Riding the Bus with My Sister

Riding the Bus with My Sister: A true Life Journey, by Rachel Simon. (Plume Books, $15, paperback. 296 pages.)

I have tried to write something for this book several times. By now I’m sure many, many people have already heard of this book and may have seen the made-for-television version with Rosie O’Donnell (I have not seen it– is it any good?). I come to this book again and again and always find it heartening reading. The generally uplifting tenor of the work works in its favor of course, but I don’t think that’s really why I like it.

The first time I read it, I appreciated Simon’s apparently forthright description of how her family dealt, and continues to deal with, her sister’s mental disabilities. I felt like I understood more about the community in which her sister and her family lives. I appreciated the instruction, I suppose.

Another time I read this book, I enjoyed learning more about the community in which my own mother lives– not because my mother is a person with mental retardation (ha ha!), but because my mother works in mental health. Simon touches on issues like people-first language and self-determinism that are issues that my mother deals with all the time. I was able to gain insight from the opposite side of the fence, as it were, about what my mother does for other people. Sometimes my mother comes home from work and talks to my sister and I like we’re her clients. Getting such responses from our mother (who is allowed to be more involved with us than she is with her clients) is invariably frustrating, but it was nice to see the theory behind such responses. It made her make more sense.

This time, I think I finally learned more about myself and my relationship with my sister. At the heart of it all, this text tells its readers about two sisters learning to live with each other and care for each other. My sister and I do not always get along, but, I am seeing, that is not necessarily unusual. I was grateful for Simon’s continued honesty in portraying all the feelings of sisterhood– love, jealousy, and guilt, for example– without resorting to Hallmark language. Life is messy. Relationships are messy. It’s ok. Try anyway.

I know these are all very personal responses, but it seems like the appropriate way to react to memoir. Memoir or life writing is an intensely personal thing, so it feels like its ok for me to respond with my own person– as opposed to some more-detached, mythically objective academic persona. Anyway, I love this book– quietly, steadily. I don’t expect to read it again, but I probably will.

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