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Rose-Colored Glasses

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My parents lived in the same Pasadena home on South San Rafael Avenue for forty-three years, just across the Colorado Bridge from the quintessential corner, the one where all the television cameras monitored the sweeping turn of giant floats and marching bands of the world-famous Rose Parade. I was a Tournament of Roses brat. Every January 1, I was on the pivotal cusp where I held my breath as each man-made extravaganza cascading with fresh flowers approached the intersection of South Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevard. Every float’s path was negotiated by a human driver located deep within the bowels of the engine-propelled vehicle disguised as an entire village, a fire-breathing dragon, or a lovely, but dull, unanimated nature scene. If I could spot the driver, I got two points; if I called the success or failure of the hard-right turn or the inevitable mechanical stall, my score doubled.

Would the castle tower of floral seeds and foliage maneuver the corner without leveling bleachers or demolishing signal lights? Had the third drummer from the left in the second to the last row fallen out of step? I challenged each city orchestra’s prowess by pointing a finger to make a straight line, then carefully measuring to see if they were still on track while rounding the bend.

I was the casual critic for whom it had all come too easily.

Had I been deprived of Rose Parade access or forced by circumstances beyond my control to struggle to attend, it might have meant more to me; I might have made a New Year’s resolution to be even better behaved than I already was so my parents might purchase me a ticket. As it was, my attitude on the first day of the rest of my life was pampered; I had been born privileged: I lived in Pasadena on this day of the grandest of all parades.

I was not the only one. There were scads of girls who pictured themselves as Rose Queen, this being the only aspect of the glory that held no fascination for me. Although it remained an unspoken topic between us, I knew that my mother would have reveled in my becoming the crowned jewel of her town and I was sorry to disappoint her, but I irrevocably passed up my one chance for two hours and fifteen minutes of internationally-televised float fame.

When I was at Mayfield all-girls high school behind the iron gates of a Catholic convent on Bellefontaine Street, just the right age to be considered, our family dentist indicated that he was on the board of directors who chose the queen for a day. If I would only let him hypnotize me rather than use Novocain, just so he could test this new approach to pain-free dentistry, he could all but assure me the crown.

Naïve as a nun, my reticence had nothing to do with the fact that a dentist my father’s age wanted to render me unconscious in the reclining chair while running through the parameters for Rose Queen qualification.

“Of course, you’d have to cut your hair,” he muttered as a barely audible aside.

Cut my hair? At last unhinged from its grammar-school ponytail, I now had the hair the Beach Boys sang songs about: long, straight, and naturally golden-blonde. But among the many strict-propriety Tournament of Roses regulations was the hairdo code: each member of the chosen court was required to top off her fetching figure with a short, chin-length bob. Sorry for the tiny thorn, Dr. Boyd, but in that case, I was clearly not cut for Rose Royalty.

No matter, there were plenty who were. Girls clawed their way to the top as their mothers dashed from Bullock’s Wilshire in Los Angeles to Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, seeking the right outfits and accessories for the elimination process that began early in October and ended in November. The street outside the winner’s house would be painted with flowers and chalked with hearts and congratulatory messages—sort of an upscale TP job. Big doings in the otherwise sleepy suburb of Los Angeles.

We had it made, and we were even in the shade during all those childhood New Year’s celebrations. Every year, we crossed the Colorado Bridge to the Williams’ house, a tiny cottage on Ellis Street, a short block right off Orange Grove, the high-rent district where the parade not only passed, but even better, got started so you could ogle the swim-suited majorettes before they faded, drained and disheveled from baton twirling five miles down the route. Massive magnolia trees lined the green lawns adjacent to the curb—none of this riff-raff bleacher stuff like on Colorado, where there was only blacktop and grey office buildings.

We arose at dawn after a New Year’s Eve with relatives and friends who unfurled their sleeping bags and covered every bed and sofa in our New England style house. We all retired uncharacteristically early, some even right after dinner under the dining room table.

In the morning, we had hot chocolate, donuts, and a mysterious grown-up punch bowl in which floated a frozen holly wreath. I have since learned that the poisonous potion swam with five different types of booze and a splash of orange juice. We had descended on the Williams’ the day before with our pile of folding chairs, which were all lined up for the main feature.

My older brother Billy got to sleep out overnight on the patch of grass by our seats. Jealousy raged within me, as Mama would never permit “such silly nonsense” for her little girls. She made us go home to eat frozen fish sticks for dinner, even if December 31 didn’t fall on a Friday. By the time I was old enough to sleep out, the allure of crashing on the ground in the cold had faded.

When Billy didn’t act as sentinel, he bribed the most trustworthy-looking group around us—a six-pack of beer would do the trick. I never knew if my mother figured out he wasn’t offering Coke. We walked the route the day before. There was television coverage, there were marshmallow-throwing contests, high-school and college kids making out in their sleeping bags.

I was a Tournament of Roses trust-fund baby, my future year-openers were secured and in the bank. I’d never have to fend.

Hence, I was unprepared when it didn’t last—the unexpected day when the Ellis connection went to that big parade in the sky. It wasn’t quite the same after that. Oh, my mother ordered me tickets, even with a few extra for friends, and the viewing was still on Orange Grove, but we were talking bleachers now. Among the masses, I didn’t feel so special. It helped that I could amble down my driveway at the reasonable hour of 7:00 a.m. feeling pity for those people who had battled for parking spaces as early as 3:30 the afternoon before.

Like so many other things, the parade became more complex as the years passed: Over a million people still attended from around the world, but that world had become touchier. The last time I went, an overabundance of security hampered my formerly-breezy access to a cushioned seat in the stands. Monty Montana was no longer on horseback, and ominous stealth bombers swooped over the heads of the crowd. The float-technology was so advanced they could have easily transformed the parade into an amusement park at the end of its five-mile run. My San Rafael status had slipped since moving first to San Clemente with a man who didn’t love anything, let alone a parade, and then to San Juan Capistrano. It would have been a hideous freeway battle to get there. The effort was insurmountable. Drive and park? You had to be kidding.

Instead, I attended church service on New Year’s Eve and went to bed by ten. In the morning, I rose in time for the parade and brewed my coffee in the hills. Many of my neighbors were Los Angeles transplants, but few had enjoyed the Pasadena parade location I had been privy to. When I told people where I’d grown up, they rolled their eyes and nodded their heads in tacit understanding. How could you keep me down on the farm after I’d seen that corner for forty-five years? But they didn’t carry the connection to the old streets, the intoxicating perfume of over half-a-million blossoms in the pre-dawn air, the celebratory sound of the bands practicing I had once heard from my second-story childhood window as I drifted off to sleep.

In my new home, I prepared hot chocolate so we could all gather around the TV. I built an early-morning fire in the fireplace, curled up on the sofa, and observed the festivities alone. My teenagers slept until noon, having partied hearty. But no matter how hard I tried, my mind wandered. It just wasn’t working for me anymore.

Despite the fact that I had never gotten it all together to become Pasadena’s Queen, I had been as much a part of the glory as if I had waved and worn the tiara.

You see, I had smelled the roses.


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