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Many, many years ago, long before my grandparents lived in the last apartment of theirs–the apartment they owned, and were so proud of (downstairs from the apartment where the boat sits, waiting), they lived in a wonderful garden apartment in a quiet suburb. My childhood summers were mainly spent there, up until I reached my late teens. There was a wonderful garden encircling the apartment, with fabulous rose bushes, and scores of stray cats who would curl up around the base of the plants and sleep in the shade. At lunchtime my grandmother would twitch the curtain across the kitchen door window with a loud swish and the cats would appear from nowhere, meowing, mouths flashing light pink, curled tongues, and tiny white teeth. In the mornings, after breakfast, my sister and I would wait eagerly for the clap-slap! clap-slap! sound of our friend from upstairs, and for the sound of her wooden Dr. Scholls clogs on the marble steps. She lived in the apartment upstairs. We would play for hours in the garden, that magical place with a tall jasmine-covered wall and the sour-plum tree. She had a set of plastic dishes which I sorely coveted–the goblets and plates were red and purple and green and when set out together on the marble steps they caught the sun like a pile of jewels.

Around that time I had a recurring dream: in it my sister and I would descend down the cement stairs at the back of the apartment building and a door would magically open for us. Once inside, we would find a magnificent playroom filled with all kinds of treasures. Needless to say, I loved that dream. It stayed with me; I told my family about it, and my sister and I searched in real life for a magical door but never found one.

One summer, when I was 14, I had the dream again. Only in this dream I descended down the steps with my sister, watched her disappear inside, and then discovered that the door was closed to me. I couldn’t get inside, no matter what I did, and I never dreamed of that playroom again. Coincidentally, that same summer, my period started for the first time; I had crossed, symbolically, over that threshold and left girlhood behind.

I am astounded so often by the power of the mind, both the waking mind and the sleeping one. Recently I awoke with the memory of that dream again. I’m not sure if I dreamed of that back stair and the magic door, or if I simply awoke thinking about it, because I spent so much time remembering the cardboard boat from that magical trip the last summer before my grandmother died. That I thought of it, though, seems so symbolic to me, and so captures the feeling I  haven’t been able to shake since my grandmother passed away–the sense that a gigantic door somewhere has slid closed; that the garden, and tranquility of both apartments is lost to me now. That somewhere, behind the door, my grandfather sits painting and there is my grandmother, making jam from the sour plums, and we can scarcely wait to try it.


My husband and I were up late last night discussing Beverly Cleary’s well-known children’s book character Ramona Quimby and her family. I should clarify and say that we were up late last night discussing our family budget and, found ourselves instead dissecting the Quimby’s household budget. We periodically have these late-night discussions; not the optimal time for discussing family finances, but it’s the only time we can have a conversation that’s not interrupted every five seconds by one or both of the kids.

I grew up reading about Ramona’s escapades as a four-year old, then as an awkward and outspoken kindergartener, then as an impatient and misunderstood second-grader. When I grew older and out of Ramona and the Quimby’s and into the likes of Judy Blume, and C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander, I promptly forgot about Cleary and her books until a few months ago when we checked out some books on CD for the kids to listen to. In the latest installment, Ramona and Her Father, the Quimby household does some collective belt-tightening when downsizing costs Mr. Quimby his job and they are forced to make ends meet on Mrs. Quimby’s salary alone and, well, times get tough for them, in honest and bittersweet ways.

As it turned out, my husband and I had both spent a huge chunk of this week listening to Ramona at different times in the car (my husband has the morning “shift” with T. while I teach my classes; then we switch off–at the parking lot where he teaches–and I take the afternoon with the kids) and finding ourselves drawn into the trials and tribulations of what it meant for a family in the 1970s to abruptly find themselves dealing with unemployment, and a tighter-than-usual budget. I remember identifying with Ramona when I was 7 or 8–she was, after all, my contemporary–and feeling at the time like Ramona and I had so much in common we were practically soulmates. Ramona was often misunderstood and had trouble with spelling and I was often misunderstood and had trouble with spelling; Ramona shared a room with her sister and I shared a room with my sister; her parents had one car, and my parents did too! Ramona had straight brown hair and envied the girls in her class with springy curls and I, too, had straight brown hair and I so very much coveted the bouncy blonde curls of Denise, the most popular girl in my second-grade class. I loved Ramona—she spoke to me, and it was so gratifying to discover that there was obviously one adult out there—Beverly Cleary—who truly understood the 7-year old angst I had to deal with on a daily basis.

It was odd and a tad sobering this week to find myself, some thirty years later, listening to Ramona and her Father on CD and identifying instead with Mr. and Mrs. Quimby and not with Ramona, or even her big sister Beezus.  I understood belt-tightening back when I was a child as an irritating inconvenience foisted upon us kids by our parents, who surely were being a little melodramatic at times about the amount of money they had in the bank.  But as a child I didn’t feel the stress and anxiety of keeping a tight family budget in the ways which I’m sure weighed on my parents, just as the family finances weigh on us as we try and juggle the growing demands and needs of our kids.

Somewhere along the way I guess I really did grow up and out of Ramona and, while I’m no Mrs. Quimby, I guess it turns out I have more in common with her now than I once thought I did.

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