mil momIf you’re lucky enough to have an Other Mother, one of the best ways you can pay it forward is to reach out to women in the military — they need Other Mothers now more than ever.

Byrne’s daughter Jane was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina in the 1960s.

Byrne, then in her 50’s, taught modern dance to her daughter’s fellow Marines and their spouses and gradually became an other mother in Beaufort’s military community. She invited them over to her house for home-cooked meals and advice.

That kind of community support and othermothering is even more important today, when more female members of the armed services are on active duty deployments than ever before.

Turns out Byrne – like most other mothers – just intuitively knew what she was doing, according to Dr. Mark Pisano, a military school psychologist I interviewed. He told me:

“Deployments are really hard on military parents, especially single moms. Even though they are required to have a caregiving plan, when those orders come it is a real stressor. Other mothers can help by doing anything from babysitting, so that mom can have a pampered afternoon, to cooking a nice dinner.”

Pat Conroy says he wouldn't have survived his childhood without his other mothers.

Pat Conroy says he wouldn’t have survived his childhood without his other mothers.

One of the first people to encourage me to write about Other Mothers was Pat Conroy. We all know the story of his abusive childhood, but what isn’t so well known is how he survived it: by finding gentle men and women to replace those who were brutal and broken.

One of the earliest women he unconsciously selected belonged to another teenager on the Beaufort High School baseball team. That boy dropped dead on the pitchers mound in a freak accident and Pat met Julia Randel at her son’s funeral.

He started checking in on her, and gradually she became the mother he wished Peg Conroy could have been. He told me he doesn’t think picking Julia Randel hurt his mother’s feelings one bit – she had six other children to manager.

When he introduced me to Julia, this is what he said: “Having Mrs. Randel treat me as one of her own allowed me to preserve my mother’s image. I needed her to be perfect even if I had to pretend.”

The funny part was watching Pat and his other mother in the same room – mercilessly teasing each other, trying to shock me with stories. And this other mother, Julia Randel told me “We raised him like one of our own. Clearly we didn’t do a very good job.”

I read every book about mothers I could when I started writing The Other Mother. Most weren’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother character who resonated with my idea of Other Mothers.

honeymoonbookcover

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.”

Ann-Marie Adam's dad -- recuperating after a hospital stay with a little  other mothering.

Ann-Marie Adam’s dad — recuperating after a hospital stay with a little other mothering.

Of course. I just happened to write about Other Mother’s because Byrne was a woman. But there have been meaningful, influencial male figures in my life other than my father. In fact one of the experts that I interviewed for the book is a professor out of the University of Wisconsin named Carl Hedman.
While his wife was getting her master’s in nursing in the 70s, their family lived in a multi-racial commune.

“ I don’t know why society is so locked into private attempts to be happy,” Hedman says. “Having other mothers to help raise our two sons was good for our marriage.”

Even the way he pronounces commune, more like the what-you-do-with-Mother-Nature verb than the wacko-hippy connotation, confirms what he sees as the benefit of othermothering. The Hedmans stuck with group housing even after their own boys were grown.

“It eased the empty nest syndrome. I could still be a father figure in everything from teaching little boys to ride bikes to helping one of them cope with the stress of getting through Yale.”

If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a Rememoir,” you already know what I got out of having Byrne Miller as my other mother. But the flip side is what the other mother gets out of the relationship.

Parents don’t get security from their kids. Caregiving, according to the Ericksonian theory, is the primary role in mid-life. But what about those of us who don’t have kids or whose children are older? We still have nurturing qualities that could come out in lots of other relationships.

Being an other mother is a healthy way to express that caregiving role. It can make you feel like you’ve contributed something incredibly important, perhaps the most important thing of all.

On a very personal side – I think othermothering can make us better mothers too. I really think it did with Byrne. Alison – her oldest biological daughter – suffered from schizophrenia.

bellydancing

Before Byrne started “collecting” daughters, she wanted so much to have Alison follow in her footsteps. To dance, to say the right things, meet the right people. But she was able to let Alison be the most independent person she could be because she could transfer some of those ambitions and expectations to “collected” daughters – like me.

She wasn’t a perfect mother — no woman is — and being an othermother gave her a do-over. It was her chance to apply the things she’d learned earlier in life and break out of the bounds she’d set for herself. Don’t we all owe ourselves a do-over once in a while?

cookiegranny boomers-new-generation1I just gave a talk to OLLI students — mostly retirees living in Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, about “othermothering.” Some waiting-to-be-grandmothers in the audience had a good chuckle about statistics I came across when researching the lecture.

They weren’t surprised that 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. And it’s not just this side of the pond.

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.”

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 they cherish.

