Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving with the Alcotts

Currently Reading: Alcott in Her Own Time by Daniel Shealy and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

"November had come; the crops were in, and and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest  that rewarded the summer's hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now..." 
~ An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

Mine was an Alcott Thanksgiving. Yesterday, I spent some downtime reading the opening pages of An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, between bits of the biography I started last week. Curled on the couch with my family tonight, we celebrated the holidays and Louisa's birthday with a viewing of Little Women (the 1994 version). The first bars of the opening music floated into the room and the tears were already in my eyes. After two days of feasting and thanking, decorating and Christmas caroling, the time was right to visit the March sisters.
A few months exploring books in North Carolina, Corca Duibhne, Ireland, Philadelphia, and Cambridge, I am now back in Concord, Massachusetts with the Alcott family. Just in time for Thanksgiving and Louisa's birthday. This new (to me) biography is a collection of memories, interviews, and memoirs from those who knew her and the Alcott family personally: colleagues, peers, friends, and family. The book is my place to sink into on these cold November evenings, like a mug of hot chocolate, a warm blanket, my cozy refuge from the wind and the chill. I listen with rapt attention to voices and memories that bring me to a Concord I can only imagine and a woman I'm getting to know even better.

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I have seen Louisa through the pen of the scholar, her own letters and journals, some of her literary works, and now through the descriptions of those around her. I enjoy viewing her through this alternate lens. New stories abound, new poses are struck, new words are said, forming images of her demeanor and character that didn't find their way into her works. In these memories, Louisa falls onto her bed with a dramatic flop; the barn rings with playful shouts and dramatic soliloquies; she whirls around and curtsies in the lane; she moves her hands to illustrate her words; she covers her pain with humor and "bright flashes of wit." I can finally see her as others did, and she is all sparkling eyes and droll comebacks and noble passion. She is no different from the woman I found in her letters and journals, but these memories serve to reinforce my image of who she was- the dutiful child, the passionate crusader, the witty storyteller, the sharp mind, the Jo-ian personality. Not a perfect person but perfectly herself.

Reading about her through the eyes of others holds both a danger and an advantage. Sometimes those we are close to know us better than we know ourselves. They see the good qualities that we overlook; they recognize the faults we do not see. Louisa was certainly hard on herself, with high expectations she felt she would never attain. (That sounds all too familiar to my ears.) She rarely wrote of her triumphs, except in the humblest of tones. So watching her laugh and clap her hands and keep a room of people in stitches with her witty observations is such a joy.

But even though they can observe us in ways we cannot, those around us often fail to know us fully, only seeing the part we present to them. They aren't privy to the struggles, the fears, the hopes that swirl around unseen in our minds and hearts. So much we keep hidden, even from our closest companions. No matter how close they were to her, most of her contemporaries couldn't know exactly who she was. And time changes our perspectives and our memories. I read these recollections, wondering how much of the writer's descriptions depend upon Louisa's fame and reputation, rather than their own opinions at the time.

These observations both hide and reveal the real Louisa, and I force myself to recognize that I too will never truly know her. But I never stop trying. In this book, once again, I find her, living and breathing, made alive through the words of her contemporaries, the world in which she inhabited and her relationships with neighbors, friends, and peers as real to me as any scene in my own world. When I look up, I am startled not to find her standing in front of me.

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