Monday, March 1, 2010

Little Women

“I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, “a little woman,” and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else.” - Josephine March

The summer of my eleventh year I missed the sign up for Little League and spent the long hot days of June and July kicking the backstop watching the other boys my age shag flies in their new uniforms and take infield on the fresh cut grass. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have sports to occupy my time and believe me, I became an annoyance to everyone.
Especially mortified was my younger brother Grant. I used to follow him to his practice and sit on the hillside with my freshly oiled mitt inside a back pack just hoping for one of the kids on his team to take a one-hop off the chest and puncture a lung or step inside a gopher hole and snap a ligament. Then maybe the coach would see me sitting there and say, “Hey you, kid. How old are you?”
I’d lie of course. “I’m eight. Big for my age, you know. Mom’s got me on this new product, anabolic steroids. You can buy them at Fred Myers.”
“Shut up, pipsqueak!” The coach would light up a fresh menthol. All Little League coaches in the 80’s smoked menthols, usually unfiltered. “We need a second basemen, suit up.”
And just like that, my summer would have been saved.
Of course, there were no catastrophic injuries that year. Trevor “Lardo” Larsen did get a fat lip when he tripped over home plate once, and Bryce Tanner got strep throat from Amanda Gilstrap after they swapped spit behind the dugout during a double-header with Mulino Feed and Seed. But that was about it.
So instead of getting to play ball, I wandered up and down Milk Creek along highway 211 collecting pop cans for five cent deposits at the Colton Market. I used them to buy all assortment of cheap and despicable candy: Jawbreakers, Dum Dums, Hot Tamales, and Bazooka Gum. I loved reading the Bazooka Joe comics. In fact, I read everything that summer, and one book more than any other had a huge impact.
With no dirt and spit to rub into my palms or hot pickle run down to find myself in, I reverted into a complete and utter bookworm. Now as a boy, I’d always read boyish books: Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, even the rugged westerns of Louis L’amour. Yet without manly sports, my taste in literature put me on a more feminine track. Frankly speaking, I became a little Nancy girl. I’m speaking of course, about the summer I spent reading Louisa May-Alcott’s, Little Women.
Alright, I know every tobacco chewing, gun toting, beer swilling, Sunday couch surfing football die hard maniac out there just blew Cheetoes all over the screen and forever swore off this blog in favor of, but really, seriously, Alcott’s Little Women changed my life. I fell in love with the March sisters. I loved Meg’s weakness for luxury and her moral vigorousness, admired Beth’s quiet and virtuous ways, I even found Amy’s pouting, fits of temper, and inability to improve herself sort of inspiring in a way. But most of all, I loved Jo. Josephine March became my secret hero. I admired her spirit, that she defied convention, how she cut her hair while the other sisters were demanding she be in curls, how she sat too close to the fire and burned her clothes over and over, how she traveled to New York by herself, and rejected the soft hearted Laurie in favor of marrying some old penniless geezer. She represented the breaking of limitations on what little girls and women were supposed to be, and in the same way I found Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov or Austin’s Bennet sisters fascinating, I also found my confusing and painful post adolescent identify in Alcott’s March sisters.
Now as a father things are different. I try to foster the qualities the book has to offer onto my daughters. How daily work makes us stronger. How being true to yourself and genuine with others will never betray you. How personal growth is important but never lose sight of the family. I think these are essential. I look at my little girls and half the time I have no idea what to do. I think about the lives they will lead, this ugly and brutal world they have inherited, and I don’t know how to parent anymore. I watch them compete over combs and brushes and who gets the pink hair band and one sister falls into sobs because she doesn’t get to pray at dinner and the other breaks into pieces when she doesn’t get to wear the butterfly sandals in the snow, and I just tear out my hair.
Is this what all females are like? Really? Deep on the inside are they all just shallow catty creatures with penchants toward drama and critical self-loathing? Raising daughters, I see it so clearly. The combative nature. The pre-disposition for passive aggressive hurting. What is up with my Little Women? It is just in their nature to make others feel petty and miserable so they can be triumphant, to lead others along only to dash their hopes for the mere sake of sinister pleasure, to say aloud what they have and what the other has not. For no reason, “I have the pink cup you have yellow, the color of vomit,” or “I’d lend you my pants but they’d make you look fat.”
These are direct quotes from my daughters this week. They’re six and four years old already trading insults about each other’s weight. What on earth?
Sometimes I long for the simplicity of men in early American novels. Men who went off to war, who fought for something they never questioned because the country believed the cause was just. Men who courted women in bonnets with flowers and walks to the farm gate because it was simple and good, and the women understood that and played along. Men who found white gloves left behind with lemon stains and knew that a sister was protecting another sister’s secrets and that made him love her more because she had honor. Men who loved in silence while women spun their wheels and played at being headstrong and creative only to eventually submit to their sensible or passionate sides.
Students for years have asked me about what I will do when my daughters start bringing home boys. My answer has always been the same. There is no, “Let me take you out to the woodshed to show you my collection of guns and mounted heads…” Or private moments where I take the boy aside and whisper, “Remember, whatever you do to her, I do to you.”
My answer is always the same.
“My beautiful daughters I trust in the teachings I have laid in your heart. I believe in you. Bring the boy by for dinner and let’s see if he’s worth his salt.”
That’s what I’ll say to my little women. And if one of those boys is lucky enough to take one of my daughters away from me, then he’ll have earned it with the stories he has shared with her about his life, about his mistakes and his ups and downs, about the ways he spent long summer days as a boy and the insights he makes about the books that changed his life. That’s how I’ll know. I’ll see it in the way he listens and pulls my daughter out of her shell to make her shine. And if he doesn’t? If he somehow thinks he can steal her away in the night without my consent? I’ll mount his head on my wall and read Louisa May-Alcott to him until he understands that all females are little girls at heart, and they need time to grow and play before they are able to stand on their own.

1 comment:

  1. No joke, my little league coaches for two years had an El Camino and their entertainment was driving on dirt roads at night looking for possums to run over or shoot. They always had lips filled with chewing tobacco and the bed of their El Camino was always littered with empty plastic tobacco containers. I can’t remember the brand, but the containers were green and black and had a snarling bear on the front.

    They actually made it a point not to clean the remains of the run over animals out of their wheel wells and fenders.

    I’m not sure what my mom though of the two. I think she was too busy being a single mom and was just happy there was someone to look after me a few days a week after school.

    Today a tobacco chewing coach of prepubescent boys would probably be run off the field and relegated to beer league softball.

    One of the coaches was named Larry and for the life of me I can’t remember the name of the other in the tag team but they are a pair I obviously will never forget. Fortunately the one or two times I tried chewing tobacco (not with their encouragement) it made me sick and it’s a habit I was able to avoid.

    I don’t know where the two are today, but I would love to share a beer with them. I actually still have the picture of the team and whenever I shuffle through my old shoe boxes full of pictures I smile when I see the two of them.