Beverly Cleary, author of many funny, wise classics of children’s literature, turned one hundred years old on April 12. She is known for having created such characters as Ralph, the motorcycle mouse, Henry Huggins, and Ramona and Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby.
I went through piles of Cleary’s books as a kid, but Ramona and Her Mother, I only needed to read once.
Ramona and Her Mother opens with the Quimbys celebrating Mr. Quimby’s new job at the checkout counter of the Shop Rite. Mr. Quimby’s bout with unemployment has left the family with bills, though, and Mrs. Quimby stays at her job as a medical receptionist. The family has a disastrous brunch. Ramona dyes her legs with bluing when she and her friend Howie try to make an ocean. After a long, difficult day, Ramona’s parents fight and then make up. Beezus gets a terrible haircut. Ramona wears her comfortable new pajamas to school underneath her clothes and accidentally leaves them there and tries to hide it.
Throughout, we find Ramona trying to be good and dependable—although this also often means suppressing her curiosity and imagination. She wants to be seen as responsible, like Beezus. She overhears people saying that Beezus is her mother’s girl, and she wishes she could be the same.
One episode, in particular, I have always remembered.
The Quimbys have had a terrible day. When they come home, they discover that no one has plugged in the Crock Pot, and there is no dinner waiting. Mr. Quimby and Mrs. Quimby argue about who was responsible.
“I suppose you think turning on a Crock-Pot is woman’s work.”
The edge in her voice matched the edge in his.
“Not exactly,” said Mr. Quimby, “but now that you mention it—”
Even in just that short exchange, the book manages to touch on women’s changing roles in the household in that era and the tensions they sometimes brought. Cleary has been lauded for the groundbreaking realism of her work, and this sequence shows how beautifully and skillfully she does it. Ramona and Her Mother was published in 1979, and this entire episode—with the hungry kids, tired parents, the simmering tension over Mrs. Quimby going to work and the worries about money—it’s remarkable.
The parents continue to quietly pick at each other while putting together a dinner of pancakes from of the meager contents of their pantry. Meanwhile, Ramona frets about Beezus, who is grating carrots—she’s worried that Beezus will scrape her fingers and bleed into the salad.
But the blood is in the growing argument between the parents—and all the tensions about who was supposed to provide, who was supposed to work—not just in this moment but in life—slowly come to the surface until finally Mr. Quimby tells Mrs. Quimby the pancakes aren’t cooked through. When she disagrees, he reaches over and slashes them.
Mrs. Quimby swats Mr. Quimby with a spatula and stalks out of the room. The summaries I glanced at all seem to go with some variation of Mrs. Quimby hitting Ramona’s dad with a spatula, with no mention of the pancakes. But for me, the scene turns on Mr. Quimby’s almost comic aggression toward dinner—comic, but also somehow not funny.
Mr. Quimby finishes making the meal. Later, Ramona sneaks into Beezus’s room, and the two comfort each other.
I talk a lot in this column about how I read and re-read books.
I never read Ramona and Her Mother after the first time—not until I was an adult. Not until I became a parent.
Like Mr. Quimby, my dad was unemployed on and off. He had been a psychiatric social worker. He later worked as a freelance translator. We operated a diner for a while, and then he started selling and putting together computers.
After my father’s first bout with unemployment, my mother, who had been a nurse-midwife in Taiwan, went to work as a seamstress in a factory. She worked steadily from the time I was four or five. She didn’t try to certify for nursing in Canada because she never felt her English was good enough. She resented my father greatly for what she perceived as his failure to support the family. And, of course, they fought.
At some point, my mom started telling me things. She’d stop by my room before bedtime and launch into long monologues about how hard she had to work and how much she hated her life. She blamed my dad. She said he was irresponsible and that I had to help support the family by being good and quiet and never wanting things.
She also made me feel like there was no one else she could talk to—and maybe that was true. Her parents, who had come to live with us, didn’t like my dad and would blame her for marrying him. My mom’s limited English meant she didn’t feel comfortable with our Anglophone neighbors, and the friends who did speak her language were terrible gossips.
So she talked to me.
I defended my dad to her—he and I had always been close—but I also felt grown up to be trusted with family burdens. In a lot of ways, I wanted, as Ramona did, to be seen as a good helper to my mother. But sometimes that wish isn’t healthy, and now I see it cost me too much. I was ten or eleven, maybe. And I ended up worrying not about the welfare of our family—I ended up feeling responsible for my mother’s happiness and, worse, her deep, deep unhappiness.
When I told my dad that my mom sometimes unburdened herself to me—and that I defended him valiantly—he looked sad and angry. He told me I was a kid and that he was sorry that I had to deal with it. I was outraged at the time. I was mature. I was sure I could be helpful.
Near the end of the episode in Ramona and Her Mother, when Ramona sneaks into Beezus’s room and the two snuggle under the covers, Beezus says she’ll be there for Ramona if their parents divorce. She adds:
I read a book about girl who took care of her brothers and sisters when their father died, but that was off in the mountains someplace where they all picked herbs and things. It wouldn’t work in the city.
Beezus mulling over “herbs and things” is funny. But it occurs to me that that’s what I did with many of the books I read—then and now. I, like Beezus, was sifting through what I knew and what I’d learned from stories to come up with a way to solve my problems.
By day, I’m sure I was a plucky and cheerful kid. But through the long, anxious night of my childhood, Beezus and Ramona’s attempt to find answers about what to do and how to be mirrored mine in all its imperfections. Beezus didn’t find a perfect solution from reading a book. Neither did I. But I guess maybe I didn’t—couldn’t—recognize the issues I had.
We read for different reasons. We read to educate ourselves, to explore. We read for comfort and escape and connection. Stories that do all of those things and more are the ones that I end up loving and remembering.
The pancake slashing and its aftermath have always stayed with me. I don’t know if I can say that I loved Ramona and Her Mother when I was a child. It may have overwhelmed me. At the time, I lacked the emotional maturity to dissect why I remembered Cleary’s words so perfectly while my feelings around the book stayed numb.
I do remember dwelling on the differences between us: Ramona and Beezus had each other. And overnight, their parents overcame their resentments, where mine couldn’t seem to. My parents weren’t white. English wasn’t their first language. My feelings and my world were different.
There are people who expect perfect analogs to their lives in the books they read; they dismiss work with which they can’t identify. I couldn’t really afford to do that—and to a great extent, still can’t. A lot of this column has been about finding myself in books. But I know that I can still love a book if I don’t see me—and that sometimes, I can find something good where I think I won’t.
Yes, sometimes we will not recognize ourselves in what we read. But what we can gain is the breadth of experience and feeling and wisdom and, yes, diversity of viewpoints that books offer—the knowledge outside one’s experience. Those “herbs and things” that may have seemed irrelevant or extraneous at the time—the things that kept books from being a perfect fit—can sometimes fit in the future. And even if they don’t—well, that’s okay, too.
I see now that Ramona and Her Mother did connect to me and that, in a way, it waited for me while I grew.
We read for different reasons, and maybe at that point in my life, I was reading to escape. Maybe I didn’t want to feel too much for what was happening on the page. I can embrace the feeling now. The book stayed with me all of these years. It stayed until I learned some sympathy for the child I was.