My maternal grandparents and four of their children immigrated to the United States from Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1922. My grandfather, William Miller, was a coal miner, the son and grandson of coal miners. Times were hard in Scotland in the early 1920s, with frequent mining strikes chipping away at my grandfather’s efforts to make a living.
A relative in Pennsylvania coaxed my grandparents to try their luck in the States. They settled in Eastern Pennsylvania for a while, where my grandfather worked in the anthracite coal mines and my grandmother, Bella, had two more children, my mother the youngest.
Before the decade was over, the Millers found their way to Southern California. They settled in Redondo Beach in what is called the South Bay. By then the Depression had hit, and it hit my grandparents especially hard. My grandfather died at 48, a casualty of a life filled with financial stress and grim, back-breaking labor in the mines. He left my grandmother a young widow with six children to rear during the Depression.
Like children everywhere, and especially children in the Depression era, my mother and her siblings managed to find ways to entertain themselves with little. As it turned out, Redondo Beach in those days was like living down the street from Disneyland, with one of California’s prettiest beaches and an amusement park just a stone’s throw from the shore. There, young people had their pick from an array of attractions–carnival rides and games, a movie theatre, the world’s largest salt-water plunge, and the Mandarin Ballroom, where Big Band-era musicians performed every weekend.
My mother says she loved growing up in Redondo Beach. She spent most of her childhood summers swimming in the ocean and the plunge. As a teenager she worked as an usher in the theatre and danced with her high school sweetheart, later to become my father, at the Mandarin Ballroom.
The photo above captures five of the Miller children posed on the beach in an assortment of makeshift beach attire. My mother stands in the lower right, her dress tucked into her panties to keep it from getting wet. They look like they’re having a great day at the seashore, their thoughts a thousand miles away from the troubles that burdened their parents.
About a decade ago, my mother and a couple of her sisters were browsing through a photo album and came across this photograph. “We sure looked like a bunch of goof-balls, didn’t we?” one said. “Yeah, real ragamuffins,” agreed another. “Look at our flat chests. It was the style then to play down our chests. Remember how we bound them in later years?” chimed in a third.
As it turned out, the “Miller Girls,” for that’s what they were called, grew up to be quite the lookers, known for their good figures—especially their great legs. But this photo was taken before they blossomed into beauties, before their lives would change forever when their father died. On this day they’re caught in a moment in time, as carefree as any kids at the beach.