I first became acquainted with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in the fall of 1992. That is a lie. I’d read it once in 1990, when I was 10, but I didn’t yet have the capacity to delve into its pages with the knowledge that I acquired until I was twelve. I wasn’t quite ready. But, as they say, when you are ready, the teacher will present themselves.
I was raised in a house of girls. We were poor, at least in comparison to the families of stature amongst which I was raised. Our only hope was education…and the unlikely tying to a family of stature and wealth. At 14, I became a debutante, taught to waltz and curtsey as one did in Mexico, where a graceful walk down a marble staircase, clad in Italian satin, was the mark of a lady. I impressed those all who witnessed it. And for that, I was held in esteem amongst those of the higher classes. But by then I knew that this could not be the end. I knew, somehow, that, even then, my value was beyond rubies. And no one in that hall could ever give it its due. All because of a girl I’d never meet named Jo.
My mother and father raised me as a boy. My father taught me to fish and play pool. My mother made sure that every advantage was given to me. I learned to raise my voice in a crowd, even if girls were meant to whisper. I’d one day elevate my family, I knew. If not by my grace, then by my wit. I could think and I could write and I could speak. The only gifts every bestowed upon my by a Palestinian godfather who himself was known for such things himself. My first gift in life, it seemed, was to be given the right people.
Oh, how I hated Little Women. After all its promise, Jo scorned Laurie. How could she do that, I thought? Give up the handsome, winsome, wealthy boy with Mediterranean features for a German professor with nothing to give but knowledge? Surely LMA had gotten it wrong.
At 16, I watched Little Women on film, and again fell in love. But, still, I thought, who was Jo to deny Laurie for that professor who was half the man that Laurie had become? And why did Amy get to bask in his wealth when Jo, the poor but ambitious writer, needed him so?
I think every female writer who has ever read Little Women has felt an affinity with Jo. Not Meg, the practical one, or Beth, the sickly one, or even Amy, the one who always knew she’d marry into money. We are the ones who found our calling…to write…to forgo riches beyond imagination and trek into the great unknown because our minds were on fire. That I became one of them has not been mere coincidence. LMA told me it was possible. And because I believed her, even then as a child, I have been able to become the “me” that was always hidden beneath ambitions laid for me by others.
And yet, I always looked for my Laurie. I thought I’d married him; a boy I’d fallen in love with in my precocious youth. He was handsome and winsome with Mediterranean features. But he was not the one. Not by a long shot. He never saw my potential. He only saw what I could never be to him. His departure was another gift. Only it would take heartbreak and years to liberate myself from that failure.
“There are some natures too noble to curb and too lofty to bend,” Marmee tells Jo, in your film. I wrote it down as I was watching it tonight–with tear-stained cheeks and a fire in my belly. How well you must know. For you are one of us.
I am now beyond Marmee’s age. By all markers, I should be a mother myself these many years later. When I was young, a mother was the great thing to which I aspired. It was the ultimate marker of success among the girls I knew. Some achieved this goal early. I resented them and at the same time felt that my precociousness had to develop into something else. Something different and unorthodox. But to what ends, I could never have guessed.
In turns, I have been Meg, and Amy, and even Beth. I spent five years as an ascetic. I removed myself from life to mend a broken heart that resulted from that first love. Years without music or affection, without ambition or courage. I succumbed to the idea that maybe my vocation was a quiet life spent in repose, with an early but tragic death. But I was wrong. Dear God, how wrong I was.
I found my Laurie eventually. After a rollercoaster of following my curiosity, I came upon him by the most vulgar of means, that of modern technology LMA could never have conceived. Tinder. He was of Mediterranean composure, and topped with dark and curly tendrils. Just as LMA had prescribed. He even came from wealth. But I have promised to no longer write “internet stories” about him, and I intend to keep my promises.
Oh, how pretty he was. But like Jo, when presented with this boy who was rich beyond means, I knew he was not for me. Everyone I spoke to of this realization was flummoxed. How did finding out who he really was, and all it entailed, frighten me? Surely, he was the answer to many prayers, but, most immediately, those of financial stability. But when I knew, I knew. And I tossed him aside with trepidation and certainty. For as beautiful and wise as he is, and for how he speaks to my soul, I knew I was meant for something different.
So what of Mr. Bhaer? In Gillian Armstrong’s version, he is older and craggy-faced. But you capture him with aplomb. A young outcast. A visionary. A fresh-faced idealist with a penchant for art. You captured Friedrich. You made him real. You made him exactly what this Jo always knew she desired, but was too afraid to ever set the intention into the world.
How could LMA know that one day, I’d venture to NYC, to the great unknown, in search of my fate as a writer? How could she have known that my greatest desire was to live a life of purpose, and to find it in the teaching of others? How could she have known that I would, one day, long to create a place where young minds could reach beyond their own limitations? A gentle place where one could explore and read and ponder and maybe, just maybe, reach new heights? Jo did that once, and now I do as well, even if it be at an age far beyond that which Jo ventured. It took me a great while to summon the courage. But it is coming into place. Because I am finally ready, and the teacher has presented themselves. Jo, who said she’d rather be a free spinster and paddle her own canoe. Precious Jo. And precious you.
Have I found him, you might ask? My Friedrich? That remains to be seen. But my appetite has altered, and I no longer seek out the rich and established. I feel safe to find my own way, and maybe that means finding love in places I never knew existed before. There is one. I daren’t name him. But suffice it to say that he is a cowboy and a darling boy. That he accepts this is on his shoulders. Some things are out of my control. And that is ok. My faith has only grown in strength as I have come to realize that I will be ok no matter what. Because I am me. I am you. We are Jo. And we will be fine.
If I were a heroine in a book, all this would be easier. You could flip to the end of the novel, read the last chapter, and know that it will all work out in the end, even if it is not the ending anyone was expecting or wanting or even hoping beyond hope for. I have become so many things, including love itself. Untouched by reproach and untainted by the practicalities and miserly affects of life. I am so very much in life this night.
Two nights ago, my high school math teacher wrote to me to wish me a Merry Christmas. He said he always loved my indomitable spirit. Who would I have been if I hadn’t read Little Women at twelve? I’m afraid to ask because I think the answer would be someone saddled with a reality that wasn’t what she’d hoped for.
You spoke to my 40-year old self and my 12-year old soul. And if you spoke to her, then think of all the young girls out there to whom you also spoke. Think of the generations of girls who will watch your version of this story for years to come, on Christmas, swaddled in new pajamas, who will hope against hope for a life of valor.
Thank you, Greta. From the bottom, and even the top, of my heart. Thank you for your voice and your indomitable spirit. You would have made LMA proud indeed.