Jan Berenstain of Berenstain Bears fame passed away on Friday. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that fun family of bears was a pretty constant presence in my young life. Between the books and the TV movies, they were teaching me lessons all over the place.
Of all of their books the two that always come to my mind first are The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food and The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room.
I think Too Much Junk Food sticks out in my mind because I always wanted more candy than I was allowed. I still remember looking at the illustrations and thinking, Man, that candy looks good. Not the message I was supposed to take away, I know.
The Messy Room, however, was one that I related to greatly. Much like the cubs, my sister and I shared a room and were not always the neatest. We too had bunk beds and a big storage closet that you opened at your own risk. We also, like the cubs, needed to learn to work together. Cleaning the room was one of the few things that could consistently make lil' sis and I argue. It wasn’t so much about one of us wanting to get out of the cleaning, but rather than I wanted to be the Grand Room Cleaning Poobah. In such an exalted position, I, naturally, expected my sister to follow all my Poobah commands. We would clean in the manner that I saw fit and that was that. Shockingly, my sister wasn’t a fan of my tyrannical tidying. Who’d have guessed?
It took us awhile, but we finally figured out a way that we could clean together without killing each other. We created a story. It wasn’t our room we were cleaning anymore, but instead the mall (yes, the entire mall) where we worked. And it wasn’t our mess, either. Two boys, named Jimmy and Johnny, had come in after hours and thrashed the place. So, there we were, the much put upon store employees, called in on their days off to deal with this mess. And because it was our job, we would clean – all the while complaining about what colossal jerks Jimmy and Johnny were. In between our railing against them, we’d talk about the other people in the mall and how we couldn’t believe none of them had come in to help us out. We’d discuss what we were going to do when we got off work (you know, like going to a fancy ball or taking the train to Manhattan to eat at Jekyll and Hyde’s or something equally adult-like) and slowly the stuff littering the floor would disappear.
I honestly can’t remember which one of us to credit with this little bit of brilliance, but it worked. The room would get clean and we’d still be friends at the end of it. After that, whenever the room reached threat level midnight, one of us would say, “Can you believe Jimmy and Johnny got in here again?” And, shaking our heads, we’d roll up the sleeves of our Flinstones tees and get down to business.
So, now when I see kids reading the Berenstain Bears stories, it makes me think of those cleaning afternoons with my sister and the magic of conflict resolution through storytelling.
Many thanks to Mrs. Berenstain for all the stories she and her husband brought into our lives. She will be missed.