She was a poor high school girl who just needed a ride. And if she’d never had the courage to speak up, I wouldn’t be here today.
Each morning, handsome young Mike Miller drove past her house on his way to North Hollywood High. He usually picked up a friend on the way. Barbara, friends with his morning passenger, asked her one day, “Do you think Mike might pick me up also? I’m right on his way.” Her friend offered to ask on her behalf and returned the next day with his reply:
“He said if you want a ride that bad, you have to ask him yourself.”
What a jerk. What a cocky, arrogant ass.
Swallowing her pride for a ride, Barbara caved.
She sat in the back seat, but not for long.
The chemistry between them became too much and she soon moved to the front where their molecules mingled and began the Miller Family in 1958…and by some counts, even sooner.
At the end of his long, successful life, the greatest story never told about my dad, Mike Miller, is the one that belongs to my mother. She’d have no interest in telling it herself, but someone should speak of the woman who first just came along for the ride and ended up successfully navigating an entire generation.
Don’t mind if I do.
Barbara Ann or “Babs” as they sometimes called her, was the oldest of four in a not so great childhood where she was often the only present “parent. ” She learned at an early age how to care for people, to put them first, enjoy their achievements and take a backseat to their successes. If I’ve spoken of my dad’s remarkable humility in previous stories, Mom’s humility is truly incalculable.
Like Dad, Mom is also an artist, but of the family genre. The co-author, co-illustrator and presence in every sky of every painting he ever did, she is as much in every canvas of Dad’s art as the paint put upon it. And if you ask anyone, together, they created a family masterpiece. The full story of my dad’s life is immeasurably void and incomplete without her. During Dad’s final year, I watched them in their side by side recliners holding hands as he slowly drifted off until the day he finally drifted off forever. She wasn’t watching the television. She was watching the man who invited her to join him for this long ride that ended all too soon.
She’s the first to admit she had no formal education, but graduated from what she very proudly calls the School of Hard Knocks. She was the bobbing buoy in the family storms–unless of course they were real storms, in which case she was crouched under the stairs with her fingers in her ears. But despite the joking, she learned to make peace with a relentlessly stubborn man and lead the family from the back seat while still letting him believe he was always behind the wheel. We all knew better.
On many occasions, she could have given up, but always regarded the potential of the investment greater than its episodic highs and lows. She appreciated dreams and always listened intently to mine as if they were her own. I’ve always been a dreamer with a story to tell and many a pre-dawn morning, we sat together as I recited the most elaborate soliloquies of my night’s slumber and she always made me believe she starred in every one. And for a little boy turned author, she was my first captive audience.
She has always been fastidious about things. The kids, the house, holidays, Dad. For all his life, he was her project. Few know that. She could plant an idea and make him believe it was his seed. She could draw a picture of the future and he would paint it as an original. Set a course and he would route it as if he’d created the map. Together, they have at times been the Laurel and Hardy, George and Gracie and Ricky and Lucy of their many friendship circles, and were always the admired ones.
Their youth was the last to speak fondly of the woman behind the man. It was a post-depression era when young men and women enjoyed their mutually supportive roles with pride, producing what many now consider the last of the best families of the century. Their homeostatic coupling had no room for notions of pride and independence. Marriage had a purpose that far outweighed anything they might achieve on their own. Each acknowledged the other as a necessary complement, a symbiotic relationship which stayed the course and often defied societal odds and birthed a well-mannered generation of survivors.
Mom has given her three kids more stories of personal sacrifice, selflessness and principled living than we’ll ever live to tell. During our early years, she was always the mark of the family. Without her, we would have very few of our funniest stories.
Even now, 56 years later, she still drives us all crazy. But crazy is as crazy does and now nearing the end of her days, just like Dad, neither would change a thing.
Mom has since taken the wheel, driving the last leg of their journey alone. But they will end up at the same destination. For she will join him in the skies he will continue to paint for her from afar with light and color and placid memories.
They will forever be those two young kids, still enjoying that first ride that lasted a lifetime. And we will all watch from below and gather from time to time to laugh and cry and be thankful that they were that couple who once shared a front seat and drove each other, and the rest of us, crazy.
Until her own time comes, she misses him each time she gazes into the painted skies he leaves on her lonely walls.
But I’m pretty sure as she continues to talk to him over coffee from her early morning patio, he may finally reveal to her who it was who changed the setting on the dryer.
And the Valentine lovers will have yet another good laugh.