed out, was they themselves were the first generation to delay getting married and having kids. And now their grown children are waiting even longer – putting off motherhood until they’ve earned advanced degrees or the right work/life balance.

boomers-new-generation1

I call it the Granny Gap – it’s been something I’ve thought about since I started writing “The Other Mother: a rememoir”

I’m lucky enough to have a younger sister who had kids relatively young and took the heat off of me. I’m also lucky enough to have been both othermother and mothered and I contend it could be a practical solution for would-be moms and grandmothers to bide their time.

clock

The average American woman today waits four years longer to have her first child than her own mother did. Other than celebrities and trailblazing women having their first babies when they’re 45 or older, the overall U.S. birthrate has been on a steady decline since 2007. The average age a woman in the U.K starts a family is 30. They’re so freaked out by this across the pond that a pregnancy testing company runs ads of a photo-shopped, grey-haired hag in a Demi-Moore, bare belly pose to scare women into reproducing earlier.  The June 28th, 2013 edition of the Daily Mail informed readers that women with university degrees are bulging the belly curve even later by waiting until they turn 35 to make babies. The horror!

“If the phenomenon continues for another generation,” the article contends, “it means some grandparents will have to wait an extra 20 years, until the age of 70, to have their first grandchild.”

Woman-bathing-a-baby-1948-007

Let me clear my throat. If there is indeed an impending granny gap, othermothing is a low-tech way for women on both ends of it to meet their nurturing needs. Not to mention the chief beneficiaries of multiple mothers providing emotional support: the children both mothers and grandmothers cherish.

 

cookies

 

anna

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

listening to the bee symphony

listening to the bee symphony

Thanks to Byrne Miller’s love of the indecent, ill-mannered, un-reserved, show-offy wild azalea, there is now a shrine to the little-bit-slutty bloom right next to my house. Every day I crawl into the opening of a wild, un-gardened garden just for inspiration.

Byrne’s legacy may be that she is considered the Johnny Appleseed of modern dance in the South. But she started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her parents, orthodox Jews in depression-era Manhattan, both played. She practised as religiously as a later-acknowledged agnostic could, but it didn’t happen. Still, she loved classical music for the rest of her life. One of her secret dreams was to have an entire symphony at her disposal, a private concert in a grand hall.

When I duck into the un-garden, I know why she left it to its own devices. Big bumble bees buzz from bloom to bloom, so intent on doing what they do that they literally bump into me. I close my eyes and feel Byrne all around me. It’s a bee-symphony. Commissioned by her.

Indecent, just like Byrne

think tutus and toe shoes

Byrne Miller liked to compare azaleas to the other spring flowers that grace Southern gardens. Take the camellia on her front bluff, overlooking the Beaufort River. “Pink Perfection” is no exaggeration. Its petals are demure, obedient. They present from the bud like a corps de ballet, each one in its place.

Not so the wild azalea. In Byrne’s world they are modern dance. Luscious, vivid, almost shocking when they burst upon the season. Each petal is almost see-through, scandalous, fluttering for attention in the breeze. The colors are crimson and fuchsia, all the better to entice the eye. Honey bees have room to wiggle, squirm, roll around inside.

So, of course, she loved them. Wouldn’t think of trimming or pruning any of the wild bushes that still surround her little house on the Beaufort River. “The azaleas I leave to their own devices,” she said. “They’re utterly indecent already. Show-offs, just like me.”

THE BEE SYMPHONY

Thanks to Byrne Miller’s love of the indecent, ill-mannered, un-reserved, show-offy wild azalea, there is now a shrine to the little-bit-slutty bloom right next to my house. Every day I crawl into the opening of a wild, un-gardened garden just for inspiration.

Byrne’s legacy may be that she is considered the Johnny Appleseed of modern dance in the South. But she started out with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Her parents, orthodox Jews in depression-era Manhattan, both played. She practised as religiously as a later-acknowledged agnostic could, but it didn’t happen. Still, she loved classical music for the rest of her life. One of her secret dreams was to have an entire symphony at her disposal, a private concert in a grand hall.

