Kathleen Shemer remembers her mother’s great affection for one novel in particular and her own love/hate relationship with the very same book. Shemer, an attorney and published poet, is a lifelong Maryland resident.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I decided to read her favorite book to her, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. According to my mother, all nice little girls read Little Women, but today the 19th- century book has fallen out of fashion. You may only know it from director Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation that retells the story of four, poverty-stricken sisters shepherded to adulthood during the Civil War by their saintly, ever-patient mother, Marmee, as she was called by the girls.
I was 12 years old the first time my mother asked me to read Little Women, and a straight-A student at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Baltimore City who devoured books way beyond grade level. Despite her frequent requests for me to give it a chance, I refused to read a word.
“It was the best book I ever read,” my mother would say. There must be something to her claim because the story, often referred to as “beloved,” has been retold many times in television, stage, and film adaptations. Renowned stars have played the role of the irrepressible and stubborn daughter Jo, including Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, Winona Ryder in the 1990s, and now Saoirse Ronan in the Greta Gerwig adaptation, which also features heavy hitters Laura Dern as the self-possessed Marmee and Meryl Streep as the sharp-tongued Aunt March.
As a child, I was unaware of the book’s almost universal popularity; all I knew was that I did not want to read it. It must have been deeply important to my mother since she continued to ask me. And it must have hurt her that I, who always had her “head stuck in a book,” refused. There was clearly a lot more going on there, on her side and on mine, but at the time, I was oblivious.
Why couldn’t I just read the damn book and make my mother happy? I was adept at skimming over the parts of other books that did not interest me. I was also, like most kids, a champion liar. Why didn’t I just skim the beginning and the end and tell her I loved it? And why, after becoming a lawyer and giving birth to my own daughter, when the time for teenage rebellion surely should have been over, did I continue to refuse to read it? And continue to refuse for the next 50 years?
From the time I was a little girl, people commented on how different I was from my mother. She was tall, blond, fashionable, and funny. I was short, dark, and shy. I was out “running around” in Chinquapin Park with my brothers when I should have been at home playing with dolls like “a good girl.”
I grew up during the ’50s and ’60s, the days when proper ladies and girls did not get dirty. Dresses were required for any family or social event. I hated dressing up; I loved my blue jeans and a baggy shirt (especially after puberty descended on me early and with a vengeance). When we went to St. Mary’s Govans for Mass on Sunday, my mother graced the pew in a slimline skirt and fitted white blouse that accentuated her small breasts. Next to her, with pin curls in my straight hair, a frilly dress, white gloves, and my big boobs, I felt like a stuffed pig and that my mother was trying to remake me into her version of a “little woman.”
Though I did not realize it at the time, of the four sisters in the book, I most resembled Alcott’s description of Jo. “Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it.” Her Marmee did her best to mold Jo into a proper young woman, but Jo’s rebellious streak challenged her mother’s pious patience.
I knew very little about who my mother was on the inside. I knew that she grew up in St. Ambrose Parish down on Park Heights Avenue and that her father died when she was 8 or 9. I knew that her younger sister, whose charm bracelet sported a sterling silver toilet, suffered from colitis and died of colon cancer at the young age of 32. To help their mother support the family, all three sisters had to go to work as secretaries immediately upon finishing Seton High. I didn’t really listen when she talked about her life before she became a mother. Once I found out she had cancer, though, I wanted a more genuine relationship.
Reading Mom’s favorite book to her would be a way to spend time with her while she convalesced from the complications of chemotherapy and radiation. I bought an edition with a purple leather cover and ornate gold lettering. Was there a part of me that wanted to use that book to fill the hours with someone else’s words, when mine were failing me? To ask forgiveness for all the snippy adolescent comments? To erase the pain from my grown-up actions that slayed her, like getting pregnant “out of wedlock,” and being married by a justice of the peace instead of a priest? She loved my Jewish husband like a son, but as far as she was concerned, I never married; I could never join her in the Kingdom of Heaven.
I couldn’t bear the thought that she would take her disappointment in me to the grave. I wanted her to understand, and how could she not, when I saw Louisa May Alcott’s words excerpted on the back of the purple volume: “The best of us have a spice of perversity in us, especially when we are young and in love.” With a quote like that, maybe this book, all these years later, really could close those gaps between us.
A great plan, right? Except I found the novel to be the most boring book I’d ever come across, even all these years later. My instincts as a 12-year-old had been right: I hated every minute I spent reading it.
