Rachel again flashes back to her and Beth’s childhood. Rachel is eight and Beth is seven; they play a guessing game about place names with their siblings in the car. They’re returning from their grandmother’s house in New Jersey to their new house in Pennsylvania. Just after they moved there, their father left their mother, and now they visit their grandma every weekend. They love visiting, but Rachel can never sleep because of the sound of a nearby highway.
Rachel and Beth’s parents’ divorce is an important, transformative event in their childhood, but this vignette shows that they managed to keep up their spirits and enjoy themselves despite it—at least at first. Similarly, their frequent moves lend a sense of underlying instability to their childhoods. And just like their bus rides in adulthood, their car rides in childhood are important opportunities for them to bond because they mean spending long periods of time in close proximity with each other.
In their game, the kids start humming and guessing song melodies. When it’s Beth’s turn to hum, she only gives her siblings two notes: “DUH duh.” (It’s “Hey Jude.”) Their mother turns on the radio, and Ringo, their new dog, barks along to it while the kids sing. They get louder and louder, until their mother gets mad and turns off the radio. Beth looks up and repeats the same line she’s been saying all winter: “Look! […] Moon’s following us!” Everyone laughs, and the kids return to their places game.
Between her unguessable song hint and her sincere belief that the moon was pursuing the family, Beth’s disability is evident by the time she reaches seven. But while her siblings recognize that she is different, this fact doesn’t yet separate her from them, like it ultimately goes on to when they grow up. Thus, at this stage in her childhood, Beth’s family clearly loves and understands her despite her disability.
Another time, the family plays bingo in the basement room that Rachel shares with her older sister Laura. The game helps Beth learn numbers and letters, which she needs to succeed in her special ed classes. When Beth yells “Bingo!,” Ringo thinks she’s calling him.
By bringing all their children together for a bingo game, Rachel and Beth’s parents manage to specifically adapt to Beth’s unique educational needs, without singling her out. This combination of adaptation and inclusion is an effective approach to accommodating people with disabilities in environments where they are a minority.
Rachel’s mom and dad both tell their kids that they’ll need to help Beth out and care for her when they grow older. They promise that they’ll never hide her from the world or send her to an institution. And the kids also understand that they should never let Beth hear them say the words “mentally retarded.”
Rachel and Beth’s parents communicate frankly but lovingly about Beth’s special needs with their other children. This shows that they are committed to helping Beth live as full and meaningful a life as non-disabled people, and they want their other children to commit to the same. Importantly, during Rachel and Beth’s childhood (in the mid-20th century), most developmentally disabled people were confined to institutions and deprived of their autonomy. Moreover, “mentally retarded” was an accepted scientific term and not yet a derogatory slur. By encouraging their children not to use the word, Rachel and Beth’s parents were simply trying to prevent Beth from worrying about the fundamental difference between her abilities and other kids’.
One day, Beth and Rachel hide from Ringo at the bottom of the stairs, because they’re afraid of him. The babysitter tells them not to worry, and they nervously climb the stairs hand-in-hand. Rachel realizes that she likes making Beth feel safe.
By helping Beth up the stairs, Rachel learns that she can play an important role in helping Beth find safety, comfort, and inclusion—even though they’re only a year apart in age. Of course, her decision to ride the buses with Beth is born of the same instinct. But this also shows why she’s so anxious when she feels like she can’t protect Beth from certain dangers.
Two years later, Rachel’s family moves back to New Jersey. She writes her father an anonymous letter asking him to return to the family. Otherwise, she spends most of her spare time writing stories and plays. When her dad comes to visit, he takes the four children on a drive and asks about their lives. They go to a park and practice basketball. When Rachel mentions John Lennon leaving his wife for Yoko Ono, her dad comments that sometimes people can’t stand to stay in their broken marriages. Later, Rachel throws away her letter.
Rachel clearly had an early knack for writing. Like her letters to Beth, her letter to her father is an attempt to make up for a vast physical and emotional distance—one that she struggles to bridge when she actually sees him. Similarly, Rachel’s father’s comment about broken marriages shows how difficult it is for the children to understand his perspective on their family relationship. Ultimately, Rachel finds writing easier than speaking because writing gives her time, space, and privacy to think through her feelings.
When their mother goes out on a date, the kids ask why she won’t stay home with them instead—and why she can’t just get back together with their father. They watch her leave with a handsome stranger.
Just like they struggle to understand why their father gave up on his marriage, Rachel and her siblings also don’t understand why their mother wants another relationship at all. This gap in understanding leaves them feeling isolated and frustrated. In fact, it’s the same kind of gap that separates Beth from her siblings in adulthood.
In sixth grade, a softball player named Chip tells Rachel and Laura that he has a secret. He leads them to a candy store and shows them how he steals a chocolate bar while the owner is on a phone. The girls come up with another scam to get Hanukkah presents: they go door to door and say they’re raising funds to help “retarded people” like Beth. They make $50 in just two nights, then decide that what they’re doing is wrong.
The girls feel guilty about their scam because they’re using Beth’s condition to their own benefit, but also because they’re encouraging a patronizing kind of pity toward people with disabilities. Specifically, by presenting their sister as a charity case, they imply that that people like Beth must always be cared for and can never care for themselves—an assumption that Beth’s adult lifestyle squarely disproves.
One night, while watching television on her mother’s bed, Rachel notices her mother surreptitiously running her hand across her face. On another night, they catch Beth sleepwalking down the stairs and into the street. Rachel wonders if Beth is “just doing what the rest of us secretly want: trying to run away?”
Both of these memories show how Rachel’s family coped with their issues by gradually disconnecting from one another. When Rachel’s mother feels her face, this suggests that she has been deprived of touch and affection. And as Rachel explicitly points out, Beth’s sleepwalking reminds her of how her family members wanted to solve their problems by running away from one another. This instinct—to withdraw from conflict rather than resolving it—becomes a constant in Rachel and her family members’ lives. Eventually, it culminates in four years of utter isolation between Rachel’s breakup with Sam and her year riding the buses with Beth.