The New Yorker called Beverly Cleary's first volume of memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill, a warm, honest book, as interesting as any novel. Now the creator of the classic children's stories millions grew up with continues her own fascination story. Here is Beverly Cleary, from college years to the publication of her first book. It is a fascinating look at her life and a writing career that spans three generations, continuing to capture the hearts and imaginations of children of all ages throughout the world.
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September 30, 1996
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Excerpt from My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary
Bus Trip to a New Life
The three of us, Mother, Dad, and I, stood on the sidewalk outside the Greyhound bus station in Portland, Oregon, searching for words we could not find or holding back words we could not speak. The sun, bronze from the smoke of September forest fires, cast an illusory light. Nothing seemed real, but it was. I was leaving, actually leaving, for California, the Golden State, land of poppies, big red geraniums, trees heavy with oranges, palm trees beneath cloudless skies, and best of all, no Depression. I had seen it all on postcards and in the movies, and so had the rest of my class at Grant High School. California was the goal of many. John Steinbeck had not yet, in 1934, revised our thinking.
And now I was one of the lucky ones going to this glorious place where people made movies all day and danced the night away. I was escaping the clatter of typewriters in business school and going instead to college. As I stood there in the smoky light in my neat navy blue dress, which Mother had measured a fashionable twelve inches from the floor when I made it, and with a five-dollar bill given to me by my father for emergencies rolled in my stocking, I tried to hide my elation from my parents.
Dad, I know, was sad to see his only child leave home, but the decision had been his. He had thoughtfully smoked his pipe for several evenings, mulling over the unexpected letter from Mother's cousin Verna Clapp inviting me to spend the winter with her family in Ontario in Southern California. I could attend tuition free Chaffey Junior College, where she was the librarian.
Mother had dismissed the letter, saying, "Isn't that just like Verna, so impractical." The Depression had made Oregonians relentlessly practical. Dad, however, did not dismiss the letter. Finally, after he rapped his pipe against his ashtray, he said, "Beverly is going." Dad, a quiet man, had watched tension build between Mother and me as I resisted her struggles to mold me into her ideal of a perfect daughter. He had also observed my increasing unhappiness over an obsessive young man I shall call Gerhart, six years older than I, whom I had come to dislike but who was unshakable because Mother encouraged him. "Now, you be nice to Gerhart," Mother often said. "He's a good boy, and he's lonely." Mother longed to have me popular with boys. Although I liked boys and was friendly with them at school, I was not concerned with popularity. As the months wore on, I wasn't at all nice to Gerhart. I was horrid.
At first Mother thought Dad's pronouncement was preposterous-a young girl traveling all that distance alone, she couldn't think of such a thing. Even though I was eighteen, Mother always referred to me as a young girl. Eventually she relented. She was anxious for me somehow to go to college so I would have a profession to fall back on. "We can't leave you a lot of money," she often said, "but we want to leave you prepared to take care of yourself and any children you might have. Widows so often have to run boardinghouses."
Now, beside the Greyhound bus, Mother fretted. Fearful dangers lurked in California: earthquakes, infantile paralysis, evil strangers. Heaven only knew what might happen to a young, inexperienced girl. "If she doesn't have any sense now, she never will have," my father said.
"Maybe we should have packed your galoshes," fussed Mother. "It must rain down there sometime."
Because Dad was present, I did not say, "Oh, Mother." Instead I said, "I might not need them," and then, to soothe her, "and you can always mail them if I do." I had no intention of wearing galoshes in California, not ever, no matter how much it rained, if it ever did rain. Postcards did not show rain in California, and the only rain in movies seemed to be raging storms at sea with sails ripping, masts broken, and sailors washed overboard.
What I really wanted at that moment was to tell my father how grateful I was to him for insisting I should leave, but I could not, not in front of Mother, who worked so hard, who made such sacrifices for me. The Greyhound driver, jaunty in his uniform, bounded out of the station and onto the bus. "Well, I guess I'd better get on," I said. Beneath my hidden elation I was nervous about such a long journey even though Mother had written to former neighbors and arranged for them to meet me and put me up overnight in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.
Dad kissed me. Mother said, "Be a good girl and don't forget to write."
"I won't," I promised. None of us noticed that Mother's requests required two different answers, but of course I always had been, mostly, a good girl. A lovely girl, people said, pleasing Mother and annoying me, for I did not feel lovely, not one bit. I felt restless, angry, rebellious, disloyal, and guilty.