Imagining the Timeless Childhood of Beverly Cleary’s Portland
Fifteen months ago, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit the childhood places and homes of Beverly Cleary, the beloved and award-winning author of more than 40 books for children and young adults. I was accompanied by my husband and daughter who are all three lovers of Ramona Quimby. We parents would read all books as children before reading them to our child again.
With an overseas move on the horizon, we decided to visit the city that plays its own subtle but essential role in the author’s favorite novels: Portland with its capricious rain and splashing puddles, its streets named after regional Indian tribes are inviting libraries and parks filled with worms. Ms. Cleary’s childhood Oregon clearly inspired her imagination – nearly half of her books are set in Portland.
In the final days of December 2019, we took a trip to the City of Roses, visiting northeast Grant Park and the Hollywood neighborhoods of Mrs. Cleary’s childhood. Little did I know at the time that it would be our last family vacation before the coronavirus pandemic – and I couldn’t have imagined how many times I would return to these memories during the months of our detention.
When Ms. Cleary died on March 25, aged 104, my grief over the loss of a distinguished author who was declared a “living legend” by the Library of Congress in 2000 was tied to memories of our trip. Scrolling through the photos of our trip, the simple scenes of craft houses, leafy parks and overcrowded children’s libraries evoked a lost innocence.
As a child, I loved Ms. Cleary’s books because they don’t condescend. Her characters are ordinary children who succumb to ordinary temptations, such as: For example, to squeeze a whole tube of toothpaste into the sink or to take the first juicy bite of every apple in the box.
As an adult reading my daughter’s books again, I was struck by her sense of timelessness – sisters grappling with sibling rivalries, parents grappling with financial worries and job losses. The author’s father lost his Yamhill farm when she was 6 years old and moved the family of three about 40 miles northeast to Portland – the “town of regular paychecks, concrete sidewalks instead of boardwalks, lawned parks and flower beds , the trams instead of a hack from the paint shop, a library with a children’s room that appeared to be the size of a Masonic Hall ”, she wrote in her 1988 memoir:“ A girl from Yamhill ”.
I thought of this when I saw one of Mrs. Cleary’s cherished childhood homes, a humble one, Bungalow near Grant Park, on a block with houses close together. She romped with a gang of “children of the right age to play,” and her antics made her crave stories about the neighborhood kids. “I longed for 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 always liked the sound of the name when I lived nearby.”
We found the Klickitat Street of Books nearby and Tillamook Street, both named after Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest. As my 6-year-old daughter sped down looking for vintage towbars, I pictured Ramona – or even a young Beverly – walking on the same sidewalks, standing on stilts made from two-pound coffee cans and twine, or sitting on the curb around them Rose Festival Parade seen.
Over the next few days, we found the author’s former elementary school, a brick building called Beverly Cleary School, on Fernwood Campus. We stopped at the Multnomah County Central Library, a stately brick building in the city center, where she did “practice work” as a student librarian during the summer (and where the children’s department bears her name). 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 cherished characters: Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, and Ramona posed as if in motion.
Although it was a typical winter day in Portland – wet – nothing could dampen my daughter’s joy when she saw her favorite characters grow slightly bigger than life. She ran to hold Ramona’s hand and the picture I took will be burned in my heart forever.
For my daughter, the best part of the trip was our visit to the town of Yamhill in the Willamette Valley, where we saw the turreted Victorian house where Mrs. Cleary lived the first six years of her life. We spent the night in a nearby vintage trailer park and slept in an Airstream Overlander in 1963, as I imagined the writer would have done with her own young family. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows for dinner, a meal my daughter still calls one of the best of her life.
These are the memories I turned to last year when the pandemic stole the simple joys in life. A wet afternoon in the park. Warm up to the hour of library history. A mug of hot chocolate sipped in a crowded cafe. The rain on the metal roof of our motor home reminded me of the creative inspiration Ms. Cleary described in A Girl From Yamhill: “Whenever it rains, I feel the urge to write. Most of my books are written in winter. “
Before our trip, I had wondered if my daughter was too young for a literary pilgrimage – and maybe she was, because there were moments when the search for another filament of the author’s girlhood tested her patience. And yet, even though it was only a few days, our trip captured her memory. She speaks about it now with crystalline precision and remembers the last days before the strangest year of our lives began.
Our last morning in Portland, a tired group of travelers found us waiting to board our flight before dawn. We lined up at the airport coffee counter for muffins and hot drinks – but when I tried to pay, the cashier told me that an anonymous stranger had bought us breakfast.
“Mother! It’s like in the book!” Exclaimed my daughter. It took me a few minutes to realize she was talking about a scene from “Ramona Quimby, Age 8,” when the Quimby family – worn down by financial worries, family disputes, and bleak weather – tried to cheer themselves up with a hamburger dinner can hardly afford to let a friendly gentleman collect his check anonymously.
This moment now seems like a dream, separated as we are from each other and we all exist in our bubbles. But one day we will meet again and touch each other, not only as friends and family, but also as strangers. In the meantime, we have Beverly Cleary’s books to remind us of that.
Ann Mah, the author of the novel The Lost Vintage, lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.