If all goes as planned, on Christmas Day my mother and I will show up at the movie theatre with my six-year-old and eight-year-old daughters to see Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women.
It will be exactly twenty-five years (to the day) since I watched the 1994 film with my mom when it opened in theatres. This upcoming cinematic rite of passage has made me reflect on what the story of Little Women has meant to me–and I realized I might not be here without the March family.
I don’t recall what I wore on December the 25th, 1994. Was it cold enough in Florida for scarves and coats that winter? But I vividly remember waiting with my mom in a serpentine line outside the movie theatre on Christmas Day with my nine-year-old heart beating wildly in anticipation to see Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy come alive for us on the big screen.
Margo Meets the March Family
A few weeks prior, my mother, Margo, gave me a battered and well-loved copy of the novel along with a story of her first encounter with Alcott’s most famous book. Her school librarian had described the plot and eight-year-old Margo borrowed a copy and started a lifelong love affair with reading. And what a gateway book! Who wouldn’t fall in love with the March family?
As a bookish “dreamer” born to outgoing parents who loved sports and social events, Jo’s unconventional awkwardness and experience as an outsider gave little Margo a comrade in arms. And Jo’s future with Professor Bhaer gave my mother the hope that she might be loved by a good man for exactly who she was, quirks and all. It was a dream that happily came true when she married her high school sweetheart, my father, or as she likes to refer to him as “my Professor” as he also taught at a university and embodies all the absent-mindedness of endearing Friedrich Bhaer.
In our home, the characters of Little Women were like people we knew in real life. They were friends. The 1994 film? It was sacred to us.
Winona Ryder was Jo. Sure, she was much too pretty to be the awkward heroine but she played Jo so well that we forgave Winona for her extraordinary good looks. Trini Alvarado’s Meg was perfection. Claire Danes’s death scene as Beth made us weep every time. And Kirsten Dunst’s Amy! How brilliantly she made the silly, self-centered baby of the family so annoying and still lovable. The casting of “old Amy” was questionable at best, but discussing it’s failure ad nauseum was a beloved and obligatory viewing ritual. Christian Bale made us truly wrestle with the question of whether he and Jo could ever make it together.
And Susan Sarandon made all the sentimental lectures of Alcott’s Marmee into something palatable, wise, patient, strong, dependable. Marmee was the anchor of the whole shebang.
Quotes from the film were part of daily parlance in our family (partly due to the fact that we owned all of 10 movies and rewatched each on the regular). If we were gobbling down dessert, my older brother was sure to say “Sally Moffat! You won’t be able to draw your laces!” Or walking past the bathroom where I was applying mascara, he would remark pompously like John Brooke, “Over the mysteries of female life there is drawn a veil…best left undisturbed.”
Cancer and Other Battles
Little Women was there for us even in the darkest of times. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was living almost 1,000 miles away from my childhood home and was a new mom myself. During most of my mother’s treatment, talking on the phone was the best I could do to support her. I sent a copy of Little Women on audiobook for her to listen to when she was in bed recovering.
When my mother found herself grieving at losing her hair from the chemo, she called to say “I feel silly getting so emotional about this! I’m not usually vain!” “Mom,” I told her, “you’re like Jo after she sells her chestnut locks to buy the train ticket!” “MY HAIR!” we wailed in unison over the phone and laughed and cried, miles apart but brought together once again by our friends the Marches.
We were “Jo’s,” my mother and I, that’s what we told each other. We were intellectually-inclined assertive women in a world that wasn’t quite ready for us. To my surprise, I even ended up a writer like ink-fingered Jo–although in full disclosure I have long had to wrestle with some Amy-ish tendencies (please be assured that I’m much reformed and am no longer trying to re-shape my dear little nose with a clothespin).
Little Women was part of us, but it wasn’t until I was a grown woman that I started to understand why the story meant so much to my mother. I realized that for Margo, Little Women wasn’t really about needing Jo March. For my mom, Little Women was about needing a Marmee.
Margo, Marmee, and Motherhood
The day my husband and I found out we were pregnant, we called our parents to let them know the good news. My mom’s first response was “I’m going to be called Marmee! Tell Carole she’ll have to pick something else!” Thankfully, my sweet mother-in-law had no designs on “Marmee” as her grandmotherly term of endearment and a potentially dramatic family conflict was avoided. An email from my mother came in later that day–from a new email address: “Marmee.”
The internal journey of motherhood helps you see your own mother in a new light, as a person, not a being who exists only in relation to you. In trying to answer the question, “who am I?” in light of the fact that a child was growing inside me, I inevitably turned to the question, “who was she? Who was she before there was a me?”
I thought about the bookish eight-year-old Margo, insecure, quirky. My mom was quite the Jo. She had a responsible, maternal Meg of an older sister and a lighthearted baby sister (named Amy, in fact) as well as something the March sisters never had, save in their neighbor Laurie: a brother.
The four siblings grew up with camping trips, board games, and at first, life matched the picture perfect family of the Father Knows Best TV show that my mother loved watching. But pain and addiction crept in. Like so many other men of his generation, my grandfather’s experiences in WWII were followed by alcohol addiction that was not overcome until his children were grown. In addition to the pain of her husband’s alcoholism, my grandmother was fighting her own demons with a mental health condition that was misdiagnosed repeatedly. Medication she should never have been prescribed stole away the mother her children remembered.
While I know my grandparents deeply loved their family, their home was no longer the safe harbor my mom and her siblings recalled from their early years. My mother stopped watching sunny episodes of Father Knows Best. She and her sisters banded together to survive the dark reality–it’s no wonder she found in the March women an alternative home.
My mother was hesitant to have a family after the childhood traumas she suffered but when she finally embraced the idea, she went in guns blazing. Her kids would feel safe. Her home would be peaceful. She would provide all the things she had lost.
Margo and her Professor (who grew up in a broken home, abandoned by his father) succeeded at creating the home they never had. Although my brother and I knew our parents weren’t perfect, we knew they were doing a damn good job. But looking back at my childhood as a parent myself, I know our home life was nothing short of miraculous. Instead of perpetuating trauma, my parents’ experiences motivated them to do the hard work of breaking cycles of abandonment, marital strife, and addiction.
Margo’s dad, my grandfather eventually achieved sobriety and my grandmother finally received the mental health treatment she needed later in life. Because of this, my memories of my grandparents are all happy ones: making blueberry pancakes together, Christmas morning with a gaggle of cousins and my grandfather’s breakfast casserole, feeding seagulls outside their Florida home. Something was found that had been lost. Something broken, if not fixed, was at least forgiven.
My grandparents did not live to meet my first child, but, like them, I have three daughters and a son. My parents succeeded at giving my kids, their four grandchildren, the gift of an untraumatized mother. I guess it’s time to forgive them for not giving me the baby sisters I persistently requested.
I owe a debt to Little Women for inspiring an awkward eight-year-old little girl finding solace in the school library that a happy home was possible. But it was my parents who made that home a reality. Despite how meticulously they smoothed the path for me, I don’t think I can ever live up to my parents, pouring their hearts and souls into building a home that wouldn’t let their children down. Anything I get right for my kids is thanks to them. My failures will be mine alone.
On Christmas Day we will stand in line to see a new Little Women film made for the next generation. Our 34-year-old, 6-year-old, 8-year-old, and 67-year-old hearts will beat wildly to meet our friends Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy on the big screen. But my daughters and I will never have to long for a Marmee. We already have one of our very own.
You can find more of my writing on literary classics in The Literary Medicine Cabinet: A Guide to Self-Care through Good Books.
Update: We loved the new film! Here’s my review of it for America Magazine.