Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Marmee Through The Window


“Moooomm!” No doubt about it. I knew that wail anywhere. My maternal instincts had my feet on the floor and my body moving down the hall before my brain had fully registered all the possibilities of what might be wrong. By the time I reached her bedside, I had considered a list that included insomnia, nightmares, and the flu.

My daughter had awakened with a terrible bout of nausea. I eased her out of bed, disentangling her clutching fingers from her stuffed bear. Her face had a flushed look and her legs shook as I accompanied her to the bathroom. As things took a turn for the worse, I was there to hold her hair, rub her back, fetch ice chips, and speak murmuring words of encouragement.

Between her waves of nausea, she asked if I could read to her. We began with The Light at Tern Rock around four in the morning while still in the bathroom. By five, we’d crept to the couch where she lay huddled in blankets. We had reached the end of that favorite story, but she still wanted more.

“Can we go on with Little Women?” she asked, turning her feverish face toward the pillow so that her voice came out muffled. My heart simultaneously registered sympathy for how pitiful she sounded, and joy for her request. We had recently started it as our bedtime read, and I’d not yet been able to discern how connected she felt to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy’s world. My own connection with that world went back decades.

Perhaps the richest benefit of reading to your children is the pleasure of introducing your children to the books of your heart. I’ve delighted in helping my daughter make the acquaintance of many of the literary friends of my childhood: Lucy Pevensie, Jane Moffat, Betsy Ray, Laura Ingalls, and Meg Murry. But I had looked forward with special eagerness to introducing her to Jo March, because for many tree-climbing, garden-digging, running-romping, skip-roping years, I was Jo. I didn’t read Little Women so much as inhabit it, burrowing into the story so that its locations, colors, and conversations became a permanent part of my imaginative inner landscape. I knew what precise bends the road would take, and how my heart would traverse those contours as I read it aloud in those early morning hours.

As light crept into the morning sky, I picked up my well-worn copy of Little Women and opened it to “Being Neighborly,” the chapter where we’d left off at bedtime several hours before. With pink light peeking through the lace window curtain, I slid my reading glasses on and began:

‘“What in the world are you going to do now, Jo?” asked Meg, one snowy afternoon, as her sister came tramping through the hall, in rubber boots, old sack and hood, with a broom in one hand and a shovel in the other.’

There we were, on that fateful day when mischievous but well-meaning Jo tosses a handful of snow at a window, Laurie peeps down at her with a smile, and their lifelong friendship begins. I settled down, hopeful that the story would work the magic it worked upon me when I was my daughter’s age and read this scene for the first of many times.

Like my daughter, poor Laurie was sick. He was also lonely, his sore throat and aching head making the loneliness more acute. Jo, like me, believed there was nothing more soothing than having someone read to you when you felt achey and awful. When Laurie admitted it was “as dull as tombs up here,” that’s the remedy she offered:

“Can’t somebody read to you?”

“Grandpa does, sometimes; but my books don’t interest him, and I hate to ask Brooke all the time.”

“Have someone come and see you then.”

Saucy Jo, of course, was setting herself up to be invited in. Smart girl, I thought, to realize that a book can open doors.

Keeping an eye on the curled-up form of my daughter, I continued with Jo as she bounced into the Laurence mansion and handed the laughing Laurie a basketful of Beth’s cats. She and Laurie settled down to visit, and Laurie admitted that he’d been peeping through the window and spying on their family. They sometimes forgot to put the curtain down, he confessed, and he couldn’t help but glance through it sometimes. “…and when the lamps are lighted, it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all round the table with your mother; her face is right opposite, and it looks so sweet behind the flowers, I can’t help watching it. I haven’t got any mother, you know…”

In my imagination, I leaned down to look through that bright window with Laurie. And much to my surprise, an unexpected bend in the story road arrived. That woman sitting behind the flowers, framed by curtained glass? She looked like me.

While there is a part of me that will always be Jo, it wasn’t her reflection I saw clearly anymore when I looked into the glass of those pages.  As I read this time, I was startled to discover a new reflection smiling back at me. I was Marmee: the mama bear, the protector, the teacher, the homeschooler, the one who tries to lead and guide and light the way, the one who admits her faults to help her girls mend their own.

I don’t know if I would have had this insight if I hadn’t just spent a night tending to my daughter in her sickness. Was it because I read not only with physically changed eyes, but with spiritually, emotionally, and mentally changed vision, too? My experiences of the stories I love encompass all my former experiences with the words, but with new layers. I enter them with a new awareness of how my life has changed since I’ve been there, and, in the case of the books I’m reading aloud with my daughter, an awareness of the fact that she’s accompanying me as I read.

I see myself in the mirror of motherhood in the raw pioneering narratives by Laura Ingalls Wilder that I loved as a child and which my daughter now loves. The wolf-howling prairie of the Little House books sounds menacing when I hear those wild creatures through maternal ears, and despite how much I love his merry heart of adventure, I find myself wanting to shake Pa Ingalls every time he pulls up stakes again and heads west. Every time Ma says,“Oh, Charles,” my heart constricts a little bit, and every time he says “It’ll be all right, Caroline” (or some variation of that) I want to offer her a cup of tea.

