124

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.

View original

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…

View original 954 more words

The dirt floor was as hard as concrete. The open doorway cast a sun wedge into what was otherwise a cool dark hut. The thatch roof rustled with every breath of breeze. An 8-year-old American girl living in South Africa could stand in the middle and yell her lungs out and the solid mud walls would absorb the racket and swallow any echoes. I know, because I was that girl — standing inside a Zulu kraal, inhaling memories of Africa with every breath.

huts

kraal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was mentally documenting African Vernacular Architecture. Too bad it was forty years before my friend Jon’s Indiegogo campaign at http://igg.me/at/mudhut

 

Part of Gary Geboy's www.beaufortportraitproject.wordpress.com

Jon’s portrait, part of Gary Geboy’s http://www.thebeaufortportraitproject.wordpress.com

He’s an architect living in Beaufort, South Carolina whose take on what constitutes “proper” building methods was permanently skewed by a Peace Corps stint in Zambia back in the 90s. When he wasn’t building latrines, he sketched every African-style insaka, hunting lodge or mosque he saw and studied how it worked. (it’s all on this website check it out)

plastering

He studied the baked mud,  pre-weathered bricks that could be replenished literally in the back yard. Thatch roofs that allowed cooling breezes to pass through sleeping quarters. Women plastered walls in brilliant, geometric designs without chemicals, toxins or trips to a city for materials. But despite how sustainable, not to mention beautiful, these traditional (or “vernacular” in the vernacular of architect-speak) techniques seemed to Jon at the time, Western construction materials were considered more modern and desirable.

Zulu dancers in Durban, where I lived as a kid

Zulu dancers in Durban, where I lived as a kid

If I went back to Natal, South Africa today it’d be a lot harder to find a kraal, or any example of African vernacular architecture. Which is where Jon’s campaign comes in. He’s raising funds to continue the work he started in Zambia. He’s traveling to Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland – this time with a digital camera and an app to teach other architects, tourists, Peace Corps volunteers and villagers how to upload images of African Vernacular Architecture. He figures if he can at least document what’s left and build an easily accessible data base he can revitalize interest in the beauty, history and functionality of indigenous architecture before it’s too late.

I’m contributing as much as I can to his mud hut Indiegogo campaign because if there’s one thing I rant about incessantly, it is how homogenized and bland architecture in this county has become. Just consider Beaufort, South Carolina. Sure, we still preserve and celebrate our antebellum mansions, but what about our African-American architectural heritage? The last remaining Gullah praise houses, built by slaves, are disappearing and developers are itching to tear down historic, dilapidated freedman’s houses and replace them with oversized condos cloned from Florida and Arizona suburbs.

Eddings Point Praise House, St. Helena Island SC -- photograph by Gary Geboy

Eddings Point Praise House, St. Helena Island SC — photograph by Gary Geboy

Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a kraal, Africa’s vernacular architecture is part American history – of our collective human story. Jon’s campaign is a chance to say it is a story worth telling.

As a liberal, feminist, left-coast native who was probably a Latina in a former life, I know what it’s like to feel like an ex-pat in my own country. I’ve adopted South Carolina as my home, it’s where I’ve put down roots and intend to stay. It’s a hard choice to explain to friends who haven’t been here. So when I found these words on the website for the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference I just transposed the words South Carolina for Mississippi:

“When you are in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn’t seem real; and when you are in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn’t seem real.” – Dr. Robert “Bob” Moses, Program Director 1961-65 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

I’ve driven through the Mississippi Delta. I have always been fascinated by the music birthed there, but it wasn’t until a fellow transplant to South Carolina encouraged me to drive the Blues Highway that I began to understand why those songs got written.

Now that same friend, Mississippi native Jane Hearn, has taken my education one giant leap further – she’s curated a photography exhibit debuting at Tougaloo College tomorrow for the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

 

Jane Hearn with her favorite photograph taken by her late husband Jim Lucas

Jane Hearn with her favorite photograph taken by her late husband Jim Lucas

Curate isn’t nearly a descriptive-enough word for what she’s really done. She was married to a photographer named Jim Lucas (another reason we’re kindred spirits) and got stuck with 50,000 negatives when he died in a car accident on the set of a movie back in 1980. She’s lugged those boxes of negatives around for more than 30 years, unsure of what to do with them until news of the anniversary conference. It was a perfect time and place to honor her late-husband’s legacy – because among the 50,000 negatives were 4,000 documenting the civil rights movement from 1964-1968.

