Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Little Women

Let's call this a book review. Let's say we're going to discuss Louisa May Alcott's sweet, old-fashioned novel Little Women, even though I'm going somewhere else, somewhere hard and bad.

The book will be my buffer because the reality still stumps and stuns me, even after all these years. Thirty-eight years this August.

Nancy died.

Nancy, my sister, my constant companion, the girl who was so close to me that the word "friends" could not describe us, my bedroom roommate, the one who read Archie comics next to me among the suitcases and grocery bags and pillows packed in the rear of the station wagon, the child who one summer afternoon disappeared from my view forever with a violent suddenness that still rocks my heart. That little girl? She died.

She was nine and I was eleven and this year my daughters are the same ages.

You would think I'd be lost in reveries this particular summer, wouldn't you? Trying to study Mia and Eleanor, searching for clues about how Nancy and I lived our last summer together, trying to enter a time machine by watching them and imaging that Mia is me and Nora is Nancy.

But I'm not.

There's not much time to reflect in between the busy, happy hours of our staycation summer of 2014, in between the endless card games, the pool and beach afternoons, the street fests and Ravinia and Wrigley and Shakespeare in the park, the day camps and backyard games and bike rides. 

And this summer has been gorgeous, too full of clear sunlight and luminous blue skies for ruminating, the sweet garden scents brought out by the pre-dawn rains distracting me from the past.

Sometimes I'll get a flash of recognition in their passionate arguments, or in their screams of laughter, or inside their quiet and contented parallel work creating a world of Legos on Nora's bedroom rug.  I'll think, I know this.

But they are themselves, not us.

So if I recognize that I can be too tough on Mia when I scold her for fighting with her little sister and if I recognize I can be too coddling of Eleanor because I see a distorted version of my sibling and me in them and if I know I'm acting out of an irrational guilt for not cherishing more the sister that I could never have imagined would leave so soon, well, if I recognize all that, then we'll just have to work on it, won't we? and I've just saved myself a few thousand dollars in psychotherapy charges, haven't I?

The world is too much with me for an extended stay in the backrooms of my mind and Mia and Eleanor are their own people, not replicas, not reincarnations and I am constantly swept back home to NOW, to today because Nora's new braces are KILLLING her mouth and can she have another dose of Children's Motrin and I need to pick up the summer enrichment carpool in eight minutes and isn't the flox blooming in glorious shades this summer?

But anyway, Little Women...

You may call it a coincidence that this is the year that I picked up a copy of Little Women at the toy store and decided to read it again. Or not.

The cover was the thing that caught my eye, a collage of embroidered stitches outlining thematic objects from the story, a cottage, a pile of books, Beth's piano.

The edition is from the new "Penguin Threads" line and on the inside flaps of the cover, you see the underside of the embroidery work, the strange and random lines that underpin the neat sewing patterns on the opposite side. A gorgeous design for a modern day reexamination of the book.

The novel reads so different than when I took it up as a girl. Of course, there are the pleasurable depths added by that awesome Friends episode (intertextuality!) and by Claire Danes' greatest performance EVAH as Beth in the 1994 film (oh, the tears!) but this reader has changed since I first read it and that is what has changed the book.

The arch language, the goo of sentiment, the importance of Scripture for these Civil War gentlewomen, all are so far from our midwestern 1970's childhood. We ran away from squishy emotion, threw limp insults at each other imagining we were as clever as the Bradys, snorted at the lovey-dovey family scenes in Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons.

Now Marmie the mother is my entry point, instead of Jo the headstrong middle daughter. Now the novel's central point, the axis around which all spins, is no longer a romantic love triangle, but the death of the younger sister. Now the overt emotion is a teacher, rather than something from which to run away. The book, its diction and its sentiment is less strange now and I can allow myself to be a vicarious Jo for a while, rather than looking at her from a distance. It is safe in my imagination and ensconced within the act of reading to apply some of Alcott's words to us and to use them as a kind of comfort, in my own secular way:

Seeing (Beth trying to wean herself from the dear old life) did more for Jo than the wisest sermons,  the saintliest hymns, the most fervent prayers that any voice could utter; for, with eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart softened by the tenderest sorrow, she recognized the beauty of her sister's life -- uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which "smell sweet, and blossom in the dust"; the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven...

What a pleasure to read this, dry-eyed and grateful. What hard work to forgive (and forgive again) the child I was who played and teased and helped and walked with and cared for her little sister, but did not say the kind of words of devotion and abiding love that Louisa May Alcott wrote. An irrational thing to hold against myself, I know. But it is all part of the longing that never ends.

Mia and Nora had a fight last week, then made up. I was downstairs and they were upstairs so I missed the whole thing until Nora came down to show me the Lego creation she had fashioned. It was a little platform, supporting a door standing in its frame. The door was elevated on two little blocks so there was a space underneath where the two little Lego girls on either side could slide notes back and forth to each other. The Lego girls were posed bending over toward the door and toward each other, one with brown hair like Mia and like Nancy, the other with blond hair like Nora and like me when I was young.

"Oh, how sweet!" I cried. "Is this what you and Sister were doing upstairs?"

Nora told me how she had locked herself in her room after Mia accidentally kicked her. Mia slid a dry-erase board with an apology under her door and Nora wrote her an acceptance back. I melted  inside and cooed and praised all over the Lego reenactment. I knew by Nora's giggles as she continued to tell the story that the dry-erase board notes eventually degenerated into pictures of bare butts passing clouds of gas and so forth, but such is the love between those two, the immature and perfect love between young sisters.


Anne W said...

Cindy - how did your sister die? I don't think I ever knew about that!

My sisters & I just acknowledged the 40th anniversary of our mother's death. FORTY! for whatever reason, it hit me harder than usual. Perhaps because my son is older than I was when my mother died and my girls are older than I was when my mother was first diagnosed. Such details play weird tricks on me as a mother. I'm not very sympathetic at times….

This is a lovely post. I love Little Women. I hope my girls read it someday. I think I may need to re-read it soon. I love re-reading old favorites.

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Cindy Fey said...

Anne, my sister Nancy and my brother Christopher, who was 14, died on August 6, 1976 in a car accident. Our Aunt Ruth, who raised us after our parents died in a plane crash in 1969, was driving the car. Two neighbor boys were severely injured in the crash. I had a dislocated hip and had to wear a body cast for several weeks.

Kim said...

The pain of your past, the strength of your family and the beauty of your writing leave me breathless.