 

booksale

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.

lisaglasses

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

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I’ve discovered the one drawback to creating a family: when you lose a sister you found on your own, it is as hard to accept as losing a blood relative. It was too soon to have to say goodbye to Lisa Lepionka – I was just beginning to realize how much she means to me. I’m using present tense because she will always be in my heart and, if I am a worthy sister, in my actions.

If you’ve read “The Other Mother: a rememoir” you already know Lisa – or at least the part that intersected with Byrne Miller’s incredible life. She is the wise “collected daughter,” the tall Swiss-German dance student and mother herself who became an anchor in Byrne’s life. Byrne depended on Lisa’s judgment so completely that she entrusted her with the care of Alison, her only surviving biological daughter.

I met Lisa in a modern dance master class of a company Byrne brought to Beaufort, though I knew of her from interviewing her professor husband in my other life as a TV reporter. Writing that phrase “professor husband” still makes me smile: Lisa was actually his younger student when she fell in love with Larry Lepionka, across the continent at a University frequented by hardworking immigrants like herself.  He is responsible for bringing her to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, by way of colleges in New England and dissertations in Switzerland and archeological digs in Africa. No wonder she seemed so exotic and confident to me; I was a twenty-something rookie who had never witnessed devoted, respectful partnerships that defined marriages like Lisa and Larry Lepionka’s or Byrne and Duncan Miller’s.

Where Byrne was flair and drama, Lisa’s was a calm devotion – to her husband and her son and daughter. I thought she was unflappable, that literally nothing scared her. Not even Byrne. The longest sentence I ever heard Lisa say was when she stopped Byrne from impetuously marching out of a terrible hip-hop dance performance at Spoleto. I held my breath, wondering how Byrne would react to Lisa’s declaration that it was disrespectful to members of the audience who were actually enjoying the performance. When Byrne sat back down without another word I knew that Lisa had a power none of us did. She was unflinchingly fair, deliberately kind and genuinely open-minded.

So I was stunned to find out that Lisa was actually intimidated by Byrne. It came out in one of many long talks, masquerading as interviews, during the writing of the book. Which made me respect her even more. She was brave even when it didn’t come easy.

It didn’t come easy this year. Yet she was so brave – meeting the news of every worsening diagnosis with the quiet determination to do whatever she needed to do to fight it. She told me that’s how she was raised. As soon as she or any of her five siblings were able to help around the house that’s what they were expected to do. “If you can do it yourself, you don’t ask someone else to do it for you,” she said as we were washing dishes one night after dinner.

From Lisa I learned that it is possible to be tough and gentle at the same time. That maybe the sign of truly loving something is fiercely demanding its best. Like public education. Lisa went down fighting for it to improve and for teachers to get the respect and remuneration they deserve. And the arts.  If you support the arts you buy season tickets, you defend freedom of expression and you educate yourself as to the difference between attempt and mastery.

I’ve lost many friends and family members this year and each time I’ve figured out what to do and how to help by remembering how Lisa helped Byrne through hospitalizations and then Duncan’s illness and death. You don’t wring your hands and tell an ill or grieving friend to “call if there’s anything they need.” Lisa taught me you roll up your sleeves and show up. You change the garbage liners, you hang out the laundry, you check if the milk’s gone bad in the fridge. You ask what time your friend needs to be at the doctor’s, the lawyer’s, the funeral home and then tell her when you’ll pick her up.

So many of Lisa’s friends and family did just that, that she left us fully aware of her treasured place in our hearts. Sweet travels, my wise sister. We will dance together again — just on a different stage.

Lisa’s memorial service is Friday, September 19th, at the First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort at 4:30pm.

 

 

 

teresabrucebooks:

One of my favorite “dudes who ‘get’ The Other Mother” — helping Gary with his Beaufort portrait project. Faithful blog readers will remember Terry — from my blog about how fishing is nothing like dance.

Originally posted on thebeaufortportraitproject:

Terry

 Terry with his Fly rod.

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teresabrucebooks:

To all SC Legislators who rationalize every No vote against protecting women (I’m especially talking to Tim Scott) — think of the message it sends. Even imperfect laws are better than what we have now in SC

Originally posted on Carolina Yankee:

And why you should, too.

Welcome to SCI’ve spent the past two years or so sharing my perspective, often with my tongue held firmly in my cheek, about the people, places and culture of South Carolina. Today, I won’t hold my tongue at all, but will go full Yankee on you.

I’ve made no secret that much of South Carolina culture and politics causes me embarrassment, most of which I can laugh off. However, the fact that I live in the state that boasts the highest rate in the nation of women murdered by men makes my blood boil. South Carolina is at or near the top of too many embarrassing lists, but this statistic can no longer be kept buried on the back pages of unread newspapers. Shame on the legislators, educators, clergy and citizens – especially the women – of South Carolina and beyond who remain ignorant, silent and…

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Thanks for the shout-out, Wordpress!

Teresa Bruce

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