In 1967 when I was eight,
my mother gave me paperbacks of: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, andLittle Women for Christmas. I was, and remain, a vociferous reader from Dick and Jane primers onward. I’m never without at least three books going at a time. I vary the genres so I don’t co-mingle two mysteries, blurring the red herrings into one giant whale.
That admitted to, while I read Alice only once, I delighted in her thrilling journey. As for Oz, watching the Judy Garland movie was an annual event and reading the book went along with it. That whacky wizard was delightful, even if he was a fraud, and Dorothy made such glorious friends.
All three books have been carted around with me through move after move. As much as I have weeded out my book-load, they remain on the shelf. So time and again, I would pull out Little Women and give it another go. No matter what age I was, I simply couldn’t manage to delve into the story. Was it because it was about four girls living with their mother? Compared to Alice and to Dorothy’s adventures, a story based in two houses wasn’t an appealing idea. I loved mysteries like Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew that are still fun to read. And the captivating world of Magic Elizabeth that I re-read just last year. I wanted books that immediately sparked my imagination. I would crawl into my favorite reading spot—the big, square easy chair that now resides in my family room. I’d get comfortable and go on a trip with one of my favorites.
But it wasn’t Little Women held in my adolescent hands.
Mom would check-in
Throughout my childhood, Mom would ask me if I had read Little Women. I would say no, throwing her question away and speeding along into something else—probably another book. It never once occurred to me to think through why this book was so important to Mom that she would ask me repeatedly about reading it. I was a selfish ten, then twelve, then fourteen-year-old who didn’t think of anything about Mom’s feelings.
In my adulthood, Mom sporadically inquired about Little Women—had I read it yet? Still I said no. The movie from 1933, with my heroine Katharine Hepburn, came out on DVD and I gave it to Mom as a Christmas present. But even sharing our love of old movies, did I ever sit and watch it with her? No. I’m ashamed that as an adult, I never bothered to stop and think, why is this book a resounding theme with Mom?
How little it would have cost me to make Mom a priority and read this book for her. It would not have been a wasted two hours to watch the movie with her. It would have given us a place to bond.
Making hard self-assessments
I think I am a nice person.
Now. These days. At sixty.
That is after going through so much in life that it’s brought me to a place where I want kindness to be my default. The older I get and the more losses that I experience, the more gentle I hope my nature becomes.
I want generosity to become integral to my nature. Still learning to be a Christian, I accept that Jesus has welcomed me, warts and flaws, and forgives me for my many nasty scars. So striving to live life going forward with intentions of goodness is fine. But I fail.
And trying to behave that way now, trying to be that person now, is fine. But what about my mom? She’s been gone for eleven years and I only just now read Little Women. As in my childhood, I found it was a slog to start with. I couldn’t keep track of how old the daughters were and the tossing about of names confused me. Yes, we all know that Margaret is Meg and Beth is Elizabeth, but to use them interchangeably in the beginning of the story was perturbing. I nearly gave up again, but something pushed me to continue, to get through to the end.
I found some gems in the story:
Chapter, Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful: “… for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.”
Chapter, Meg Goes to Vanity Fair: “That is perfectly natural, and quite harmless, if the liking does not become a passion, and lead one to do foolish or unmaidenly things. Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people, by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.”
And: “One thing remember, my girls, mother is always ready to be your confidante, father to be your friend; and both of us trust and hope that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.”
Chapter, Experiment: “Yes; I wanted you to see how the comfort of all depends on each doing her share faithfully. While Hannah and I did your work, you got on pretty well, though I don’t think you were very happy or amiable; so I thought, as a little lesson, I would show you what happens when every one thinks only of herself. Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, and to bear or forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?”
Mom and Me
If you have read my blogs about the relationship Mom and I had, you know that we were not the closest of mothers and daughters. We were distinctly different people. I loved her, she loved me. When she was dying, something changed and we were able to heal forty plus years of disagreements over the space of ten days.
Is it the writer’s imagination of me that wonders what could have changed between us if I had read this book one of the times she asked me to? We could have shared a lively discussion the way we did with John Sandford or Michael Connelly. Would we have found a much-needed connecting point via this one little, 1868 publication?
When I finished the book and sat quietly thinking about my mom, her childhood, her marriage to my dad from age 17 to 73, her four kids, her several siblings, her in-laws … the sum total of Mom’s life struck at once.
Mom was a combination of the March girls. When she was young, she was Amy, sweet as could be but bearing the self-centeredness of youth. When she was a teen, she was as kind as Beth. When she met Dad, she was as tom-boyish as Jo, but as beautiful and womanly as young Meg. Did Mom see herself in these Little Women? I think so. Perhaps she thought that I, her deeply introspective daughter, would see the similarities and that we would come together long before the days of her dying.
I missed the chance to connect with her. My childish selfishness and my adult stubbornness kept a wall between us that could have, maybe, been tumbled down.
Will I read Little Women again? Probably not. I love that Louisa Mae Alcott outsold many men of her generation and applaud her volumes of work. But this story made me raw, made me resurrect never far-buried grief at the loss of Mom. Feeling the hole left when she died isn’t an emotion I relish.
And yet … there is a sequel, isn’t there?