While Walking the Dog
Memories of a Jewish Childhood
By Lynn Ruth Miller
While Walking the Dog
Memories of a Jewish Childhood
By Lynn Ruth Miller
I turned seventy-six, I thought I would have all the answers to everything I
wanted to know. Instead, I have discovered that I have double the questions that
haunted me in the days when I was young, inexperienced and certain I knew what
life should be about.
I had a very clear picture of the world I was going to build for myself: I would
marry an intelligent and loving man who was dedicated to living a creative, yet
reflective life guided by kindness and compassion. We would have half a dozen
adorable, talented children that we reared together avoiding all the horrible
errors our parents made when they introduced us to their misguided hang-ups and
crazy, shallow goals. There would be no anger or distress in our home because we
were understanding, liberal and mature human beings who let love and acceptance
guide us. We would live in a tastefully decorated, spacious house that reeked of
quiet, understated elegance. We would have enough money to support our special
interests: theatre, art; literature, symphony, travel. My husband would provide
for us and I would transform our home into a peaceful refuge, away from the
hustle, bustle, thick-headedness and materialism of the less cultivated and
informed populace. We would have a manicured, horticulturally diverse garden
filled with flowers, vegetables and healthy trees with low swinging branches for
our children to climb. We would indulge in all the old fashioned pleasures:
rubber tire swings from those hanging branches, lemonade stands, dramatic
productions in the back yard, taffy pulls and fudge making, picnics on the grass
and, although I didn’t say it, I was certain the violins would always play
background music for us as we danced our way through our unblemished, happy
But that is not what happened to me. Not even close. I forced myself to follow
all the senseless rules my mother drummed into me and not one of them worked. I
subscribed to the deferred gratification thing in school and in love. I studied
hard and did all my homework so I could go to a good college and graduate with a
degree I would never use because I was going to marry that cute Jewish Galahad.
I loved with discretion, remembering that my chastity was all I had to bring to
the bargaining table when I tried to find that one perfect man hidden in some
Ivy League bush. My mother never failed to remind me that once I uncrossed my
legs, dropped my lollipops or succumbed to anything more intimate than a pat on
the shoulder, I was doomed to spinsterhood forever. And I believed her. She had
trapped Daddy, hadn’t she? And he was such a nice, sweet man.
So it was that I graduated with honors from the University of Michigan and
managed to snag a husband fresh from the battlefields of Korea, anxious to find
a fool to support him and pay his tuition to Harvard Business School. The guy
was exactly the kind of person I had planned to marry. He was from an
upper-middle class Jewish family. He had graduated the year before me in Ann
Arbor and (I thought) we shared the same goals.
But we did not share much of anything at all.
I managed to escape the arrangement with a severe eating disorder and a
desperate fear of men with horned rimmed glasses and a penchant to swat stubborn
wives who were lousy in bed. I had not a penny, blasted hopes, and no house in
the suburbs with even one cute little kid. All I had was a death wish I couldn’t
suppress, a job teaching other people’s children and a tattered little dream
that life could be delightful if I only I could find the key. I gulped down
tranquilizers by the dozen and decided to try for the one thing I COULD do: pass
an exam. I entered the University of Toledo, yawned through the classes, knit
afghans instead of studying and emerged with a four point average and a gay
The guy read poetry to me, bought me a house in Columbia City, Indiana and got
me a beagle named Beatrice. But after we walked down the aisle and honeymooned
(?) in Bermuda, he realized I was the worst investment he ever made. It took our
marriage to convince him he couldn’t hack heterosexuality. He sent me home,
rejected, confused and broke to live with the parents I could not escape. They
took me in and reminded me day after day that I was a failure.
The eating disorder exacerbated. When I wasn’t failing at everything I tried, I
was starving, bingeing and wondering why I was torturing myself this way. I
managed to salvage the one faint wisp of hope I had suppressed since I was two
years old when I discovered the magic of reading. I would forget the husband,
the kids, the house, the money and I would become a journalist.
I applied to Stanford University and was actually accepted. By that time, I was
thirty, twice divorced and defeated. It was that acceptance that kept me moving
forward, this time with desperation. There WAS something lovely somewhere for
me. I just had to find it. And I damn well better hurry. Time was evaporating. I
was almost middle aged!!!!
