Posing on the front porch in my Mayfield Junior School pinafore I wanted to grow up to be my mother. I would marry a man exactly like my father and raise my family on South San Rafael Avenue. Instead, I’ve become a walking billboard for what Greek philosopher Heraclitus determined: “The only thing constant is change.”
For fifty-six years I lived all over the southern section of this golden state beginning with Pasadena, then as a college graduate south to Balboa Island, a career girl in Los Angeles and San Diego, and a wife and young mother in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Each move was abundant with promise; each unpacking, a fresh start.
Divorce from the very wrong man I’d chosen at age thirty-one because my biological clock was ticking like a time bomb led me at age forty-five into the classroom to teach English and Journalism at St. Margaret’s High School in San Juan Capistrano where my daughters attended. One Friday afternoon at 3:00 I was scooping them up in the station wagon when the principal leaned into the open car window and asked could I do him a favor, and the following Monday morning at 8:30 I was teaching The Odyssey, having read it for the first time over that weekend. In 1982 I’d traded a career with the Los Angeles Times for motherhood, and now I would show my daughters that when marital misfortune finds you, you splash water on your face and find a way forward. I reassured them I did not plan to travel my new path hand-in-hand with some second husband; perfect contentment was at last mine in a household that now included my widower-father, our dog, and the TV remote control all to myself.
God had other plans (as usual) when a girlfriend sat next to a complete stranger on an airplane and told me to marry him because he’d worn quality jeans and a button-down shirt and was reading Sherlock Holmes. Although I vehemently resisted her urging, at his suggestion I acquiesced to engaging in a friendly correspondence that culminated in a more-than-just-friendly engagement ring. I was fifty-one years old and had no more idea what to wear to my second wedding than I’d had to my first prom.
There was worry for my daughters. What would ushering a stepfather into the blurry picture do for their sense of security? This was unfamiliar turf, being that I’d been raised by the same two nurturing parents who, between our Pasadena home and Mayfield, had created for me shelter from any storm. Fortunately, Brad Miller was the very example my girls needed, of a kind man. And it didn’t hurt that he had two stunningly handsome sons who became their brothers.
After my father was heartbreakingly installed in a memory-care facility and both daughters graduated from college and moved to different states, I shared Brad’s dream of retiring to twenty-one acres of pine forest in Huson, Montana, an infinitesimal dot on the map thirty miles west of Missoula, the only commercial building being a dive bar (we’re talking a deep dive). I could leave it all behind me, all the ghosts of my former life for whom I was mourning and embark on the grandest enterprise of them all. Montana would be the idyllic place to escape the rat race and inhale—ah—the simple life.
I conveniently forgot that few things are that simple.
No sooner had he unpacked his spurs than my robust husband randomly suffered a spontaneous-dissection stroke and just so I could meet the medical community along with him, I broke my ankle. While he recovered the use of one side, and I tried not to break the other ankle as I hobbled on crutches for the first time in my life (Nothing would sabotage this fantasy!) a crane lifted each log onto the foundation of our woodland retreat. Ten months later, as I stood (on two feet) agape with wonder the roof went on under that great big sky I thought I would gaze at until St. Peter called my name.
In the beginning I embraced the great outdoors like Sacajawea. I learned to fly fish wearing waders that overflowed with river water every time I fell (often). I shopped for puffy jackets that, when zipped, made me look like an animated peanut M&M. I knitted dozens of wooly scarves and strapped bear spray to my belt. I cross-country skied down our snowy driveway and a mile-long road to collect the Missoula newspaper and snowshoed over four-foot drifts until I couldn’t bend my knees to peel off my Smartwool socks.
Before we’d moved, I had been published in the Los Angeles Times and that happy circumstance had led to acquiring columns in The Pasadena Star-News, Orange County Register, and even Newsweek Magazine. I’d blanketed my stories throughout the country and perseverance had paid off. Here, The Missoulian offered me a corner of newsprint to call my own after I submitted an essay about being a Southern California transplant, and in that space I poetically mused about each change of season and penned observations while opening my eyes to new vistas as if I were seeing in color for the first time. My stories appeared in Montana magazines. Soon, I was recognized all over town and my keyboard connected me to university professors, the courthouse judge, and the conductor of the Missoula Symphony. Our lives brimmed with friends and opportunities that otherwise might not have been ours.
One Autumn afternoon I was walking down the dirt road when there rose an unprecedented breeze that felt salty from the sea. Impossible, since I was landlocked. Stopped in my tracks I suddenly felt like Montana might as well be Mars, and a longing for the bricked backyard of my birth hit me like a bull moose. I had no notion when I left my past behind that it would travel right along with me and five years into the adventure incurable homesickness would infect me like a superbug. I missed the sunlight, for one thing. For another, ice that is in a frosty glass of refreshment instead of under my tires.
As the days passed only my writing helped lift me above the many months of grey and the growing ache in my heart for home sweet home.
I started wearing my old Rainbow sandals around our log home when it was ten degrees outside just to feel that familiar tug between my toes. I fought the pull toward Pasadena for as long as I could, but two years later when I finally surrendered and confessed to Brad that I felt like my feet were not in the right place (or the right shoes), we agreed I should seek professional help before doing anything drastic. During the third session when I still couldn’t describe the Rose Parade without a lachrymal flood the counselor threw up her hands and diagnosed, “You just need to go home!”
I donated a closet full of fleece and face masks to Goodwill and resurrected my Ray Bans. A neighbor inherited my cowboy and mud boots as I clicked the heels of my ruby red Rainbows and started packing—again. Leaving nothing to chance, ordered a statue of St. Joseph (Amazon.com!) and buried him, per instructions, under a snowbank, to bring a qualified buyer for the house. I whipped out my mother’s rosary beads and began an earnest novena.
Love really is better the second time around; This very right man sacrificed his bucket-list dream to accept an offer and move us back, this time to Fallbrook, a compromise that got him country and gave me Southern California. St. Joseph now spoons with the spoons in my silverware drawer, where I am reminded daily that life can hang a u-turn in a heartbeat.
I’ve been back for two and a half years and remain in sheer heaven to awaken to sunny seventy-five degrees and avocados for breakfast. I’m giddy over the material benefits of civilization I took for granted, everything from mail delivery to cell phone service to city sewer to trash collection at the curb. Real Mexican food. Trader Joe’s. I can reach Pasadena on a freeway (albeit fighting traffic, but hey! There is traffic!), visit with my lifelong Mayfield best friend, and once again stand on the ground where I was planted.
I have made my share of changes and although some were less than perfect, it is those blemishes that have taught me most about myself and have reminded me, time and time again, that no one’s lifeline is ramrod straight. But with a little hope and a truckload of faith, this much is true: Around the bends that blindside you small miracles, in fact, do happen.
Perhaps I will come full circle and Pasadena be my final destination; I can still dream, can’t I? In my mother’s immortal words, “At the end of the day everyone needs to go home.”
P.S. I still haven’t taken off my sandals.
Kathleen Clary Miller was born in Pasadena in 1951 and attended Mayfield from Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. She graduated from Mayfield Junior School in 1965, and from Mayfield Senior School in 1969. She earned her BA in English and writing from USC in 1973. She is the mother of two daughters, stepmother of two sons, and grandmother of six. She has authored over 300 essays and stories that have appeared in publications across the country since 2004. Her three memoirs, “The Man in My Mailbox”, “When Forgetting Is a Gift—Placing My Father in an Alzheimer’s Facility”, and “Gone Fishing—My New Life in the Last Best Place” are available at Amazon.com.