CULTURE & ARTS

A Love Letter To Beverly Cleary, The Author Who Taught Us How To Love Our Sisters

On the author's 100th birthday, a look back on her work.

I have two sisters. I'm the oldest, so that makes me the Beezus character in the Beverly Cleary saga that was our sisterhood. They are Ramona in equal but very different parts: one more prone to having an imaginary lizard named Ralph, the other more likely to demand she wear a homemade Easter Bunny outfit. One called me Taty, a starchier version of my nickname adapted to toddler pronunciation skills. The other's attention was only captured after bloody-murder-screaming her three-part name. 

I can honestly say that I loved my sisters from the moment Sister No. 2 arrived a week after my second birthday, and Sister No. 3 appeared nearly an Irish Twin's span later. I remember feeling so protective of them, I'd walk them to and from their elementary school classroom doors so they wouldn't get lost or miss the bus. I'd hold their hands tight when we wandered through the child hell that was Walmart, terrified one would bolt into Menswear and never be seen again. When I became babysitter, I'd herd them outside at even the slightest hint of an intruder (read: any noise not readily explained by my 11-year-old intellect) and we'd sit on our suburban driveway, because for some reason I assumed that was safer. 

I'm not that much older than my two sisters -- we're squished into a three-year age span, collectively. I just never shied away from the stereotypical older sister antics. I was probably more bossy than I want to admit, and definitely more neurotic. I started to realize this when, at some age near the end of grade school and the beginning of junior high, I began to resent my sisters.

My family moved a bit. We lived in Massachusetts, Maine, back to Massachusetts, skip to two places in Missouri, a stopover in Iowa -- can't forget Kansas. The shortest time spent in a school district was seven months; I went to three different middle schools for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Making friends in these circumstances is just a repetitive chore. More often than not, I spent a lot of time with my sisters, in the back of our white Ford van or in one of the unfinished basements we turned into a roller rink or at the breakfast table strategically placed so that none of us could catch a glimpse of the television.

Both of our parents worked, so there were some days in the summers when my sisters and I roamed -- to a pretty limited degree, given that we were four-feet-tall and had no money -- free. If I wanted to hang out at the public pool, my sisters had to come with me. If neighborhood kids their ages invited themselves over to our house, I had to stay in and watch them too. The urge to protect my sisters stuck around, but another feeling started creeping in. I would become easily irritated when Ramona I didn't want to leave the house when I did, she just wanted to play with her babies. I would so quickly veer into fury when Ramona II, who'd spent the morning baiting me into some violent throw-down in our backyard, would bat her eyelashes at my friends and they'd inevitably grow to like her more than me. They'd both feign stupidity when I brought out the vacuum. "We don't know how to use it, we're little."

Three ladies hanging #siblings @aebrooks24 @ericajeanbrooks

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I felt, theatrically, like I was disappearing behind my obligations to these two increasingly difficult wards. They never thanked me for ignoring the allure of locking them in a closet. They never took a turn playing sheriff. They didn't worry, like I did, about everything and anything that could possibly happen to us. I'd think and probably say the "H-word," which was, at the time, literally the worst thing I could muster. Sometimes, I just didn't love Ramona. I felt exasperated.

In Beezus and Ramona, a book that's been around since 1955 and is readily available in bulk to library kids, Cleary paints Beezus as a girl who's ashamed of not loving her sister Ramona. She hates how Ramona bugs her and Henry Huggins, she hates how she'd have to watch over her when her mother was on the phone or willingly spending time with her own sister. Cleary writes in Chapter 3: "I feel so mixed up, thought Beezus. Sometimes I don't like Ramona at all, and I'm supposed to like her because she's my sister, and ... Oh, dear, even if she's little, can't she ever be more like other people's sisters?"

Reading it at roughly the same age as Beezus, I'd lick my forefinger and turn the page. Like a hunched over maniac reading a manifesto, I was in agreement. Why can't they be like other people's sisters? Like today, when I read books with adult protagonists who live remotely similar lives as my own and I'm pulled right back into that hunched position, Cleary was speaking TO ME. And then she told me this:

"Why, there's no reason why you should love Ramona all the time," speaking through Beezus' mother. "After all, there are probably lots of times when she doesn't love you." Ramona's inner monologue backtracks: "Maybe she wouldn't think Ramona was so exasperating, after all. Maybe that was just the way things were with sisters."

A lovely feeling of relief came over Beezus. What if she didn't love Ramona all the time? It didn't matter at all. She was just like any other sister.

The beauty of Cleary's books was in their simplicity, and their knack for never downplaying the emotional concerns of children. When you're 8, 9, or 10 years old, these are the things that matter. You might not yet understand the scary financial situation your parents are in, or the myriad ways your grandparents are suffering with illness. You'll get there eventually. But first, you need to grasp some basic truths about love, sisterhood and family. The novels Cleary wrote dove into the feelings we were learning to live with at that age. If she didn't do it, who would have? 

Today, when I think about my sisters -- both engaged and living halfway across the country -- I still think about Cleary. My Ramonas are probably in my top-five list of humans to have ever walked this planet, but they still drive me nuts, like "Bad Blood"-levels-of-squad-mutiny nuts. But it really doesn't matter. I can watch them eat their cold mashed potatoes and jelly and see how much easier things are now. I can look at them when they are exasperating and think, "Ha-ha, Ramonas, this is one of those times when I don't have to love you."

And they undoubtedly feel the same toward me at times. This, in fact, makes me love them even more.

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