The Other Mother: a rememoir by Teresa Bruce
416 pages, Joggling Board Press (November 2013)
Procured from the author, whom I do not know personally.
Teresa Bruce was a dancer and gymnast as a young girl, but ends up in Mexico where she falls in love with a charming surfer, with a pack of boys who follow and worship him, named Sonny. Later, she brings her boyfriend to the U.S. to live illegally in the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina. Sonny can’t keep a job when his employers find out he gave them fake information, which lowers his self-esteem and causes Bruce to head to the courts to declare Sonny her common-law husband. Woven into Bruce’s story is the tale of Byrne and Duncan Miller, a couple about 55 years older than Teresa Bruce (age 30) who also live in Beaufort. Teresa becomes friends with the Millers and is especially taken by Byrne, who is a strong woman, a dancer, and a lover. In The Other Mother, Teresa Bruce writes her and Byrne’s memories, which is where I assume Bruce gets the term “rememoir.” The Other Mother alternates between the stories of Teresa Bruce and Bryne Miller, so the time periods vary drastically, from 2000 to the 1920s.
Teresa Bruce makes it easy to see why she loved Sonny, including the small gifts he gave her and his desire to fly above the clouds when he gets a pilot license. Bruce’s descriptions of him are like poetry: “Swells rose to lift [Sonny], crests of breakers curled water over his head like a crown. He was a dancer on a watery stage–effortlessly, unknowingly graceful. I had never met anyone so free from gravity, so full of pure possibility.” So, when Sonny turned on her, that first time he calls her a bitch, I was surprised. I wanted them to make it together, because the author led me to believe it was really, really love. As things get worse, as Sonny becomes more flawed and frustrated and his magic disappears like Cinderella’s carriage and dress at midnight, Bruce’s personal story was addictive reading.
In contrast, Byrne and Duncan had an open marriage, one that lasted for 60 years. The increasing visibility of open relationships makes me wonder if Byrne and Duncan got it right and if the rest of us are dragging our feet. I recently read an article written by a woman claiming that men and women should always live in separate places to keep the romance real, Byrne’s story suggests an open marriage can be a way to keep that love permanent. The Other Mother becomes this logical space for thinking about how marriages work, and asking do they work similarly from one generation to the next. However, the unpredictable nature of Duncan led me to believe that the couple might be lucky they remained married, or that their marriage functioned more as a safe spot where each could return home to be consoled. Whenever there were problems that Byrne discovered, such as her husband could be dark to the point of seeming threatening and unfamiliar, she still told everyone he was a genius writer so as to not shame him. But, these problems remained secret between the couple, too, causing me to see them as more cheerleaders for one another than intimate. Still, Bruce provides a platform for rethinking how and why relationships work, which is a highly culturally relevant part of her book.
Bruce makes comparisons between her romantic life and Byrne’s, but soon realizes that they don’t match up like she wants. She can admire Byrne’s relationship with Duncan, but she can’t emulate it by following Byrne’s maxims about love because Sonny is dissimilar to Duncan. When I realized that Bruce couldn’t have the same love as the Millers, I began questioning the contents and structure of the “rememoir.” I couldn’t help but feel that her story after she met Byrne made the book’s pacing slow down. What is the purpose of the book? To commemorate Byrne Miller? To acknowledge and admire the Millers’ relationship? Or to read Teresa’s story, or the story of Teresa and Byrne? The book takes on a lot, causing me to feel overwhelmed around page 300, like I couldn’t tell where the memoir would end, and having difficulty ordering the events in my head. It’s easy to understand why young women would be attracted to Byrne as an “other mother,” but because Byrne’s life is told like a biography (though at one point Bruce writes from Byrne’s point of view, which was incredibly jarring), it’s difficult to feel the warmth between them. Their time—at least the way it is structured in the book—seems so painfully short that I struggled to see how Teresa Bruce and Byrne made a connection. Byrne must have told the stories to Bruce, but those stories are told to readers from a 3rd person point of view, creating a lot of distance between those verbal exchanges, which I’m sure were warm, and what I read on the page.
Looking at only Byrne’s story is interesting for its commentary on the function of the woman in domestic relationships. Byrne thinks that she can fix what others see as permanently broken, even when the theories of the time period tell her she’s wrong: her daughter Alison’s schizophrenia, Duncan’s depression and long silences, and her protégée’s secrets that might keep him from dancing. There is this sense she knows what is good for someone else and then goes about the task of making that person be presentable and successful–if only he/she would listen and behave correctly. So, while Byrne holds the family together by keeping up appearances, she’s also keeping so much inside with a great deal of strength.
Looking at only Teresa Bruce’s story is interesting for its commentary on love, sacrifice, and growth. She takes an extra job to afford flight lessons for Sonny, who later tries to crash the plane he’s flying—with her in it. I watched as Sonny and Bruce grew apart and was able, from a distant perspective, to see patterns in their behaviors that led to the relationship’s demise in a way I may not be able to in my own relationships. Teresa Bruce is imaginative, dedicated, and patient in The Other Mother.
While both women’s stories are fascinating and make the book well worth the read, some structural and points of view issues prevent the author from fully communicating her admiration for Byrne Miller.