When I duck into the un-garden, I know why she left it to its own devices. Big bumble bees buzz from bloom to bloom, so intent on doing what they do that they literally bump into me. I close my eyes and feel Byrne all around me. It’s a bee-symphony. Commissioned by her. http://ow.ly/i/58nuD

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.

I remember when sassy was a bad word, as in “don’t you sass me young lady, I’m your mother.” It was only as an adult that “sassy” became a positive label – overused and cliché when used to describe Southern women – but still largely self-applied in a you-go-girl kind of way.

So when I heard of Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban the word bossy I was conflicted. I agree with the premise of her much denounced book – I’m not happy unless I’m leaning in. Any former almost-Olympian knows that lean in is a synonym for compete. With all you’ve got.

So I wanted to get on board with Sandberg’s clever, intentionally oversimplified plot to encourage young girls to lead. As the ban bossy website points out, between elementary and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys and they’re less likely to want to lead, even as adults. Ban Bossy is an ingenious PR campaign that keeps Sandberg’s feminist platform in the limelight and brings an important issue some warranted attention.

But I’m also a writer. We celebrate words, particularly those rich in nuance and connotation. Banning a word is as knee-jerk unthinkable to writers as burning a book. And I’m terrible at keeping up with political correctness. My nieces had to remind me for years that “stupid” is on the does-not-fly-anymore list. I get that kids can be cruel and hearing a bratty sub-teen turn the word stupid into a sibilant, drawn out insult makes me cringe. But so does substituting “ill-conceived” or “misguided” when I find myself describing things that are just plain stupid.

IMG_20140321_191003

I was still trying to find my inner Beyoncé or Jane Lynch (check out their video supporting the bossy ban) when I happened to meet two Thunderbirds at an airshow in Florida this weekend. Major Caroline Jensen is the fourth female pilot to fly with the Air Force’s premier flight team. And Tech Sgt Amanda Geray is the first female line chief in the team’s 61-year history.

Maj. Carolina Jensen

Maj. Caroline Jensen

 

Tech. Sgt. Amanda Geray

Tech. Sgt. Amanda Geray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps it was because we were at an official reception and they were in full Air Force role model mode but neither of these two accomplished young women had heard of the Ban Bossy campaign.

“Ban the actual word bossy?” 30-year-old Geray asked. “You’ve go to be kidding. I am the boss. Just ask any of the mechanics on my line.” Maybe it’s because she was born and raised in North Pole, Alaska (for real, check out her bio) but Geray is utterly confident that her skills prove her equality. She’s proud to have been the girl in high school shop class, the girl who fixed cars, the girl who could hold her own.

Pilot Jensen had to think about it for a second. “The thing is, I’ve worked my whole life to be the boss. I love being called bossy. It’s how I got here. I wouldn’t want to be called anything else.”

That’s when it hit me. I’m no gender-barrier-breaking Thunderbird but I do direct mostly-male film crews. In corporate shoots overseas, I’ve been ignored by grips and gaffers who assumed that my husband was the boss. And I’ve enjoyed setting them straight – I’m not going to lie. When a crew in Latin American bought me a baseball cap that said “Director” – just so it was clear they knew who the jefé was – I laughed and said I wanted one that said “Dictator.” Just ask my younger sister. Deep down I’m bossy and proud of it.

What I realized when I heard the Thunderbirds say the same thing, in their own way, is that when you own a word, even celebrate it, you erase any derogatory intent.  Sassy, Gay, Feminist, Bossy whatever – if you appropriate the label you define it for yourself. Girls don’t need to be protected from words that might hurt their feelings. They need bossy role models and bigger dictionaries.

 

 

 

 

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.

Thanks for the shout-out, Wordpress!

Teresa Bruce

photo

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