When she was growing up in Grand Forks, Linda Duray-Ramstad remembers trailing her older sister, Marlyn.
“I went with her everywhere — on dates and out with her girlfriends,” she said. “Mama always had so much to do for a family of eight that Marlyn got ‘stuck’ with me.”
Marlyn, who was 12 years older, was assigned the role of taking care of her youngest sister, Linda said. “I got lots of mothering from my sister. Through the years, she taught me so many life lessons.”
Even when Marlyn married and moved away, the relationship never changed, Linda said. “It didn’t make any difference how many miles were between us.”
“She saw me through everything,” Linda said, from Linda’s “wild, mixed-up teenage years” through an unplanned pregnancy and divorce.
Linda had a biological mother who loved her, but Marlyn was her “other mother.”
It’s a term that author Teresa Bruce has helped popularize in her book “The Other Mother: A Rememoir,” and participation at a TEDx event. Throughout the blogosphere and in book clubs around the country, people are talking about what “other mothering” is, where the term originated and how it differs from conventional parenting.
“The great thing is how women of all ages instantly ‘get’ why other mothers are so important and want to share their own stories,” Bruce said. “Their own identity is separate from yours, so they see right through you, to you.”
In her book, Bruce writes about the deep, life-changing bond she developed with an elderly woman she met on assignment as a 22-year-old rookie TV news reporter in South Carolina.
Byrne Miller was an 82-year-old former burlesque dancer and “a formidable modern dance maven,” Bruce said.
Their relationship blossomed. Bruce described it in her book and a TEDx talk, “The Wisdom of Quitting: Lessons from my Other Mother,” she gave last year in Charleston, S.C.
“We had no genetic ties, so my other mother had no vested interest in my identity. We could skip past all the usual mother-daughter baggage, and I could ask her things I’d never bring up with my biological mother,” she said.
Miller had “that quality, that ability to really listen and draw you out,” Bruce said. “She gave me the confidence and the freedom to try anything.”
Bruce said that, through love and encouragement, other mothers may play a crucial role in one’s development and choices. “You need them to find out who you really are, rather than who you were brought up to be.
“That’s important to figuring out what’s important in life.”
Other mothering “happens organically,” she said. “You don’t fill out a job application. It’s not a permanent or full-time connection. It grows and changes with time.
“And you can do it at any age,” she said, “since the capacity to nurture doesn’t (end) when biological children leave home.”
Mary Haslerud Opp’s “other mother” is Helen Opp, her mother-in-law, she said. “She has always accepted me with open arms and love.
“Helen is the kind of person who gives people hugs. She says ‘I love you’ every time I talk to her. To go into a family that does that is absolutely wonderful.
“We all need that good, healthy touch. It makes me feel loved and appreciated.”
Mary said her other mother has passed on to family and friends the lessons “of loving, and giving unconditional love, no matter what you do, which is such a great lesson to all of us.
“She is so supportive. She’s always so excited about anything I do.”
Nina Jane Miller was the other mother “to a whole neighborhood of kids in north-end Grand Forks,” said her daughter, Julie Molstad. “She had a big heart with a lot of love to go around. Her door was always open and food was always on the table.”
Many times, her mother cooked large meals and invited all the kids in, Julie said. “No one was ever turned away.”
Miller helped kids with scraped knees and homework assignments, handed out mittens, combed and braided a girl’s hair and encouraged a troubled teen, Julie said.
Her mother gave compassion and “a listening ear to anyone who needed her,” Julie said. “She taught me that even a small act of kindness can go a long way.”
Only Mom is mom
A relationship with an other mother doesn’t necessarily suggest any lack in the mother-daughter relationship, Bruce said. “A vast majority of mothers want others to champion and encourage our children.”
Mary Opp’s relationship with her other mother in no way diminishes her feelings about her own mother who died five years ago, she said. “I miss my mom every day. That’s why I feel so lucky to have Helen for a mother-in-law.”
Similarly, the close bond Linda Duray-Ramstad shared with her sister, Marlyn, took nothing away from her feelings about her mother, she said.
“It’s not that I didn’t love Mom (or) that she wasn’t a mom to me,” she said. “I was so attached to (her). Your mom is always the one you want to go to for comfort and to cry on her shoulder.
“As a substitute mom, Marlyn was the very best.”
Although her sister passed away in 2001 at 65, her influence on Linda’s life remains.
“In the long run, the lessons learned when I was younger become more evident” with time, she said. “You always make sure you tell people you love them.”
“We never passed on an opportunity to say ‘I love you’ to each other,” she said.
On the Web: To see Bruce’s TEDx talk, go to bit.ly/Rw4PRC.