Alumna finds writing book about aging to be therapeutic

November 07, 2011

When her beloved spouse, John Palmer, died a day after his 96th birthday in December of 2007, Kathryn “Kay” Mehl Miller ’56 thought her life might be over too.

The then 73-year-old proved herself wrong. After a month in deep depression, punctuated only with playing mindless games at her computer, and still grieving, she began a journey that resulted in her recently published book, “Living with the Stranger in Me: An Exploration of Aging.”

“When John died, I didn’t know who I was anymore – all my attention had been focused on him,” says Miller, during a phone interview from her Santa Rosa, Calif., home. “I was not only grieving for John, but wondering what I was going to do. We live in a coupled world – and I was single, single at 73!”

Miller realized she had to re-build her life, but how to do that at her age? “Living with the Stranger in Me” is the personal story of how she accomplished that, coupled with illustrations, insights and commentary on issues of aging.

“I wrote the book to share my experience with others, hoping they would benefit from the telling, and that people, in general, would appreciate older persons as whole and still interested in life,” says Miller, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology at the age of 58.

The journey began a month after Palmer’s death when she found herself on the doorstep of the church where he had belonged to a community-sponsored men’s group. She walked in, and a woman asked her if she played bridge. Surprised and delighted—for she loved bridge, Miller agreed to join the church’s club even before hearing a single sermon.

After the church service, she told the pastor, “I’ve been called to play bridge.” Her journey back to life had begun.

For Miller, the year-long experience in writing the book was a blessed revival, a return to her trademark joie de vivre, after putting her own interests on hold for a few years to be a caregiver. The native of Riverton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore was the valedictorian of her high school class who came to WMC on a State Senatorial Scholarship.

Even during her college years, she embraced opportunities to right a wrong or improve what was. She devised a seating strategy for the dining hall to alleviate pushing and shoving when the dinner bell rang. She helped the Inter-Fraternity Council formulate a plan of self-governed behavior after “boisterous and drunken male students tore down the flagpole and threw beer cans at the WMC dean of men.”

Miller was editor of the college’s newspaper, “The Gold Bug”, co-wrote the Junior Follies with classmate Bill Tribby and was an aide to Dean of Women, Helen Howery.

Ultimately, as she dealt with her grief and re-built her life, one discovery along the path led to another. She was invited to be on an advisory committee to the church’s pastor. Skills honed over the years, first as a seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher – “If you can teach seventh and eighth graders, you can teach anyone,” she says, chuckling, and, later, as a counselor and therapist and even a newspaper columnist, came in handy when helping the pastor in teaching a Bible class on theodicy, the study of why God allows suffering.

Idly searching computer files one day, Miller came across “The Stranger in Me,” an essay about growing old she had written when she was 65, and shared it with a neighbor, who enthusiastically suggested she write a book. The then-retired publisher of her first book, Talking It Over: Understanding Sexual Diversity, agreed. Taking freshly-written chapters to her women’s group each Wednesday, she’d read to her friends.  Avid readers all, they kept her motivated with their appreciation of the story and kept her prose open and honest with their frank critiques—“There’s too much John in that chapter. Write more about your own feelings.”

Writing the book was in itself therapeutic, says Miller, who found it a joy to be immersed in writing again and to share it with other people She feels alive again, savoring each day for what it brings in the senior community of Oakmont in Santa Rosa where she moved in 1992 after living in Hawaii for 23 years. She’s active in her church as the president of the church council and Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club, founded over 100 years ago by Jack London and John Muir (Sierra Club). Miller has been involved with PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays), marching in Pride Parades, serving on committees and boards and writing columns for gay media.

True to her liberal arts roots, Miller says she will always be interested in learning.

“I expect to learn something the day I die,” she says.

Kay Mehl Miller’s book “Living with the Stranger in Me: An Exploration of Learning” is available at in both paperback and Kindle.