I was eight years old when I sent Beverly Cleary a very long and urgent handwritten letter, wherein I patiently explained that she and her writing meant – well, absolutely EVERYTHING to me.
In my very-best penmanship (which, if you’ve met me, understand takes a lot of effort), I painstakingly explained for pages, just exactly why I needed Beverly Cleary to understand me. She was the only one who could, for the love of God and Henry Huggins!
That was back in early ’84. We as kids were patient, back then. Most letters sent to any kind of celebrity were usually greeted with vague indifference at best. Politicians were better, and many my age had a Reagan-autographed pic of him on a horse.
But nothing would ever compare to the letter that I received back from Beverly Cleary.
I’ll never forget the day that I got it. It was a hot, humid summer day on Long Island, and a postcard came in the mail, addressed to me! The front side was a garish and glorious yellow, combined with Alan Tiegreen’s signature Ramona-head depiction.
The back side, where the text goes, was filled with the handwriting of my goddess, Beverly Cleary herself.
I knew that it was her handwriting for real, because for some reason I’d somewhere along the line acquired a copy of Mitch and Amy, in which Ms. Cleary had inscribed a dedication. The writing on the postcard matched that.
“Dear Judith,” she wrote in blue ballpoint ink. I sadly do not have the postcard anymore, but remember the chills I got, seeing my name scrawled by Beverly Cleary’s hand.
She went on to say what you’d expect – thanks for the props, etc.
But then she went on even further to address my personal angst, over wanting to be a writer When I Grew Up.
Beverly Cleary knew that I worshipped her. I’m pretty sure that in 1984, she knew that she deserved to be worshipped. Yet/so, she was still so humble, and gave amazing advice:
She told me that writers become writers when they’re meant to become them. That some start when they’re kids, some in their 20s.
Cleary went on to say that she herself didn’t complete her first book until her 30s, and that Laura Ingalls Wilder (another personal fave of mine) didn’t publish her first until she was in her 60s!
Bottom line: everyone’s path is different, and even the best of the best are sometimes really late bloomers.
For years, I had that lesson hanging on my wall, in Beverly Cleary’s delicate yet perfect handwriting.
I wrote to her again in 2002, after devouring both her memoirs on the train while I worked in the city. I just wanted to, as an adult, say Happy Birthday and Thank You one more time. She wrote back then, as well. “Thank you Judith; it was so nice to hear from you again,” she said. It wasn’t quite the same as the postcard from ’84, but it was so amazing to hear back from Beverly Cleary, once again. On that day, 18 years later, it really felt like maybe not so much had to change, after all.
In 2007, I wrote to Beverly Cleary again. It was the first day in a decade that I spent hours at Kinko’s, and this time it was to print out my blog that my friend Rebecca envisioned as a book and transformed into art. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real writer, thanks to my visual-artist friend.
Maybe it sounds foolish, but I really, really wanted Beverly Cleary to have a copy. I just wanted her to see it, to have it. To know that the little girl she encouraged 23 years earlier, was going for it, after all.
I mailed her a copy. And I did get a response, only this time it was one saying that Beverly Cleary was in poor health, and couldn’t respond to all of her mail.
I think in a way, that I’ve been a little lost since then. She and my grandmother are both rocking their ‘90s, and there is something so precious and precarious about that. Both women are beautiful, hilarious, and vibrant, yet have not only reached undeniably old ages, but have also lost their awesome life partners.
My grandmother tells anyone who will listen that “Growing old is not for sissies.”
Beverly Cleary quoted a friend in one of her memoirs, that she “dreads the day someone calls her spry.”
Neither woman will ever seem “old” to me. And though I don’t have that yellow postcard hanging on my wall anymore, when I think of it, I go back to a time. When my grandparents were right outside my door, waiting to see me off to my 8th-grade graduation, as I fretted about my bangs. When Beverly Cleary wasn’t frail, even if she was getting older.
I want it back – all of it. But the ‘80s were a long time ago, now. So I’ll take with me the postcards, and extend one more heartfelt Thank You to Beverly Cleary, my grandmother, and every woman who paved a way that may not always be clear, but is always full of passion and imagination.