James Meredith March for Freedom

A lesser woman would have turned to bourbon facing that big of a challenge, but before Jane ended up in Beaufort with her second husband Terry she founded and directed an art colony at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. To say she’s got an eye for art and composition is an understatement and she comes from a long line of civil rights activists. She joined the Beaufort Photography Club to learn about negatives and processing and enlisted the help of a Florida-based photographer named Red Morgan to help her cull through the images.

Sometimes it’s a really good thing to live in a town so small all the artsy types know each other and become good friends. Jane’s husband Terry Stone threw a party at their house last weekend so we could all get a sneak peek at Lucas’s images before they begin a four-stop tour of the Delta.

the preview party

the preview party

It would be tragic if this show doesn’t make it to a museum here in South Carolina too. Lucas was witness to a movement not restricted to Mississippi, a history no Southern native or transplant can afford to forget. The photographs are truly documentary – he captured history as it was happening. Some images are still shocking, fifty years later. Newsmen waiting at the bombed out churches. The hastily-covered bodies Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner being wheeled into an autopsy. The fierce eyes of Wharlest Jackson Jr at his daddy’s funeral.

 

Photograph by Jim Lucas

Photograph by Jim Lucas

But Jane took care to include images of hope as well, so that this 50th anniversary doesn’t pass without acknowledging all that was accomplished as well as lost. Her young husband captured an even younger Marian Wright before the world knew her as the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She’s leading her forehead into her fist, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee Hearings in 1967 – weary beyond her years. She’s the one who led Robert Kennedy into the sharecropper shacks to witness abject poverty first hard. She watched as he tried, for five minutes, to tickle and engage a baby to malnourished to respond.

 

Ruins of Mount Zion Methodist Church. Photograph by Jim Lucas

Ruins of Mount Zion Methodist Church. Photograph by Jim Lucas

 

Robert Kennedy touring the Delta -- Photograph by Jim Lucas

Robert Kennedy touring the Delta — Photograph by Jim Lucas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which is ultimately why Jim Lucas’s photographs are so important. They force a response, even fifty years later. I’m reminded of a quote from the late Maya Angelu.

 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

Shock. Despair. Anger. Hope. These images, and those captured by so many other newsmen and even the freedom riders themselves, still make us feel.

 

 

 

WWII vets are heading to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion this Friday. They’ll touch the sand, smell the salt air, revisit memories and maybe exorcise some demons. I’ve never been in combat, but I can relate to the pilgrimage part.

I’m still processing my own, not to France but to Florida. I drove five hours down Interstate 95 to take my niece to the Junior Pan Am Games of Rhythmic Gymnastics. I realize that’s not exactly crossing the English Channel but bear with me. It was the first time I’ve stepped foot in a competitive stadium since the broken back that ended my Olympic quest.

I still have nightmares about forgetting my routines or being forced to compete after twenty years. A regulation carpeted floor in front of a panel of female judges is my beachhead.

I’ve spoken about the training accident that both killed my career and freed me – but despite my TEDx talk I’ve never returned to the emotional injury. I was a freshman in college on the cusp of a dream – ranked fourth nationally and vying for a top three spot to represent my country in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.

Me, before I broke my back

Me, before I broke my back

 

 

I fell, late at night, squeezing in some extra hours before departing for a competition in Asia. I woke up, pumped full of morphine for the pain, relieved. A broken back saved me from a life of starvation dieting, 6-hour-a-day training and hoping that other gymnasts would fail so that I’d succeed.I’ve had many chances to engage in the sport since then – invitations to become a judge, choreograph, even run a gym. But I blocked it out and never looked back.

Until my sister called with tickets to the Junior Pan Am Games in Daytona Beach. Her daughter Marina, the one who calls me her other mother, wanted to see the sport I almost conquered. She is eight, a gymnast too. I have introduced her to my mermaid friends at Weeki Wachee — and my cover career as a writer — but never to the reality of my childhood.

jrpanam

Taking a seat in the almost empty stands (rhythmic gymnastics still doesn’t draw the crowds in North America that it does in Europe or Asia) was just far enough away not to smell chemical carpet cleaner, the acrid hair spray or the liquid bandage gymnasts use to glue their leotards in place. I was up high enough that the athletes themselves were like tiny dancers, twirling ribbons and tossing hoops like toys.

It was a miniaturized version of my life until age 17. Watching the competition was like thumbing through a flip book of kicking legs, arching backs and juggling clubs. Marina was full of questions and I was a one-woman color commentator, explaining the differences between the ribbon and the clubs, the group routines and individual events. She was interested, but thankfully skeptical, not at all convinced it was really a sport.

