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Growing up with Mom and the community

by John Pixley

The last movie my mom and I went to was Boogie Nights in 1997. And when it was over, she said, “Wow!”

Yes, the movie was “pretty rough,” as she put it, set as it was in the San Fernando Valley pornography industry and featuring drug deals gone bad and abrupt killings. But that wasn’t the only reason why this was the last movie we attended together. It was getting too hard for her to drive me in my wheelchair-accessible van. And besides, she wouldn’t be in town much longer.      

My mom liked going to the movies. My dad didn’t particularly like going, though. After retiring from teaching for years here in Claremont—and the years before she and my dad moved to the Bay Area about 15 years ago—I was happy to be my mom’s “movie date.” My mom and I also enjoyed watching television together—again, more than my dad did—and there is no doubt our movie-going adventures would have continued had they not moved.

As I look back since my mom’s death this summer at the age of 86, I remember her saying “Wow!” a lot. Or maybe she was just thinking it, even if she didn’t actually say it out loud a lot—I think a lot of people probably said “Wow!” after they saw Boogie Nights. In her quiet, modest way, she had a curiosity and a secret sense of adventure.

There were all the new recipes that she enjoyed trying. She had collections of recipes on 3 x 5 cards, many of them stained, and she would read cookbooks before bed. After we spent a year in Italy in the early 1970s, she went on an Italian cooking kick and would search out the most authentic ingredients available here in Claremont.

Cooking was just one thing, though. I remember in the years after moving to Claremont in 1962 after my dad joined the math department at the then-new Harvey Mudd College, my mom got very involved with the faculty wives. They were always doing craft projects. One I particularly remember—it was a classic—was the Christmas angels made of those prickly balls that fall from sycamore trees that she spray-painted gold.

My mom was also a bit more adventurous than others when it came to music. Not only did my parents have an impressive record collection, which included vintage German and Irish folk songs, my older sister’s friends liked my mom. They said she was the cool mom because she let them play Bob Dylan, the Mamas & the Papas and Donovan.

She took this same spirit with her when, in 1973, she starting teaching fifth and sixth grade at Chaparral School for what would become a 20-year career. My mom would spend hours at home not just grading papers but preparing projects for her students. I remember her once being frustrated that she couldn’t play a song by Cat Stevens for her students, because it referred to when “Mary dropped her pants in the sand.”

It was a good thing my mom liked trying and doing new things. It probably made it a bit easier for her dealing with me in addition to my sister and younger brother, as I grew up severely disabled in a wheelchair and with impaired speech. She put up with hours of doctor appointments and hours and hours more of therapy sessions, eager to learn how she could help me make my life the best it could be.

As exhausting and daunting as I’m sure it was—going to all those appointments, trying out new equipment and new and sometimes counter-intuitive ways of doing things—she was always excited to see what I could accomplish and how much more I could possibly do. As a child and a young teenager, Mom always encouraged me in this exploration. She sometimes did it in sneaky ways and sometimes in ways that surprised even herself. Going on movie dates with her was nothing, just the beginning or, really, the ending.

When we lived in Berkeley for a year in the late 1960s, there were days when she would let me skip school. We would take off and go into San Francisco, when the city wasn’t so crowded, and the two of us would wander around Ghiradelli Square and the Cannery, imagining what we would do with the exotic and gourmet foods and laughing at the silly bubble furniture in the shops.

During the year we lived in Italy she would, as exhausting and sometimes flat-out frightening as it was, haul me in my wheelchair up long flights of stairs in palaces and museums. Men sometimes stared at us.

But it was here in Claremont where we did our best exploring, if not our most intrepid adventuring. Claremont was a great place for my mom to raise a severely disabled child, in addition to my sister and brother, and not just because there were other disabled kids like Ewen McIntyre, who also had cerebral palsy and lived just around the corner, and Robyn Olson, who lived a couple miles away.

Danbury School opened just in time, in 1968, when I was 8 years old. With its highly-dedicated teachers and therapists regularly working with me, the school was a friendly, almost homey partner for my mom in bringing me up, encouraging her as she encouraged me. This was even more the case as the special education staff transitioned me, after waiting for two or three years, to El Roble and then the high school. 

But it wasn’t just Danbury School that buoyed up my mom in bringing me up, it was the whole town. They welcomed her and me in my chair and encouraged us to come out and participate. It was the miles of strolls on shady sidewalks and garden paths, the holiday parties and picnics in the park with other families and the people in the Village shops who smiled and knew my name. It was swimming with all the faculty families at the pools at the different colleges and my mom’s friends asking how my new wheelchair was working out or how I was doing in school.

As I grew older and up and out, I continued to explore and be adventurous. I was sometimes a bit more adventurous in what I wore or what I did with my hair or how I lived my life than my mom liked. But even when I was too adventurous for her, she still said “Wow!” She may not have approved, but it felt like she was secretly rooting for me, always curious at what I could do. She didn’t understand why I stopped eating meat—for years, she struggled over the menu when I visited—but she bought me vegetarian cookbooks and was impressed with my system for keeping track of leftovers in my freezer. More often than not, she commented on how nicely my colorful bib overalls went with a turtleneck, even when both were from a thrift store.

My mom said “wow” a lot as I was growing up, and Claremont was right there with her, giving her all the more reason.

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