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Guest Essay | Kathleen Clary Miller : My Pasadena Mother

Published on Monday, May 13, 2024 | 4:00 am

She wore shirt dresses, stockings, and high heels from the moment she awakened to the moment she went to bed—even to plant daffodils in pots on either side of our front door.  My mother was the iconic Pasadena lady of the 1950’s, the Grace Kelly of everyday life.  Everyone recognized her by her red station wagon adorned with whatever the season called for attached to the antenna.  She spoke to every salesperson and gas station attendant by name.

She drove us everywhere, along with whichever friends were so fortunate to be included:  birthday parties, school dances, rock concerts, to appear on KTLA’s “Shebang”—you name it, Mrs. Clary was the chauffeur. 

I carry her image: Every afternoon, after school, she is crossing the kitchen or turning the pages of the Latin/English dictionary to help me translate “The Aeneid” for homework.

An avid Dodger fan, I can still she her sitting at our eating table, scorebook in hand, transistor tuned to the voice of Vin Scully, crossing her fingers while Sandy Koufax pitched.  

My father acquired season tickets through his business so we would go to the games—My father and I in casual clothes, she in her cinched belted skirts and, of course, heels. 

Famous for more than her beauty, her mind was whip smart as she not only enrolled at UCLA at age 15 but later executed the New York Times and Los Angeles Times Sunday crossword puzzles as easily as if she was reciting the alphabet.  

It was understandably difficult for her after her stroke robbed her of what she considered mandatory elegance and claim to intelligence.  She struggled to recognize  herself in elastic waisted pants and witness her face in the mirror minus her trademark false eyelashes and assortment of lipsticks she had theretofore applied.

When I sat with her at that same table to help her with the crossword puzzles she could no longer perform as she always had, I saw only her classic beauty.  Without pancake makeup and eye shadow her skin was soft, her eyes were clearer, bluer.  Although she saw herself as diminished, I beheld an even truer vision of the woman who bore me and championed me for my entire life.  

“I’m sorry,” she would whisper in my ear, as I lifted her broken body into bed at night.  

“There is nothing to be sorry for,” I reassured her as I mothered her in the same way she had me for all my years.

Whereas, right after the lightning bolt that changed her, I felt I had lost my mother—who was she now?—in that moment I realized that she had not been taken from me, merely altered in body, but not heart.  She was evermore my Mama, unembellished, pure.

Kathleen Clary Miller is a Pasadena native. She has written essays and stories that have been published in newspapers and magazines across the country for 20 years. Although she currently lives in Fallbrook, Pasadena will always be her home.

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