Of course it would likely be Ma who would offer me one instead, if we could step across the years and the pages and meet. She’d set me down at the table she always spread with the red gingham cloth, light the button lamp, and fill me in on what it’s like to be a pioneering mom. While sipping, I’d let my glance wander over whatever little house we happened to be in and I’d find her china shepherdess perched on the carved what-not in the corner. Pa’s fiddle music is the soundtrack of these tales, but it’s the china shepherdess who stands guard over all of them, looking wise and reminding us of Ma’s calm strength and her ability to make a home out of anything and anywhere. Tell me how you do it, I’d like to say, as Caroline pours me yet another cup of tea, well-sweetened with the store-bought sugar she likes to use for company. Tell me how you create such a deep sense of security in the midst of so much change. 

My recent read-through of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time brought another rush of parental solidarity. I’ve known since I was eleven that this is Meg’s book. Every eleven-year-old who picks it up still knows that. She is the heroine all the way through.  Now I consider those pesky Murry parents, whose presence doesn’t seem like narrative wallpaper anymore. It’s not just Mrs. Murry writing letters to her missing husband every night and cooking stews over the Bunsen burners in the lab when she would rather keep working. It’s Mr. Murry standing aside and letting his daughter do what she needs to do, although he’s terrified for her.

I felt the power of that even more deeply because I happened to be re-reading the novel last year while my daughter was out of town attending her first funeral. All of my daughter’s struggles and seasons – with anxieties and insecurities, hopes and dreams, independence and dependence – seemed to play into every scene I read between Mr. Murry and Meg. I understood Meg’s anger at her father for not being perfect and not taking care of everything in one heroic sweep. I understood Mr. Murry’s frustrations and helplessness as he realized that, as much as he would like to, he couldn’t do everything, couldn’t be the strong, perfect parent she wanted him to be.

As a child I believed nothing was more powerful than that final scene when Meg loves Charles Wallace out of the clutches of IT – and yet now as an adult I found myself asking: where does Meg learn to love like that? I found myself in awe of her father’s love for her. He is limited and flawed, yet willing to have a child-like trust in a love and power greater than his own. He is willing to put his daughter in greater hands than his and let his daughter do what needs to be done. In the end, it’s not just about Meg growing up and making hard but right choices. It’s about a father (who himself needs rescuing by a trio of young people) learning to let go of control, learning to trust. I think I need to learn that kind of trust, I’d like to say to Mr. and Mrs. Murry. Sometimes I hold my child’s hand way too hard. I lie awake at night and wonder how she’ll make her way in the wider world. 

These parental characters I’m in conversation with have snapped into focus. They hovered in the story margins when I was younger, but now they’ve cleared their throats and stepped to center-stage. All the paragraphs of parental admonishment, encouragement, and advice, which seemed like window dressing to an eager young girl racing to the next bit of reading adventure, have solidified into actual windows, portals through which I learn to understand myself as a parent.

And I keep going back to that bright window in the wintry Concord landscape, peeking in and seeing Marmee smiling at me from the table. She beckons me closer, gestures for me to come sit by the fire. In my mind, I do just that, and we sit in companionable silence while I draw strength from her presence. I recall how hard-won her calm strength was, and how much her daughter Jo, restless kindred spirit of my youth, turned out to be like her.

On the couch on that wintry morning, my own daughter dozed, unaware of my literary revelations. She wasn’t just wrapped in blankets, she was wrapped in the story, meeting it for the first time and falling into it with her own wonder and imagination. My own ears were attuned to Marmee’s voice in ways they never had been before. The beauty of a story shared is that we each enter it in different ways, and within it find what we need most. On that morning, the maternal voice my daughter heard most powerfully was mine, a quiet voice that rose and fell as I shared stories I hoped she would visit again and again.

Elisabeth M. Priest’s work has appeared in The Penwood Review, Inkblots, Fan: A Baseball Magazine, and Utmost Christian Writers. She lives in western Pennsylvania with her husband and their eleven year old daughter, whom they homeschool. You can find her musings about reading, writing, and parenting at Endless Books.

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What beautiful insights! I'm just starting the journey of sharing favorite books with my children -- and I've never read Little Women! Your essay makes me eager to read it and to reread these other classics looking at that parental viewpoint that I now share. Thank you!
Beth, Thank you so much for putting into words what I have often felt. I chocked back tears as I read the thoughts you had as you read to your dear daughter that morning. After having read your beautifully written essay, and with a sick daughter of my own today, I feel a sudden urge to go pick up a long-loved book and go introduce her to it. Thank you!
Such a great article, and it articulated so well the joy sharing a favorite childhood read with our children. You expressed very clearly that magic of stepping together into world that stays the same, even as we change. We just come to love it all the better. C.S. Lewis said, "No book is really worth reading at ten which is not equally-and far more often- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond".
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