I watched her gasp at the unnatural contortions of flexibility and clap for the gymnasts who managed to smile even when they dropped their apparatus. I saw how intoxicating it all seems to a young girl – the sparkling costumes, the dramatic music, the stage makeup and the cheers from the audience. And I forgave myself.

For caring so much and trying so hard. For defining myself by the standards of others. For thinking that making the Olympics was the single most important thing on earth and that quitting marked utter failure. When my niece snuggled into my arms I realized I could never have resisted the forces I witnessed again that evening in Daytona Beach. One small girl is powerless against the dreams of her parents and coaches. She is too desperate to please, to be perfect, to question the physical and psychological risks asked of her.

I wanted to scoop up all the rail-thin girls in a giant hug of reassurance – there is life after dreams. The adventure is in the awakening.

 

Me, eighth grade, before the dream of "Olympics" stole the wonder of the sport

Me, eighth grade, before the dream of “Olympics” stole the wonder of the sport

 

 

I love it when readers point out something I didn’t know my memoir said – it reminds me that the love story that at times felt like a fairy tale to me is actually true. And the truth reveals itself in different ways, to different people.

tart womenism tb

The Other Mother of the book’s title is, of course, the Jewish burlesque dancer turned Johnny-Appleseed of modern dance in the Deep South: Byrne Miller. I chose to use “the” instead of “my” other mother because I recognized that all of Byrne’s collected children can claim her.

What I didn’t realize is that she is only one of several other mothers who come to life on the pages of the book. My sister was one of the first to read it and ask if the title referred to me. I’ve always considered myself “Auntie Mermaid” to her three children, but to Jenny I was also an other mother, someone she knows will always be interested in the details of the kids we both love – no matter how small.

Then there’s the other mother I never considered at all – Byrne’s mother Fanny. She was one of my favorite characters to write about in the memoir. At first she scared me. Afterall, Fanny passed away decades before I even met Byrne.

Fanny Miller - photograph courtesy of the Beaufort County Library Special District Collection

Fanny Miller – photograph courtesy of the Beaufort County Library Special District Collection

She spoke more often of her father – the Hungarian immigrant adored by her entire family, from whom she inherited her first love and talent: classical piano. But the Byrne I knew was more determined than dreamy, more practical than prodigy. She endured physical trails more painful than I could describe, yet was stoic – almost puritan in her toughness. “Pain is for the hoi polloi,” she’d say. Where did that side of Byrne come from?

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

The answer, I realized, is Fanny. She was the woman who gave Byrne the delicate necklace of seed pearls that is one of my most treasured possessions.  It was passed down from mother to other mother and finally to me, along with this necklace – a poison pendant Byrne said would protect me should a suitor ever proved unworthy.

My inheritance, from my Other Mother and her mother

My inheritance, from my Other Mother and her mother

But even as I grew to admire and respect the Fanny taking shape on my page, I didn’t see her as an other mother. I wrote right through a truth that readers picked up on right away – -that she was Duncan Miller’s other mother. Byrne’s treasured husband had divorced himself from his own family for some deep dark reason he never revealed. Fanny became the mother he always wanted.

It’s right there, on page 76, Byrne noticing something I had not. “…she’d watched as her husband took to Fanny’s attentions like a forgotten flower, finally watered.”

No wonder Byrne felt so comfortable in her role of other mother, she had been the understudy all her life. I only wish she could have given a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” to Fanny for Mother’s Day.

 

 

With Mother’s Day approaching, I’m keenly aware of all the ways my sister devotes herself to her children. I’ll pester my niece and nephews all month to make sure they don’t forget to make her cards and breakfast in bed. My sister dotes on them, sometimes so much so that they take her for granted.

I’d probably be a much meaner mom – Type A personality that I am. There’d be a lot more rules and responsibilities. But it’s a tricky topic to bring up. It’s what I call that awkward part of othermothering. Even though my sister considers me “other mother” to her three kids – there’s no getting around the fact that I don’t have kids of my own. So is my advice worth anything?

 

So what do I know about raising kids? Not a lot

So what do I know about raising kids? Not a lot

I’m not looking for affirmations here. I’m genuinely skeptical. Byrne Miller, my other mother, had raised two girls of her own long before I came along. She could expand my horizons without worrying that her advice was untested.

It can seem like a big risk, offering yourself up as an “Other Mother.” Especially if, like me, you don’t have any first-hand experience. That’s where my sister, the full-time mother of three, bursts into a belly laugh.

My wonderful sister Jenny, with Marina and Raiden

My wonderful sister Jenny, with Marina and Raiden

“And you think anyone knows what they’re getting into when they become a mom? Don’t wait until you’re a perfect role model. Just jump in and be there.”

