I have always been one to listen to podcasts in the car. I like words, and in music frequently has too many emotions for me to handle while I’m driving. It’s a safety issue. What if a music gives me a feeling and I drive the Dodge Caravan right the hell into a tree, or worse, an Arby’s drive through?
My podcast taste (silly, swear-y, scatalogical) is not super appropriate for the rides to and from school with C, age 6, and L, age 9, so for a while I allowed them to choose their own music. KidsBop is catchy and soulless, therefore emotionally tolerable.
Recently, however it occurred to me to use my audible points to buy myself a breather from autotuned versions of Ed Sheeran ballads, so I downloaded the entire Ramona Quimby omnibus…seven Beverly Cleary books for just one credit, all read by Grease’s own Stockard Channing.
It’s hard to remember my childhood relationship with Ramona without worrying that my adult perspective is coloring my memory. I know I read every book through Ramona Forever (book #6, released in 1984) multiple times. I have specific memories of being home sick on the couch, a stack of Ramona books beside me. We owned the paperback boxed set, and I read each copy until it was dog-eared and coverless. I picked them up to reread as late as middle school, realizing at the time that I could finish one in only an hour or two, a perfect amount of time to procrastinate on homework or dissociate during an anxious afternoon.
As the eldest child, you would think I would have identified more strongly with big sister Beezus. Studious and bossy, Beatrice Quimby is read by Stockard Channing in breathy, deadpan tones. As a kid, I’m pretty sure considered Beezus to be a model of appropriate behavior for an eldest child/mother’s helper/honor student, and I imagine I tried to emulate her (I nailed the “studious and bossy” part), but I picked up the books because I wanted to hang out with Ramona.
Ramona is intense, inventive, clever and unpredictable. She is impulsive (something I never, ever was), squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink, crowning herself with vacant-lot burrs, or going to school wearing her new pajamas under her clothes. She is fierce in her sense of justice, destroying her own paper-bag owl after her nemesis, Susan, copied her work. She is brave, facing off with a fierce dog in the morning and standing up to her skeptical teacher in the afternoon.
As a kindergartener on Halloween, she thrills to being “the baddest witch in the world” behind her rubber mask, but is terrified by the idea of anonymity. Even though her mask helped her to evade punishment for naughtiness (tugging Susan’s “boing-boing” curls), it chills her that she might not be known—by her classmates, by her mother, by her beloved Miss Binney the kindergarten teacher. Uncompromising, she joins the Halloween parade with a handmade sign around her neck: RAMONA Q.
Ramona, whether she’s wearing cardboard bunny ears to the library, or a paper-plate cat mask to do her book report, or tin-can stilts to clomp around the neighborhood, insists on being seen and heard.
She knows she is not the prettiest girl, or the best student, or the most popular. She is the best artist in her grade, and has the biggest calluses on her palms from the monkey bars, but that, she acknowledges, has more to do with her living close to the park than it does any specific talent. Her sensitivity and intensity are baffling to her sensible, more reserved mother and sister. Ramona feels regret and makes amends when her vivacity bumps up against others’ peace, but she never apologizes for who she is.
Ramona holds the unwavering conviction, from her introduction in Beezus and Ramona to her final bow in Ramona’s World, that is entitled to love and acceptance for being exactly herself.
“She cried harder than she ever had cried in her life. She cried until she was limp and exhausted.
Then Ramona felt her mother’s hand on her back. “Ramona,” she said gently, “what are we going to do with you?”
With red eyes, a swollen face, and a streaming nose, Ramona sat up and glared at her mother. “Love me!” Her voice was fierce with hurt. Shocked at her own words, she buried her face in the pillow. She had no tears left.”
I loved Ramona, but I lacked her courage. To be undone, but to still have the strength to demand love? Couldn’t be me. Still, as author Rachel Vorona Cote notes in her excellent book Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, Ramona doesn’t ask anything of the world that she doesn’t ask of herself:
For the first time Ramona looked into her very own mirror in her very own room. She saw a stranger, a girl with red eyes and a puffy, tearstained face, who did not look at all the way Ramona pictured herself. Ramona thought of herself as the kind of girl everyone should like, but this girl . . .
Ramona scowled, and the girl scowled back. Ramona managed a small smile. So did the girl. Ramona felt better. She wanted the girl in the mirror to like her.
Beverly Cleary writes her Ramona books with third person limited narration, so the reader is subject to the kaleidoscope of Ramona’s emotional life. In every ordinary day—and these books are full of ordinary days—she toggles vividly from despondency to indignance to elation. For Ramona, a journey downtown for a haircut is an emotional odyssey.
Me, I can’t play music in the car for fear of accidentally triggering a buried emotion.
See, when I was growing up, I was a Ramona who thought she was supposed to be a Beezus. I was Ramona weeping in frustration, but I was also Ramona’s mother, asking myself “what am I going to do with you?”
You know what you get when put a Ramona in a Beezus mask?
You get a Susan. A fucking Susan.
Susan, with her un-mussed boing-boing curls. Susan, copying an owl. Judgy Susan, the tattletale.
Susan, who, when offered cake at Ramona’s 10th birthday party, says, “No cake for me, please, I brought an apple.”
This detail, from the one book I had not yet read, left me so shocked and disgusted that I actually yelled “What the hell, Susan?,” in full hearing of my under-10s.
Susan, the try-hard. Susan, the perfectionist. Susan, who doesn’t love herself and doesn’t expect to be loved, not yet, not until she gets it right.
To everyone’s surprise Susan threw her apple across the lawn without even trying to hit the trash can. Her face crumpled as if she were about to burst into tears. […]
“Why, Susan.” Mrs. Quimby put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Whatever is the matter, dear?”
“Everything,” said Susan through her tears. “Nobody likes me and everybody likes Ramona.”
“You are supposed to like people on their birthdays,” Ramona tried to explain to make things better.
“I don’t mean just on your birthday,” said Susan with a tearful gulp. “I mean every day. People even make valentines for you. All mine were store-bought. You aren’t perfect and nobody cares….I’m supposed to be perfect every single minute,” said Susan, her chin quivering.
How awful, thought Ramona.”
How awful, thought the grown-ass woman in the minivan who not twenty seconds earlier had cussed out a fictional child.
I am trying to be more like Ramona, and that starts with not being afraid to feel my feelings. In the very chapter where Susan has her breakdown, Ramona feels—in order— joy, generosity, impatience, optimism, loneliness, hurt, resentment, gratitude, puppy love, annoyance, shock, indignance, anger, vengeance, superiority, sympathy, indignance (again), modesty, empathy, pride, security, obligation, gratitude (again), pleasant, agreeable, familial love, generosity (again), puppy love (again), and finally, joy and hope. Despite, or maybe because of, the variability and intensity of her emotions, she can say to herself, “The day was perfect—well, not really, but close enough.”
Imperfect Ramona can have a perfectly imperfect day. Can I?
L and C are buckled in the backseat as the audiobook starts again from the beginning. I glance into the rear-view mirror and see a stranger, a middle-aged woman with a puffy face and tearful eyes. I manage a small smile, and she smiles back. I turn off the audiobook and turn on some music.
I want the woman in the mirror to like me.
Theresa Weiler is a writer, singer, speaker, seeker. She lives in Detroit with her husband and four children. Follow her on Twitter @Real_Theresa, or on Instagram @realtheresaweiler. If you would like to help Theresa cover her therapy co-pay, you can throw a buck in the Venmo tip jar, @realtheresaweiler.