Jul 03

Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey

Posted by Soliloquy in Advocates | Intellectual Disabilities

Beth is a spirited woman with mental retardation, who spends nearly every day riding the buses in Philadelphia. The drivers, a lively group, are her mentors; her fellow passengers are her community. When Beth asks her sister Rachel to accompany her on the buses for one year, they take a transcendent journey together that changes Rachel’s life in incredible ways and leads her to accept her sister at long last-teaching her to slow down and enjoy the ride.

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Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True Life Journey

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  • This is, quite simply, a splendid earthbound book. With admirable honesty Rachel Simon details her year spent riding the buses of an unnamed Pennsylvania city with her “mentally challenged” younger sister Beth.

    Unsentimental, clear-eyed, and painfully truthful, Simon interweaves scenes from the family’s past into the tales of her travels with the self-named Cool Beth. We meet a series of quite remarkable drivers, some of whom display levels of wisdom and kindness that are exceptional; as well, the majority of the drivers possess philosophical attitudes and good-heartedness. It’s a view from that front bench seat by the door that will undoubtedly alter every reader’s perception and/or preconceived notions about the people who carry us from one point to another–in any city or town.

    Everyone in this book is revealed, warts and all, with perception and, by the end, with a hard-won perspective that leads not only to the author’s self-acceptance but also to a new level of respect for the wonderfully well-depicted Beth (in all her rotund, stubborn glory); for the parents and siblings who spent decades of their lives striving not only to be supportive of their sister but also their efforts to come to terms with the effects of Beth on their own lives.

    This is a brave and enlightening book that leaves one filled with admiration for both Rachel and Beth, along with a heightened sense of how, so often, while we might think we’re coping well with whatever life throws at us, below the surface linger effects of which we may well be unaware.
    Most highly recommended.

  • Rachel Simon has written a clear-eyed and inspirational memoir about life with her sister, a stubborn and resourceful woman who has mental retardation. Beth lives by herself in an unnamed Pennsylvania city where she fills her days with riding bus route after bus route, chatting with the drivers and a few of the passengers. When Beth challenges Simon, a professor and writer, to ride the buses with her for a year, Simon accepts.

    Of course, Simon has a job and a life in another city, so her visits to Beth are necessarily brief and divided by days, maybe weeks. Simon isn’t sure what to expect of this new time spent with her sister except for early rising (Beth rushes out of the house every morning at 5:30 am, rain or shine) and frantic sprints to public restrooms. On a superficial level, Simon understands what her sister does all day. What Simon doesn’t expect is to find a richness in Beth’s life that she herself lacks. This insight, gained not only through living with her sister but also through conversations with the bus drivers who have befriended Beth, leads Simon to re-evaluate her own priorities and choices.

    This book is a journey of two sisters, who cover distances both geographical and emotional. Simon writes with heartfelt, no-nonsense prose that carries this story with remarkable aplomb. Her portraits of the individual drivers are filled with detail and sharp-eyed perception. Her honesty about her own misgivings and failings is refreshing, and the lack of sentimentality is a relief. What most distinguishes this book, however, is Simon’s palpable affection for her sister. Both Beth and Simon are remarkable women, and I heartily thank Simon for allowing me a glimpse into their lives.

  • I always try to read a book without any prejudices in regards to the author or the story’s nature. But, I have to admit that I was more than a little afraid at first about Riding The Bus With My Sister. I feared that this book would be a stereotypical “feel good” story, where the mentally retarded sister was depicted as a misunderstood noble creature and the “bus rides are a journey of self-discovery” metaphor was abused.

    It didn’t take me long to realize that my initial fears were unfounded. They went unrealized because Simon chose to infuse her story with honesty, instead of stereotype. Nowhere is this quality better displayed than in her depiction of Beth. Simon makes a point of showing that her sister is stubborn, opinionated, and not liked by everyone. But, she also shows that Beth has qualities that make her distinctive and important. By providing this balanced portrayal, Simon gives her sister a realism that transcends the stereotypical depiction of the mentally disabled.

    The only area where Simon veers dangerously close to typecast is in her portrayal of the “wise beyond their station in life” bus drivers. While she does state that not all drivers were like those she highlighted, those that were shown were portrayed as near saints. What rescues this depiction is the honesty behind the stories. Simon takes care to show how each of these drivers obtained their wisdom through their life experiences. As a result, the drivers, and their level of understanding, become believable.

    While the metaphor running throughout the book had the potential to be abused, it turned out to be appropriate. Because of the truthful portrayal of her sister and the situations during that year of riding, I came to believe that Simon had discovered, changed, and grown. She shows this growth by movingly displaying the two most important points she learned: that everyone has value and that insight can be obtained from anywhere. If every book imparted such knowledge, the world would be a richer place. But, since most books don’t pass along such lessons, one should grasp those, like Riding The Bus With My Sister, that do add this value to one’s life.

  • Many things in this book amazed me, not the least of which was the support system of bus drivers who were such an integral part of Beth Simon’s life as she rode the city buses, day after da,y in an unnamed Pennsylvania city.

    Rachel, spending part of the year accompanying her mildly retarded sister on her daily rounds of bus rides, intricately depicts these drivers and their(mostly) caring attitudes toward Beth. It was amazing to her that Beth actually had a better support system than she did in her so-called “normal” life.

    Interspered in the monthly entries are vignettes about the past shared by these two sisters and their siblings. Their total abandonment by their mother when she decided to marry an abusive convict was heart-wrenching. But this book was never whiny- rather, it showed the resilience of this family.

    I learned a lot about the social services, within a community, that are provided to disabled people like Beth. Her “team” seemed very caring and involved with her life.

    I felt Rachel’s frustration as she tried to convince Beth to eat better, take better medical and dental care of herself, and to get some kind of a job. Beth’s stubbornmess and willfulness were also a challenge to her sister, as was her demanding attitude.

    This book is perceptive, enlightening, painfully honest….and memorable. I am so glad that I read it and that Rachel Simon allowed me into her world.

  • Did you ever see a person, day in and day out, virtually blending them into the background of your life so that you know they exist, but you really don’t pay excessive attention to them?

    I ride the bus to work every morning, and home every afternoon, and when I do, there’s usually a purple shirted, radio-carrying, talkative, happy companion in the seat adjacent to the driver’s. I’ve been riding the buses with Beth for almost ten years. Without ever having a real relationship beyond occasional conversation, Beth has made me laugh when I was frowning, made me smile when I was annoyed at how poorly someone was treating her, with one of her “I dunno! Don’t care”‘s, fired off with a genuine smile, and made me think when I was trying to drown myself in my own sorrow. In this town, you know Beth. You know her, even if not by name, because she is a character. Vivacious, uplifting, and demanding your eyes and ears… Beth is everywhere. Whether she makes you happy, sad, angry, confuses you… she’s a constant.

    It took me reading this book to realize all the Beth memories I’ve collected over the years without thought. It’s amazing what insight I gained into a person whose presence I took so for granted. This personally affected me on a deep level, and I feel that it would do so for anyone, whether or not they have their own Beth.

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