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Imagining Beverly Cleary’s Timeless Portland Childhood

Fifteen months ago, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit the childhood dens and homes of Beverly Cleary, the beloved and award-winning author of over 40 books for children and youth. adults. I was accompanied by my husband and our daughter, the three of us Ramona Quimby aficionados, our parents having read all the children’s books, before rereading them aloud to our child.

With a move abroad on the horizon, we had decided to visit the city that plays its own subtle but essential role in the author’s most popular novels: Portland, with its gloomy rain and puddles of water. splashy, streets named after regional Native American tribes, welcoming libraries and worm-filled parks. The Oregon of Ms. Cleary’s childhood clearly inspired her imagination – of her books, nearly half of them are set in Portland.

So, in the last days of December 2019, we took a trip to the city of Roses, visiting the northeastern neighborhoods of Grant Park and Hollywood from Ms. Cleary’s childhood. I had no idea then that this would be our last family vacation before the coronavirus pandemic – and I couldn’t have imagined how often I would return to those memories during the months of our lockdown.


When Mrs. Cleary passed away on March 25 at the age of 104, my sorrow at the loss of a beloved author who was declared a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress in 2000 was accompanied by memories of our trip. . Browsing through the photos from our trip, the simple scenes of artisan homes, lush green parks, and crowded children’s libraries evoked a lost innocence.

As a child, I liked Ms. Cleary’s books because they didn’t condescend. Its characters are ordinary children who succumb to ordinary temptations, such as squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste down the sink or taking the first juicy bite of every apple in the crate.

As an adult, rereading the books aloud to my daughter, I was struck by their sense of timelessness – sisters struggling with sibling rivalry, parents struggling with financial worries and loss of life. employment. The author’s own father lost his Yamhill farm when she was 6, displacing the family of three about 40 miles northeast of Portland – the “town of regular paychecks, concrete sidewalks instead. boardwalks, parks with lawns and flower beds, streetcars instead of a livery stable hack, a library with a children’s room that seemed as big as a Masonic room ”, a- she wrote in her 1988 memoir, “A Girl From Yamhill”.

I thought about it when I saw one of the childhood homes dear to Mrs. Cleary, a modest, bungalow near Grant Park, on a block lined with tightly packed houses. She struggled with a bunch of “kids of the right age to play with,” and their escapades made her yearn for stories about the kids in the neighborhood. “I wanted books about the children of Hancock Street,” she wrote in “A Girl from Yamhill.” In her stories, she changed Hancock Street to Klickitat Street “because I had always liked the sound of the name when I had lived nearby.”

We found Klickitat Street of Books nearby, as well as Tillamook Street, both named after Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. As my 6-year-old daughter ran along, looking for vintage hitch rings, I imagined Ramona – or even a young Beverly – on those same sidewalks, falling on stilts made from cans of two-pound coffee and twine, or perch on the sidewalk. to attend the Rose Festival parade.

Over the next few days, we found the author’s former elementary school, a brick building now called the Beverly Cleary School, Fernwood Campus. We stopped at Multnomah County Central Library, an imposing brick structure in the city center where she did summer ‘hands-on’ as a student librarian (and where the children’s section is also named after her. ). We ate donuts and pizza. We visited Grant Park, where local artist Lee Hunt created a trio of bronze sculptures depicting three of Ms. Cleary’s beloved characters: Henry Huggins, her dog, Ribsy and Ramona, posed, as if they were on the move .

Credit…Ann mah

Even though it was a typical Portland winter day – damp – nothing could dampen my daughter’s joy when she saw her favorite characters made slightly larger than life. She ran to hold Ramona’s hand, beaming, and the image I took will forever be etched in my heart.

For my daughter, the best part of the trip was our visit to the Willamette Valley town of Yamhill, where we glimpsed the Victorian turreted house in which Mrs Cleary spent the first six years of her life. We spent the night in a nearby vintage trailer park, sleeping in a 1963 Airstream Overlander, as I imagined the author might have done with his own young family. For dinner, we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, a meal my daughter always describes as one of the best in her life.

These are the memories I turned to over the past year as the pandemic stole the simple pleasures of life. A wet afternoon in the park. Warming up at library story time. A cup of hot chocolate sipped in a crowded cafe. The rain beating down on the metal roof of our motorhome, reminding me of the creative inspiration Ms. Cleary described in “A Girl From Yamhill”: “Every time it rains, I feel the urge to write. Most of my books are written in the winter. “

Before our trip, I had wondered if my daughter was too young for a literary pilgrimage – and maybe she was, as there were times when looking for another filament of the youth of l The author was putting his patience to the test. And yet, even though it was only a few days, our trip captured his memory. She speaks about it now with crystal-clear precision, recalling the last days before the start of the strangest year of our lives.

Our last morning in Portland found us a group of weary travelers as we waited to board our pre-dawn flight. We stood in line at the airport cafe counter for muffins and hot drinks – but when I tried to pay the cashier told me that an anonymous stranger bought us breakfast.

“Mom! It’s like in the book!” Cried my daughter. It took me a few minutes to realize she was talking about a scene from ‘Ramona Quimby, 8’, when the Quimby family – exhausted by financial worries, family feuds and a gloomy time – trying to cheer yourself up with a burger dinner … can barely afford, only to have a nice gentleman pick up their check anonymously.

This moment now feels like a dream, disconnected from each other, all existing in our bubbles. But one day, soon, we will meet again and touch each other’s lives, not only as friends and family, but also as strangers. In the meantime, we have Beverly Cleary’s books to remind us.

Ann Mah, the author of the novel The Lost Vintage, lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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