The Book Quotes That Helped Me Through My Father’s Death

Content note: this post discusses death and dying. Please proceed with caution, and take care of your heart and mental health.

I got the call on a Wednesday. My father had a stroke. There was no chance he’d survive. Could I come?

He was in San Miguel de Allende. I was in Los Angeles with no passport. I made a phone call. I got an emergency appointment the next morning. I booked a flight. I had my picture taken, red-cheeked from tears and walking fast. I went to Staples three times to print and copy the different forms I needed. On Thursday I took a Lyft to the Federal building and sat in the gardens with the migrating butterflies, reading a zine called Hope in this Timeline from Fireside Magazine and the Mexicanx Initiative.

I got on the plane on Friday, passport in hand. All the way to Guanajuato I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder, remembering the biography I’d read of her as a young adult. It was the first time I’d realized that her books were not the whole truth. Written in the 1970s, it is far from a perfect biography, but the brief passage describing Laura desperately trying to get back to De Smet before Pa died stuck with me all these years.

But in the spring of 1902 came a change that Laura did not expect. From the far-off prairies of Dakota came a message she did not want to hear. Pa was sick. Pa was going to die.

Laura left Rocky Ridge in a rush. She made her way from one train to another across Kansas and Nebraska and Dakota to De Smet. It was a long way to go, and she didn’t have much time. Now she hurried, she hurried home, as though across the prairie she could hear—ever so faintly—the last fading song of a honey-brown fiddle, a word, a bright whistle in the night.

—from Laura by Donald Zochert

Laura made it to De Smet before Pa died, and I made it to San Miguel before my Poppy died.

I sat with him for about six hours on Saturday. His partner played his favorite Vivaldi and I read to him from a book of his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

—Poem #632 from The Essential Emily Dickinson

I felt surprisingly okay after he went. I think being with him helped tremendously, but I also thought of all the times I had imagined losing him—it has been my biggest dread for as long as I can remember—and I thought of Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who raised 11 children after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death.

While Dad lived, Mother was afraid of fast driving, of airplanes, of walking alone at night. When there was lightning, she went in a dark closet and held her ears. When things went wrong at dinner, she sometimes burst into tears and had to leave the table. She made public speeches, but she dreaded them.

Now, suddenly, she wasn’t afraid anymore, because there was nothing to be afraid of. Now nothing could upset her, because the thing that mattered most had been upset.

—from Cheaper by the Dozen by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.

Gilbreth’s children wrote a second memoir, Belles on Their Toes, that is largely about Mother, while Cheaper By The Dozen is about Dad. (And in case you are wondering, they did have 12 children; the second, Mary, died of diphtheria in 1912.)

I stayed in Mexico for eight days after his death, spending time with his partner and going through his things. I had trouble sleeping, and when I couldn’t sleep I read the only book I’d brought with me (unless everything else on my Kindle counts), Figuring by Maria Popova. It is a book that is almost impossible to describe; it is a book that is about what it is that makes us human, and it answers that question through the lives of scientists and poets. It is 545 pages long in hard cover, not including the index (which is why I bought the Kindle version at the last minute), and I am only perhaps a quarter of the way through; it’s the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. Rather than attempting to choose a passage to quote, I will leave you with this bit from a W.H. Auden poem that is the epigraph:

How should we like it were the stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

10 Quotes from RAMONA THE PEST to Celebrate Beverly Cleary’s 103rd Birthday

Ramona the Pest book coverHappy 103rd birthday, Beverly Cleary! In order to celebrate your birthday, I dug my tattered and torn paperback Ramona the Pest out of a box at my Dad’s house and began reading it to my 5- year-old son. As we snuggled before bedtime and laughed at all of Ramona’s antics during her first months of kindergarten, I remembered how much I appreciated your stories when I was a child.

You really seemed to understand how puzzling the adult world can be to a little girl. I recall feeling relieved as I read how Ramona also threw fits to get what she wanted, felt frustrated when adults were distracted, and sometimes was so angry that she pounded her feet on her bedroom wall and reveled in the fact that her oxfords left scuff marks on the walls. Now, I read your books and remind myself that children are complex little people with real feelings who are simply trying to figure out a world in which they are the smallest and the most impatient.

Below are ten quotes from Ramona the Pest that capture the confusion, joyfulness, and spirit of childhood and show how amazingly well you understood your audience and their “slowpoke grown-ups.”


10 Quotes about Childhood and Growing Up from Ramona the Pest 

“She was not a slowpoke grown-up. She was a girl who could not wait. Life was so interesting she had to find out what happened next.”

“When Ramona made a great big noisy fuss, she usually got her own way. Great big noisy fusses were often necessary when a girl was the youngest member of the family and the youngest person on her block.”

“Ramona could not understand why grown-ups always talked about how quickly children grew up. Ramona thought growing up was the slowest thing there was.”

“Nothing infuriated Ramona more than having a grown-up say, as if she could not hear, that she was worn out.”

“Ramona looked forward to many things – her first loose tooth, riding a bicycle instead of a tricycle, wearing lipstick like her mother – but most of all she looked forward to Show and Tell.”

“Only grown-ups would say boots were for keeping feet dry. Anyone in kindergarten knew that a girl should wear shiny red or white boots on the first rainy day, not to keep her feet dry, but to show off. That’s what boots were for – showing off, wading, splashing, stamping.”

“Ramona, who did not mean to pester her mother, could not see why grown-ups had to be so slow.”

“Nobody understood. She wanted to behave herself. Except when banging her heels on the bedroom wall, she had always wanted to behave herself. Why couldn’t people understand how she felt?”

“Ramona did not consider herself to be a pest. People who called her a pest did not understand that a littler person sometimes had to be a little bit noisier and a little bit stubborn in order to be noticed at all.”

“Ramona was filled with the glory of losing her first tooth and love for her teacher. Miss Binney had said she was brave! This day was the most wonderful day in the world! The sun shone, the sky was blue, and Miss Binney loved her.”

Thank You, Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, thank you for creating Ramona, Beezus, Willa Jean, Howie, and the rest of the children in and around Klickitat Street. Your writing shaped and enlivened my childhood.

Currently, your insights on parenting and the relationships between children and adults still shape many of the interactions I have with my young son and my pre-kindergarten students. Now that I am a “slowpoke grown-up,” I try not to say things like, “You are shooting up like a weed” or “cat got your tongue?” to my small students. I try to be an understanding grown-up who remembers being a girl, with straight brown hair like Ramona, with the potential to be a bit of a “pest” and who sometimes wanted to throw a “big, noisy fuss” when she was the youngest one in the family and was not always taken seriously.