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This article by Melinda Sherwood was prepared for the September 25, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Ride, Not the Destination

Four years ago, Rachel Simon took a bus ride that changed

her life. It began with a simple promise to her younger sister, Beth,

a flamboyant and feisty woman who is also mentally retarded. For five

years, Beth spurned work so that she could devote herself full time

to a rather unusual pastime: riding the local buses in loops around

the city, chatting up bus drivers, and making new friends (and sometimes

enemies) along the way.

Beth’s new hobby worried and baffled family members, but Simon, then

a super-busy, 39-year-old novelist and adjunct professor in Bryn Mawr

College’s creative writing program, was looking for an opportunity

to get closer to her unique sister.

"I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough," reflects Simon.

"I felt very judgmental toward Beth. I felt angry with myself

that I couldn’t be more loving towards her." So, at Beth’s behest,

Simon decided to spend one day riding the bus with her sister.

One day turned into one year on the buses, an odyssey which unfolds

in Simon’s non-fiction memoir, "Riding the Bus With My Sister,"

published in August by Houghton Mifflin. Simon (www.rachelsimon.com),

a former Cranbury resident and events planner at Barnes & Noble in

MarketFair, will return to her home away from home to sign copies

of her book at Barnes & Noble, Marketfair, on Friday, September 27,

at 7:30 p.m.

Although not her first book — Simon has published a a collection

of short stories ("Little Dreams, Little Nightmares," Houghton

Mifflin, 1990), a novel ("The Magic Touch," Viking, 1994),

op-ed pieces for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a survival guide for

writers, among other things — "Riding the Bus With My Sister"

has put Simon in the limelight for the first time in her career. The

process began in late 1999 when an article she wrote for the Philadelphia

Inquirer, about the single day she spent riding with her sister, was

reprinted nationwide.

Now the book has caught the attention of actress and television host

Rosie O’Donnell, who not only published an excerpt from the book in

the September issue of her self-titled magazine, but also bought the

movie rights. (If the book is made into a film, O’Donnell intends

to portray Beth herself.) Reader’s Digest will include a condensed

version of Simon’s saga in its November section, "Best Nonfiction

of 2002."

"Riding the Bus With My Sister" is a tale about two, once

close but now estranged sisters, discovering a lost bond: Beth, a

woman in her late 30s who sports neon colors, a Winnie the Pooh backpack,

and shorts year-round, and the super-organized Simon, a workaholic

writer whose wardrobe is composed of one color — black — because

"it’s practical."

As Simon is drawn into Beth’s chaotic bus-world, however, she begins

to let go of her need to control her sister’s life — and to control

so many aspects of her own — and starts to appreciate daily miracles

of patience and tolerance that each of us are capable of. She discovers

everyday heroes among Beth’s new "dysfunctional" family of

bus drivers: a man who rebounds after a liver transplant, another

with an autistic son.

By the end of the book, Simon’s feelings toward her sister are transformed,

the "disabled" Beth becomes the fully capable, "Cool Beth."

"I’ve always loved Beth, but now I love her without that extra

baggage," she writes. "Now I just love Beth for who she is,

which is unique, confident, headstrong, person."

"I admire my sister," Simon says. "I wouldn’t have said

that before I started writing this book. Discovering this bus world

in the way she has seems like a form of sculpture in time. It’s something

most people wouldn’t see."

Ostensibly about Beth, the process of "Riding the

Bus With My Sister" forced Simon to reexamine her own life. Rachel

and Beth were the middle two of four siblings, all born within five

years, to a well-meaning but troubled family that broke apart —

twice: once, with the departure of their father when Rachel was eight;

again, eight years later when their mother proved unable to fulfill

the responsibilities of a single parent of four. Apparently each child

responded differently to the stresses.

Unlike Beth, who reveled in her independence and individuality, Simon

had always chosen a more carefully plotted course. "I was going

places," she writes in her book. "I was racing my way to becoming

a Somebody. A Somebody who would live a Big Life. What that meant

exactly, I wasn’t sure. I just longed to escape the restrictions of

what I saw as a small life: Friends and family and a safe, unobjectionable

job that would pay me a passable income."

"I was a total workaholic," says the now 43-year-old Simon

from her home in Wilmington, Delaware. "If I had moments to reflect

upon where I was in my life, I would realize how lonely I was, and

I really felt like I was never going to have a partner again."

As Simon explores her sister’s disability and personal idiosyncrasies

in the book, Simon elaborates on their shared childhood growing up

in various small towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Chapters in

her book are rich with memories of playing word games with her three

siblings, memorizing Beatles’ songs with Beth, and writing plays for

the family children to perform.

But there are difficult events, and even darker emotions, that Simon

explores: her parents’ discovery of her sister’s disability; the stigma

of this disability during Rachel and Beth’s adolescence; their parent’s

divorce; and her mother’s sudden and frightening marriage to an ex-convict

who later kidnaps Beth.

Rachel’s parents separated when she was eight, and for the next eight

years all four children lived with their mother. At 16, with her mother’s

breakdown, Rachel entered Solebury School, a boarding school in New

Hope. To this day, she credits Solebury with giving her the first

true education she ever received, as well as the respect that too

few adolescents seem to find in school.

Rachel graduated from Solebury and went on to Bryn Mawr College where

she earned her degree in 1981. Yet events triggered a depression in

Simon that lasted for several years after college. She moved to Philadelphia

and took various jobs — paralegal, administrative assistant, TV

research supervisor — before she was able to write again. Then,

she immersed herself completely in work. She saw less and less of

Beth, and eventually broke off a 13-year romance with an architect.

"I used to say to people, `Why would I ever wanted to get married?

That would be like nailing myself to reality,’" she jokes. "There

was always a fear of my being able to commit to anything or being

left. There’s always a holding back, a kind of looking over the horizon

— might I be happier with another situation?"

In the course of a year with her sister, however, Simon was able to

make peace with her troubled past and her constant restlessness about

the future. Not long after, she rediscovered her lost love. After

six years of separation, Simon contacted the architect, working at

West Chester University, and they were married last year.

Now Simon is experiencing the first commercial success of her career.

Ironically, it comes at a time when she is no longer chasing the "Big

Life."

"When the movie option came down the pike, I thought, `I don’t

really want to leave my life’," Simon says. "Just to sort

of live with a loving wonderful person, in a nice little house, in

a nice little city, and to take walks and write books and go to a

job that I love and where I’m well-respected, and to be healthy and

get along with my sister — that seems like such a great way to

live out one’s days."

Simon is no longer looking over the horizon. "I’m content for

the first time in my life," she says. "I don’t feel the scramble

for the future. I don’t feel the desire to escape the present."

For now she is content to sit back and enjoy the ride.

— Melinda Sherwood

Rachel Simon, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, 609-897-9250.

The author reads and signs "Riding the Bus with My Sister."

Free. Friday, September 27, 7:30 p.m.


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