A book that speaks to me at every age
I don't know when "Little Women" was brand-new to me, or even where I obtained my own copy, but I do remember that it was familiar by the time I read it aloud to my younger sister. I can see Alison in my mind's eye, staring dreamily at the ceiling as she lay on her twin bed. Our shared room was a smallish space to shelter the disparate dreams of 9- and 14-year-olds. I sometimes underlined large words and would give my sister an impromptu vocabulary lesson, during which I broke the intimate spell. But generally, "Little Women" bridged the years between us as I skipped parts that bored me and read and read from the 643 pages of my 1947, color-plated edition.
When the title surfaced years later on my women's studies required-reading list, I had that same volume sent from home. At 20, I read a lot in the college gym's locker room, where I'd catch up on homework after swimming laps. I'd work a deep conditioner into my hair, tuck it under a towel, and haul "Little Women" with me into the sauna. I highlighted passages that reflected the changes in women's roles in society and marveled at how girls had to sew in the 1800s to think themselves worthy.
At 31, I became a mother, and my postpartum weeks were measured by nursing sessions. While balancing my hungry daughter, I perched books on the arm of the couch and frantically reread favorites to keep myself from going mad. "Little Women" was the first book I turned to. Not surprisingly, I found young mother Meg's frustrations gripping. I delighted in her twins' antics. My own days seemed long and unfamiliar, and "Little Women," with its sisterly chatter, kept me company.
Last summer 10 years later I dug around my shelves for "Little Women" again. It looked awful. The cracked spine had been duct-taped, and the ancient vocabulary underscores and faded yellow highlights pocked its pages. It was still a welcome sight.
Sewing was what brought me back this time. I'd become positively mournful over the fact that I couldn't sew. Our buttonless clothes were sent to the tailor or went unworn, and I cursed my lack of education every time I bought simple but expensive dresses for my two daughters.
So, I asked a handy friend to teach me how. Our sewing playdates she and I and our combined four daughters reminded me of the March girls mending a sheet, with Jo pretending it was a map of Africa that they were trekking across.
How often those little women sewed! They darned socks, refashioned outdated gowns, and stitched hope-chest linens. I yearned to spend time with the sisters again, and suddenly I felt a powerful desire to introduce my elder daughter, Yasmine, to them, too. Third-grader Yasmine was ready to sit through the classic's many chapters. So, recalling two long-ago girls, I began to read it aloud to her at night as she curled into the crook of my arm.
Yasmine didn't let me skip a paragraph as she silently followed along. We slogged through the mind-numbing "Pilgrim's Progress" passages, every last party of Amy's European tour, and all of the author's dogmatic lectures on 19th-century transcendentalism. Yet what discoveries I found! For the first time, I relished the entire evolution of Amy and Laurie's love. I was always so eager to get to his proposal that I'd missed the subtlety of their burgeoning relationship.
I also saw things through the eyes of a child precariously balanced between little and big girlhood. While sweetly naive by the standards of today, Yasmine was floored that 13-year-old Beth was home-schooled and still played with dolls. Yasmine took Beth's education upon herself, pretending that the character accompanied her to school, where apparently Yasmine explained her world to the Victorian innocent.
Small things often made my eyes fill with tears: Patient Marmee guiding her daughters, the unapologetic way the Marches embraced a humble and righteous life. Sometimes it was a simple turn of the plot the anxiety over an injured father, the first wedding.
Toward the end of the book, I slowed down on purpose, sometimes skipping a night, despite my daughter's protests. It was a luxury I indulged in as I watched my own life moving at an alarming pace. The big sister becomes the university graduate becomes the wife becomes the mother as her daughter becomes the big sister in her own life's plot.
"Little Women's" epic telling seemed quite an undertaking when Yasmine and I started, but it went very fast. When I reached the last two lines, I choked on the words yet one more time:
"Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility, 'Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!'"
I closed the book, hugged my daughter for a long time, and then placed my battered, but beloved book on her shelf.
The short afternoon wore away; all the other errands were done, and Meg and her mother busy at some necessary needlework, while Beth and Amy got tea, and Hannah finished her ironing with what she called a "slap and a bang" but still Jo did not come. They began to get anxious; and Laurie went off to find her, for no one ever knew what freak Jo might take into her head. He missed her, however, and she came walking in with a very queer expression of countenance, for there was a mixture of fun and fear, satisfaction and regret, in it, which puzzled the family as much as did the roll of bills she laid before her mother, saying, with a little choke in her voice, "That's my contribution towards making father comfortable and bringing him home!"
"My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven't done anything rash?"
"No, it's mine honestly; I didn't beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it; and I don't think you'll blame me, for I only sold what was my own."
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.
"Your hair! Your beautiful hair!" "O Jo, how could you? Your one beauty." "My dear girl, there was no need of this." "She doesn't look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!"