But one look at my mother’s gently closed eyes, the dark purpled shadows beneath them lightening to a pale pink, the wrinkles seeming to smooth away as she relaxed against the pillows of her hospital bed—that’s what kept me slogging through the endless chapters. My shallow misery was worth it to watch the pain fall away from her face as the melodramatic book transported her to some special place I was sure I would never understand.
One day, about halfway through the book, during what I thought was a particularly overblown section, I hit upon a solution. On the spot, as I read, I edited Louisa May Alcott of her adjectives and adverbs and trimmed her down to a more palatable size. If my mother knew the difference, she didn’t say. She died 20 chapters from the end.
There were many reasons why we didn’t finish the book: days when I was too busy with work; days when she was too sick; days when I forgot to bring the book. Did I mention the unbearable length of the novel? A novel so long it outlived cancer?
Oddly, when I was writing this essay and paging through the book for an example of “overblown” language, I could not find one. All those adjectives and adverbs that we eschew in modern literature and that I had whisked away when reading to my mother now seemed necessary to the story. Without them, the re-read sections lost their luster.
Even more oddly, after my mother died, my family began to collect Little Women memorabilia. My niece bought her cousins and me chic editions of the book. We drank our coffee from bright orange Little Women mugs. But I still didn’t get it, the reason my mother loved the book so much. I was an English major in college. I studied theme, plot, character. How could I not realize what was staring me in the face all along?
In keeping with our new familial obsession, the year after my mother died, my daughter took me to see the Gerwig Little Women at the Charles Theatre. (Fortunately, the rebellious trait that made me keep saying “no” to my mother skipped a generation; my daughter, despite her busy work schedule and two small kids, is forever proposing activities for the two of us like taking in a chick flick or starting a mother/daughter book club.) I watched the film in awe. The genius of Greta Gerwig’s screen adaptation was to present the sisters’ lives in a non-linear way, opening with the women as accomplished adults who, with Marmee’s help, have learned grace–individually, by overcoming their distinct challenges, and together, in coping with their sister Beth’s death. We see them as children, flawed but endearing, in carefully chosen and illuminating flashbacks without Alcott’s plodding chronology and excessive detail.
Finally, when I saw the story this way, I understood. Little Women was not only a story my mother loved and wanted to share with me. Little Women was my mother’s story, a chronicle of her life. She and her two sisters poor as “church mice.” Her mother struggling to raise her daughters without the help of a husband. The long-suffering early death of her beloved sister, Mary Jane. The challenge of a rebellious daughter.
No wonder I didn’t see it before then. I grew up with two parents, never lost a sibling, and was never poor. I must have known unconsciously that I didn’t need Little Women to make sense of my life, precisely because I was different from my mother; I needed to follow my own path. But after losing her, it was time to embrace her life, and her gift of Little Women was still there, waiting for me in the language of film.
For last year’s family visit to my mother’s grave in Woodlawn, instead of flowers, I took my Little Women mug and perched it on top of Mom’s marble headstone. My father likes for each of us, her three children and four granddaughters, to share a little story of “Nanny.” That morning, I still had not decided on what I wanted to say. And then I realized I had the purple volume in my bag. I opened to a page near the end, the last paragraph in the chapter called “Valley of Shadow,” and I read what I instantly knew was the perfect passage to share with my family. Intuition? Divine intervention? A message from the grave? I substituted my mother’s name for the lost sister Beth’s, read Louisa May Alcott’s words, flowery and sappy as they are, and brought my family to tears as they remembered her suffering and death:
When morning came, for the first time in many months the fire was out, her place was empty, and the room was very still. But a bird sang blithely on a budding bough, close by, the snowdrops blossomed freshly at the window, and the sunshine streamed in like a benediction over the placid face upon the pillow, a face so full of painless peace that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked God that “Nanny” was well at last.
I still have not finished reading the book; I probably never will. I prefer to imagine my mom as Laura Dern, the serenely patient mother in the movie, and myself as Saoirse Ronan, the generous and loving adult Jo, rather than the messy characters that my mom and I sometimes became in real life. I’ve assigned the role of the eldest sister Meg, played by Emma Watson, to my daughter, because, like Meg, her grown-up life is so very different from what she planned for as a child. And each year, on the anniversary of Nanny’s death, she and I will pop some corn, snuggle on the couch, watch Greta Gerwig’s quietly femininst adaptation of Little Women, and marvel at how masterfully she plucks universal truths out of the baggage of the past and makes them fresh and meaningful for both of us.
I only wish my mom had lived long enough that we could have seen the movie together. And maybe even finished the book. As written.