After I was born, my mother bought me timeless editions of her favorite books for me to read. A book lover and librarian, she hoped that I would be a reader like her and love the books she cherished throughout her life. On the inside cover each book, she inscribed my name on Winnie the Pooh book plates, and waited for the day when I would read them books my mother left me. I promised myself when I read them I would read them all at once, and the opportune moment arrived when quarantine began.
On the bottom right shelf of the chipping bookcase in my bedroom is a row of books my mother bought for me after I was born. The books, spanning from Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” to Margery Williams’s “The Velveteen Rabbit,” are books that stuck with her throughout her life, books she hoped her kids would love as much as she did. Some of the collection I have read before, but they weren’t the timeless editions my mom bought me. These intimidated me — their thick, glossy pages and sturdy covers juxtaposed the selection of flimsy paperbacks stuffed into the other shelves. They looked and felt too real, too capable of swallowing me whole. So for 19 years I danced around them, each of us conscious of the other, but at a safe distance away. Whenever I had the courage to open them up, I decided I must read them all at once.
I returned home from school, and opened my bedroom door. My bookcase is the first thing I saw. The second were the books from my mother, and it seemed unlikely that I would have another opportune moment like this.
I started with Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” — a book whose 1994 movie adaptation I had watched about a year ago with my mother, and whose 2019 version I watched alone last winter. I already knew the basic story, which is what drew me to it. I knew I would love Jo and cry for Beth, but the emotions and realizations those movies sparked did not match the magic the book pulled me into. I was completely right to be afraid of being swallowed whole. “Little Women” captured me completely.
I think it was the overwhelming sense of familiarity — a sort of déjà vu I felt nearly every chapter, like I had read these crisp pages before. I felt inexplicably connected to the characters, as if I were a fifth sister reveling in Jo’s antics and Meg’s first love. But the more I read, the more I saw that the reflection I found was not of myself, but rather my mother and the wisdom and counsel she shared with me throughout my life. I started to wonder if the ideas of Marmie were what inspired her in her motherhood, but came to conclude that it wasn’t that at all. The innate generosity and unwavering love of Marmie cannot be replicated, it must be rooted in oneself. The same goodness is in my mother. She blossoms with unselfishness and unconditional love.
My mother and I have always been oddly close. While she is first and foremost my mother, she has always been my closest friend, too, and although I believe her to share the virtue of Marmie, the relationship I thought to most reveal my own with her was not that of a daughter and Marmie, but instead that of Jo and Beth.
The relationships between the four sisters are all varied and complex. Jo is closest to Beth, though they have rather opposite personalities and values. Jo is hardheaded and vigorously ambitious, while sweet Beth is known for her shyness and quiet nature. Jo was my mother’s favorite character. Beth is mine.
I saw my mother so plainly in Beth. Like Beth, she is “shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices.” She lives for her children, for her family, for her friends and for strangers. She is the connection between us, watering us all with her support and warm embraces.
Sometimes I am afraid she doesn’t see that, as Beth failed to. It’s frustrating to love someone who is blinded to their own brilliance. How do you convince someone they deserve the world when they find themselves unworthy of it? Or worse, what can you give someone who wants for nothing? I heard my frustrations echoed in Jo’s overbearing efforts to fulfil the happiness of her closest friend. When Beth was sick again, Jo fell sick too with vain hopes. Jo couldn’t save her, but she could love her. And Beth wanted nothing more than to be loved.
Seeing past herself was never one of Jo’s strong points, and I fear it is neither one of mine. She learned countless lessons from Beth in just the nature of her, as I do my mother. The two were incredibly different, yet these differences never hindered their understanding. Being around each other made both stronger.
And maybe that’s why my heart broke so dearly when Beth passed — the sorrow of a loss of someone who is a part of you. Yet, it wasn’t her death specifically that ruined me. It was the moment she shared with Jo some weeks before her death that did it. Beth, sick on the couch, worries that she hasn’t done enough with her life when she spots one of Jo’s poems. It asks Beth to leave behind her patience, her courage and her unselfish nature when she goes. I see my mom worry as well about the legacy she will leave when her time comes, and I only hope she can be comforted by how much I love her as Jo loved Beth; that as Beth is Jo’s “conscience,” she is mine, and I spend every day trying to resemble her.
So, my mother got her wish: I did love this book. And maybe I would have loved it anyway, had it not had the sort of weight a book carries when it is given to you by a friend. But, deep down, I think it’s precisely why I clung to those pages, for I could hear my mother read them to me.
The more I write this, the more it reads like a love letter to my mother — and perhaps that is what it is. How books can make me see the truth always astonishes me, but never surprises me. If I had known the comfort these books would bring me, that they would reveal a deeper connection with my mother, maybe I would not have been so afraid to open them up. But as “love casts out fear” and “mothers are the best lovers in the world,” I should have known.