Beezus and Corona

This week I finished reading aloud to the kids the entire Ramona Quimby series. When I completed the final paragraph of the last book at an hour long past their regular bedtime, Liav pronounced Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – the words typically recited upon completing a book of the Bible. I told her that her response was very appropriate, because this week we are completing Sefer Bedmibar in the weekly Torah reading cycle. The Ramona series, like Sefer Bemidbar, has accompanied us through much of this Corona period – as Ramona has grown from an exasperating preschooler to a spunky, self-aware fourth-grader, the Israelites have made their way through their desert wanderings, her four-plus years corresponding to their forty.

When conducting a Siyum—a ceremony marking the completion of the study of a particular text—it is customary to review the final pages. The last of the eight books in the Ramona series, Ramona’s World, culminates in Ramona’s tenth birthday party. The party is held in a park, like all birthday parties during Corona times (my daughter Tagel had one last week – they made colorful sparkly “alco-gel” and took it home as a party favor). At Ramona’s party, too, there is an excessive preoccupation with germs. Ramona’s long-time nemesis Susan – the girl whose blonde curls Ramona couldn’t resist pulling in kindergarten, watching as they went boing – brings an apple to Ramona’s party and insists on eating it instead of birthday cake, because “there might be spit on the cake from blowing on the candles.”

Ramona is appalled: “I did not spit on my birthday cake,” she tells Susan, who remains unconvinced: “You could have,” she tells Ramona. “Little bits of spit so tiny you couldn’t see them… My mother says blowing out candles is unsanitary.” It’s a conversation that could just as easily have taken place at the party Tagel attended last week, as some girls pulled their masks below their chins and others insisted on vigilantly keeping their noses and mouths covered. Ultimately, Susan comes around and tries a little piece of cake, and Ramona feels even more vindicated when Yard Ape – the boy she loves to hate – runs over to sample a piece before licking his “germy fingers” and wiping them on the seat of his “germy pants.” The germy cake wins out over the apples, just as Ramona’s messiness and peskiness always win out over big-sister Beezus’ well-mannered propriety.

The day after we finished the series, the girls and I went back through the previous volumes, turning the pages quickly and stopping to reminisce each time we came to one of the pen-and-ink illustrations. “Remember when Ramona ate apples in the basement?” Liav asked me, prompted by one of the pictures in the very first book. How could I have forgotten? Ramona had disappeared to the cellar with a box of apples when her sister Beezus was supposed to be watching her, and there she had defiantly taken one bite out of every apple.

“Stop it,” ordered Beezus, “Stop it this instant! You can’t take one bite and then throw the rest away.”
“But the first bite tastes best,” explained Ramona reasonably, as she reached into the box again.

I wondered if the apple Susan had brought to the party was a sort of measure-for-measure – retribution for Ramona’s original sin in the first book. But before I could share my reflection with the girls, they were already on to the next illustration.

“The peas!” Tagel squealed. “Remember when Ramona fed Roberta peas while you were feeding Yitzvi?” That one I remembered. A few weeks earlier, I had been feeding the baby mashed peas when the girls insisted that I read the next Ramona chapter. To our astonishment, the chapter was entitled “peas,” and it was about the time when Ramona’s baby sister “blew hard, spraying mushy, squishy peas all over Ramona.” We had all erupted in laughter at the coincidence, and Yitzvi—determined to join in on the fun—had burst out laughing too, spraying his green mush all over us.

We spent quite a while leafing through the paperbacks, pausing each time we came to a picture so as to recall the scene it captured. It reminded me of the last parsha in Sefer Bemidbar, Masei, which means “journeys.” The parsha reads like a detailed itinerary of the Israelites’ wanderings: “They set out from Rameses and encamped at Sukkot. They set out from Sukkot and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham and turned toward Pi-Hahiroth….” (33:5-7). Rashi asks why the Torah takes pains to record all these stations in the wilderness, offering a midrashic answer:

This is like a king whose son was sick so he took him to a distant place to heal him. On their way back, his father began to enumerate all the separate stages of the journey. He told him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache, etc. (Rashi to Bemidbar 33:1).

The king reviews their journey, just as the girls and I were reviewing our journey through the Ramona books. But as the midrash suggests, there is more to it than that. By listing all the stops on their journey, the king is also chronicling his fatherly love, since he is telling his son all the places where he nursed him from sickness back to health.

The girls and I have journeyed through Ramona and Bemidbar against a backdrop of much sickness, as first the world, then our city, and then our neighborhood were impacted by the rampant spread of the Coronavirus. We began reading the Ramona books when the schools were closed in late March – it was a way to pass the long unstructured hours at home. Now that the three big kids are back at school until 1pm, we have only the afternoons to fill, so Daniel and I have adopted a practice we learned about from the Ramona books. In Ramona’s school, they spend a few hours each week on “Sustained Silent Reading” – the children have to sit at their desks and read silently to themselves. Ramona, who loves books, pretends she is engaged in Sustained Silent Reading as a way of avoiding the obligation to play with Willa Jean, the annoying preschooler with whom she is doomed to spend her afterschool hours once her mother goes back to work. Now we do the same. From 2-3pm every afternoon, the house is silent – we each sit with our books and read, leaving Yitzvi to fend for himself on the carpet with some plastic bath books to chew on.

Of course, it’s not always as idyllic as it sounds – Matan hides Tagel’s bookmark, Liav insists I rub her back while she reads, Yitzvi cries for attention. But even when Sustained Silent Reading is neither as sustained nor as silent as I would like, it is a welcome respite from the arguing and grumbling that is so often the dominant mode of discourse: Our kids argue with one another, Daniel and I bicker. Beezus complains about Ramona, Ramona complains about Willa Jean. Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses, the Israelites complain to God. No wonder there is something so soothing about the repetitive chanting of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, as if each journey and encampment followed a smooth and steady rhythm. “Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache.” May all of our journeys take us farther away from sickness and from squabbling, and may we merit to look back on this chapter of our lives from a place of harmony and health.

in first sentence — ideally הפטירה instead of prounounced, but is there an English word for that???

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