I managed to cram four years of undergraduate credit and two years of advanced
studies into fourteen frantic months writing for newspapers, studying until dawn
and getting all A’s. There was something about that University with its
reverence for intelligence and respect for excellence that inspired me to outdo
myself. I never wanted to leave Palo Alto; I never wanted to stop breathing the
heady atmosphere of excitement and discovery that flowered there. I graduated
and sent out my applications knowing I could do anything…anything at all. I was
ready for that dream and I was sure I could make it happen.
But Utopia was not ready for me. The beautiful scholastic record I had achieved
did not get me either a high paying job or job security and I left California to
return home, defeated and miserable. I didn’t know why life wasn’t happening; I
didn’t know why I hadn’t realized some kind of happiness. All I knew was that I
did not fit in. And I also knew that I was responsible for who I was. After all,
it was I who made the choices.
I became a university professor for a while and I loved it but I was underpaid,
over-worked and unloved…by myself as well as everyone else except my students.
It was about that time that my body broke down and I stopped digesting food. I
spent a year in the hospital trying to figure out why I dying and although I
have many theories now, no one, including the finest doctors in the country had
any answers for me. I got tired of taking their medicines, hearing their dire
predictions and living a life that revolved around my body instead of the me
that really mattered: the one in my head and my heart. I decided I had enough of
an existence that was only concerned with my blood pressure and I walked out of
the hospital, all 55 pounds of me and returned to Toledo, Ohio. I emerged more
determined than ever to find a road, any road I could travel without emotional
torture. It was time to re-define what failure really was and what I meant by
Through all this, I wrote stories, I painted pictures and I dreamed those same
ridiculous dreams I had dreamed as a child. Something in me repeated, “There is
a better way, and you have to find it on your own. No one is going to hand you
happiness on a platter. “
Years went by…I walked…I wrote.. I walked…I painted…I walked, I coped with the
surprises life brings and I learned to take responsibility for the person I was
creating. I traveled across the country to find a place where I could be me and
eventually I returned to the one spot I had loved more than any other: The Bay
Area. I was 48 years old, living on $325 a month. I had two dogs, two cats and
that bedraggled little dream.
I discovered that through all the grey times, the storms and the setbacks, I was
building my character and my personality into something I wanted it to be. I was
afraid of nothing because it had all happened and I had survived. I was accosted
in an elevator in New York City, I broke down in Texas, I was attacked in
Redwood City. I was robbed in Laredo, I was fired in Oklahoma City. And along
the way, I developed marvelous skills I didn’t even know I needed. I was
comfortable with strangers, quick to see opportunity and even quicker to laugh.
I was not afraid to love because I began to love myself. I learned that a woman
doesn’t have to have a man to survive. What she needs is herself. Miracles
followed miracles. I found jobs to support me, opportunities to go to opera,
symphony and theatre, ushering and writing reviews. I discovered that if you
didn’t spend money on foolishness, it grew faster than I ever imagined.
I did not purchase any clothing or go to a movie for almost twenty years but I
was so busy having glorious adventures I didn’t have time to shop or sit in a
theatre anyway. I was learning about how to have fun when you are alone. I was
becoming independent of everything: other people, other ideas and other life
styles. I had developed my own way to be, the one I am comfortable living. My
funds grew until I was able to make a down payment on a house and with that came
the stability I needed to do even more with that dream that refused to die.
I wrote columns for newspapers, published four books, created two television
shows, traveled to Scotland and became a stand-up comic. I decided I had always
wanted to sing, and so I do cabaret. I decided I always wanted to love something
besides myself and so I love lots and lots and lots of people now. …..including
cute, adorable me.
The other day I looked in the mirror at my wrinkled, ravaged face and I said,
“You did this person all by yourself. All those years you thought you were
failing, you were building a person.”
It’s like this: When I paint a picture, the first few layers of color look like
nothing at all. It takes many applications to make that image take shape and
that is exactly what happened to me. Many years ago, a student of mine called me
in tears, and she said, “Will I ever find it?”
“Find what?” I asked
“The answer to life,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “You’ll find it when you die.”
But I was wrong.
You find it long before that! All those years, I thought I was looking, but I
was mistaken. I was finding the person I am now that I am seventy six years old.
Life is a treasure hunt and the only people who fail at it are those who can’t
recognize what they have discovered. It took endless doing, dreaming and taking
chances to be what I am, but I did it! I made ME. And I did it all by myself
because I wanted to.
And I am not finished. Not by a long-shot. Every day, I add a little more to the
mix. THAT is the pay-off aging brings. And that’s why it is so unbelievably,
delightfully and surprisingly amazing.
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made