Her youngest child Marina is such a sweetheart she attracts other mothers like a magnet. Instead of worrying whether these other mothers have parenting bonafides, Jenny’s biggest fear is that they’ll swoop in and form a bond and then get a new boyfriend or a new job or have a baby of their own and leave Marina devastated.

“An adult understands that you can’t always keep promises. Kids don’t,” she says.

It turns out there’s a much more important measure of othermothering value that has nothing to do with having kids of my own.

“You want to know what makes you a real other mother?” Jenny asks. “When you offer to do the gymnastics car pool.”

 

 

If Byrne had been a psychotherapist in the 1980s she might have been accused of re-parenting me. If I’d met her when I was still competing she’d have been called some sort of life coach. If she had been a journalist or writer she might have been labeled  a mentor. But none of these definitions describe the role she played in my life, or the role I believe many “Other Mothers” play in the emotional development of women.

academyaward

I do not claim first dibs on the term othermothering. In the state where I now live it goes back to when slave mothers were sold off the plantation and other women took over the caregiving of the babies forced to stay behind. Anthropologists call these substitute mothers “Fictive Kin” and in her book “Black Women and Motherhood,” University of Maryland professor Patricia Hill Collins says “the tradition of othermothering constitutes a challenge to the notion that children are the private property of parents.”

It’s no coincidence that the pop-culture expression “it takes a village to raise a child” stems from African parenting traditions, according to philosophy professor emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Dr. Carl Hedman. “We only hear about the negative stereotypes in the black family but in this sense they’re way out ahead.”

He should know. 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.”

Family Drawing 2012 copy

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.”

Perhaps the same forces were at work when Byrne Miller added me to her collection of daughters.

Me with several of my "sisters by Byrne"

Me with several of my “sisters by Byrne”

Byrne in St. Thomas

Byrne in St. Thomas

By now you’ve read all about the woman I call my other mother. Byrne Miller was the other mother of my book’s title. But just as there is no one, single definition of other mothers, there’s no law that says you can’t have more than one.

In and of itself, that’s one major difference between other mothers and the kind we’re born with. The very fact that we choose them, or they choose us, makes the bond something most of us don’t have with the mothers who raised us. Not that we’d trade our mothers in – other mothers are never replacements, just lucky additions to a treasured life.

Georgia Phillips on the left, with artist Rebecca Davenport

Georgia Phillips on the left, with artist Rebecca Davenport

I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one. I share an other mother right now, with dozens of other people who came to Beaufort, South Carolina from other places. Her name is Georgia Phillips and she runs the gallery where Gary’s work was first exhibited. I mention that because it’s the way she othermothers – she spots people with talent, makes sure others come to share her opinion and then if they’re really lucky, invites them into her coveted circle of dinner guests. Which isn’t to say she’s a new-age, everything-you-do-is-wonderful kind of other mother. She never lets me forget how bad of a cook I was when she first took me under her wing. I’ve never lived down the over-salted bean soup I attempted to serve her in the 90s, and to this day she’ll only come for dinner if I tell her Gary’s doing the cooking. She’s the kind of other mother who keeps you grounded. And five pounds heavier than you should be. And when I’ve been away from Beaufort on shoots for too long, she’s the one I’m homesick for. I’ve even called her from the road, just to hear her voice and know that she’ll still make fun of me and feed me when I return.

patti who

I’d have to say that Patricia Brewer-Jones, the ballet teacher you meet in Chapter One of “The Other Mother” was the first other mother I can remember. She never even knew how much she broadened my horizons, or how often she came up in conversations around our living room. I talked of her so incessantly that my father nicknamed her “Patti Who?”

 

My mother, Beverly, in a high school production of "My Fair Lady"

My mother, Beverly, in a high school production of “My Fair Lady”

I’m often asked if my mother was ever jealous of Byrne. By the time I met Byrne I was 22 and so far removed from the circle of my mother’s influence that she was relieved, if anything. Not so when I was 12 and dreaming to become a ballet dancer. But still, I don’t think she was jealous of Patti. If anything she was envious that in her I had found a champion, someone who believed in my talent more than anyone had ever believed in my mother’s. (insert photo)

That’s why other mothers are so important. I wish my own mother had had a Patti, Georgia or Byrne. So as Mother’s Day approaches carve aside a little space to think of your other mothers too.

 

 

Thanks for the shout-out, Wordpress!

Teresa Bruce

photo

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,887 other followers

Blogs

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,887 other followers