The quiet power of Marmee in a Covid-19 world


May 27, 2020

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A few months ago, I read Little Women. I had never read it before. I had never seen any of the movie adaptations, and so I didn’t know much about the plot, the characters or the adventures. I didn’t even know that it was set at the start of the Civil War.

But I quickly noticed so much in common between their world and ours. For Marmee and her daughters, life had shifted. Money was tight. Their future was uncertain, and their family, separated. 

Not unlike how many of us are feeling today. 

Right now, life isn’t easy, and it wasn’t easy for the characters in Little Women either. As the novel progressed—with each adventure, hardship, joy, quarrel—I found myself getting to know the characters more, and was surprised by how much I clung to the words of Marmee.

It wasn’t Jo or Meg, Amy or Beth that I most resonated with, as I had expected. Instead, I found myself listening with them to Marmee, taking mental notes, and eventually commonplacing certain passages, thinking, “I want to be that kind of mother to my daughter.”

“Go on, dear, patiently and bravely”

At the time, my daughter was only a few months old, and for me, this was a new feeling and a new way of thinking. There was a new little person in my life and suddenly a new way of reading. 

What I most admired in Marmee was her ability to pass on virtues and a sense of moral goodness without being didactic or saccharine. When it came to these lessons, she spoke to her daughters as girls who were clearly becoming adults, and she lived what she taught them. 

When she passed on a lesson, she said it in such a way that made her daughters want to be able to live up to what she was explaining. As Jo expresses later in the novel, there is a sense in which she wants to be good, because she sees how her mother is good and Marmee’s goodness attracts her, she wants to be like her mother.

Being good seems easy when we look at Marmee. And in many ways the ease of goodness is a wonderful thing. But this easiness came from having experienced difficulty. As Marmee shares—in perhaps Jo’s first moment as a woman—that her character, her virtue, comes from years of being shaped and molded and refined:

‘You don’t know; you can’t guess how bad it is! It seems as if I could do anything when I’m in a passion; I get so savage, I could hurt anyone, and enjoy it. I’m afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me. Oh, mother! help me, do help me!’

‘I will, my child; I will. Don’t cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve, with all your soul, that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world; but mine used to be just like it.’

‘Yours, mother? Why you are never angry!’

‘I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.’

In this moment, Jo learns what it is to be a woman. 

Marmee is a woman of love, of rhythm, of ritual, of patience, of sacrifice, of diligence. She is a person of goodness and virtue, but also a broken and imperfect person who is striving to be better. Right after this dialogue, Alcott writes, “The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well, was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof.”

Now during this time of uncertainty, I am trying to live with Marmee, to inhabit the life she builds in her home for her family. When life has shifted in so many unexpected ways, I think there’s a desire to make the most of what’s before us. In order to do that—to not get stuck in a feeling of drudgery and meaningless repetition—we have to really immerse ourselves and cultivate our routines and rituals. This scene in particular comes to mind:

The clocks were striking midnight, and the rooms were very still, as a figure glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlet here, setting a pillow there, and pausing to look long and tenderly at each unconscious face, to kiss each with lips that mutely blessed, and to pray the fervent prayers which only mothers utter. As she lifted the curtain to look out into the dreary night, the moon broke suddenly from behind the clouds, and shone upon her like a bright benignant face, which seemed to whisper in the silence, “Be comforted, dear heart! There is always light behind the clouds.”

This is a tableaux of a woman who allows the love of her daughters to imbue the ordinariness of living. She is presumably tired. The clock is striking midnight. All is still. She seems to float.  She does not rush about, she smooths covers and sets pillows that she has presumably smoothed and set the day before. There is a comfort in that, but there could easily not be. Acts of tidying can sometimes feel like drudgery or something that’s annoying. 

But for Marmee, the act of tidying is an act of love, of creating a home, of crafting a space of safety.

And yet, in this scene of calm and tenderly ritual, she is not made of stone, she is not perfect. There is a fear in her heart, the unexpected looms. In the midst of her midnight rituals, with gentle kisses and silent blessings, she looks out the window onto a dreary night, but then the moon shines through and reminds her that all will be well. In this moment, Marmee cultivates routines and rituals, but she also plants seeds of hope and love, in her daughters, but also allows it to be planted in herself.

Perhaps in some ways, Marmee presents a picture here in this scene of a kind of art of living well, one that poet Christian Wiman proposes in his book, My Bright Abyss. In the third chapter of his memoir, Wiman reflects on poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ last words, “I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life.” Wiman notes,

to die well…is to accept not only our own terror and sadness but the terrible holes we leave in the lives of others; at the same time, to die well…is to believe that there is some way of dying into life rather than simply falling away from it, some form of survival that love makes possible. I don’t mean by survival merely persisting in the memory of others. I mean something deeper and more durable.

Marmee exhibits a kind of “dying into life” that Wiman describes in his memoir. Marmee’s death will certainly leave deep holes in the lives of her daughters, but the kind of life she cultivated and showed her daughters has the potential for the kind of “survival that love makes possible.” Her approach to motherhood, with her beautification of the everyday and her faith and hope, is bound up with love. So deep and durable that it can embed itself into the women her daughters will become.

“Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, and to bear or forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?”

During this time of quarantine, when I’m tempted to let the days roll by, I am reminded of Marmee and of the type of woman I want to be for my daughter. 

Who are the men and women I will tell her about? What are the books I’ll read with her and one day recommend? What kind of routines and rituals will she see me do? The daily duties that will make leisure sweet? What blessings will I whisper silently in her ear? Will my inner life be one that she is drawn to? How will I carry my joys and sorrows knowing she sees me?

In these days how can we glory in the mundane? Beautify the monotony? Over and over again, I find myself turning back to the words of Marmee, who teaches us the “survival that love makes possible.”

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