Never as it seems

A friend told me recently that the French translation of Little Women, the book by Louis M Alcott, reads as The Daughters of Mr March because there is no equivalent expression to convey the essence of Little Women in French. 

Is it patriarchal and possessive? 

I prefer the word ‘woman’ to ‘lady’. The word ‘ladies’ has such a ring of gentility about it. 

The other day, I went with my own little women. Or at least three of them, as the fourth is busy trying to rebuild a kitchen in her house. 

We were joined by a very old friend. 

Many years ago, we went to see the Gillian Armstrong 1994 adaptation of Little Women with a good friend when she was younger than I am now at the Carlton flea pit as they called the Carlton movie house in those days.

It had individual leather seats whose inner springs were almost collapsed to the point you almost sat on the floor. 

My daughters, one a baby, were still young children only one nudging adolescence then. 

I enjoyed this latest version of Little Women for its non-chronological effort to keep pace with the spirit of the book, a writer whom I imagine was trying to shift out of convention into a freer view of the world. 

How could any such view be experienced in a deeply Christian household struggling in poverty alongside much richer neighbours and relatives, and also against a backdrop of the American civil war? 

A minister father, a dedicated mother who gave up her dreams for her good works and her children. Reminds me somewhat of my own mother, only unlike Marmee, my mother was not married to a religious Chaplin. 

My mother might have liked that. To have been married to a priest. But Catholic priests were/are not allowed to marry. 

When I was young, I held the same view of priests as did my mother. She thought they were a cut above the vanities of ordinary men. The priests in her mind, were all ‘good’ men who knew how to be empathic and kind, who knew how to consider other people, who never got angry or drunk like our father. 

They would have been much better as a partner. Though my mother once told me she preferred that priests stayed celibate. She was fearful of whatever pillow talk might ensure.

‘I would not like the priest to tell his partner what I told him in confession,’ she told me once. 

Funny to me, the parallels to other more secular worlds.

When I moved first into social work and later into therapy, I imagined that any man who went into one of the helping professions must be a cut above the rest. 

In the mid-1970s, I went on placement with one such good man, the two of us, me and (I shall call him) Tom were appointed to work within the Northcote community. 

We were stationed at the Northcote Town Hall for six weeks over the Christmas period. Our job to travel throughout the community to interview the local charities and services and draw up a booklet of what was available to the community.

A list of community services. 

My mother included this newspaper clipping in her autobiography. Perhaps she was proud to have a daughter whose name featured in the newspaper then. She never told me as much.

The task itself was not of much interest to me, but travelling every day across town to Northcote was exciting and moving into a new neighbourhood, taking on the authority of one who knew how to do these things – when I did not – most of all working alongside Tom, was such a pleasure. 

He was married at the time to a woman who was as charming as he and they had a small daughter. It was my first glimpse into new parenthood and these two impressed me as the most loving of couples. 

I went over some weekend evenings with my then-boyfriend Paul and we spent hours playing card games, eating cheese and drinking, the men beer, and the women, Pimms and lemonade (or some other such sweet concoction). 

We fell out of contact once I finished my degree as well as switched boyfriends for another and entered a different life in the therapy world. 

Tom became an administrator in community services, the branch of social work that can lead people into higher places. I stayed at the grassroots of working with people.

I think of Tom from time to time, googled him once. Heard somewhere that he and his wife had split.

This put a nail in the coffin of my most delicious fantasy, that marriages to men who are social workers or therapists must be marriages made in Heaven.

I started watching a Netflix show called Bonus family the other night. 

It’s Swedish, (subtitles needed) and features a couple who work together as therapists to help couples who are struggling.

I won’t go into the details other than to observe the strange antics of this therapist couple who sit side by side as they seek to help the couple seated opposite.

They come across as thoughtful and wise.

Later we see the therapists in their kitchen between sessions bickering in a way that puts any fantasy of them as an ideal couple to rest. 

Truth is there’s no such thing as an ideal couple any more than there’s an ideal person, despite our tendency to want to include saints, heroes, and celebrities in our lives. 

We are all ordinary folk, mere mortals, flawed and prone to failure, including in our relationships. Despite the romantic ideals evoked in books like Little Women.

Oh but the fantasy is such a pleasure, as the fictional little woman, Jo Marsh will tell you. 

‘Hell is other people’

The Christmas I remember best is the one in which my father pulled over the Christmas tree after we had set it up in the lounge room.

It must have happened during one of his many fits of rage, where he wanted to make a point. Drunk and feeling rejected or unloved, he inflicted his pain on the rest of us. 

It seems almost trivial now, by way of memory, but at the time it felt indecent. 

My mother had brought ornaments all the way from Holland, small shining tear drop shaped baubles in golds and reds. One indented and coated in silver, the other deep crimson and round as a plum. 

These two broke and shattered across the floor. We kids stood back in our summer bare feet to stop ourselves from taking on splinters. 

The fallen tree had a sacrilegious feel, as though my father had smashed open the tabernacle in church. The place where the priest housed the left-over hosts after communion; the place where Christ’s body in the form of those white round Farex tasting wafers was meant to rest. 

Our Christmas tree was sacred. With its angel at the top and all the promise it held. 

This morning I listened to a short video of Marian Keyes in which she gives advice on how to treat yourself over Christmas, the stuff of being kind. 

Christmas is tough for many people, she reckons. She an Irish woman, in a Catholic country filled with people who drink too much, including her, though she describes herself as no longer drinking. 

One expression has stayed with me. Keyes talks about not allowing too much perfectionism, which to her mind leads impossible expectations. 

‘Expectations are disappointments under construction,’  she says. 

How’s that for an idea? 

It’s true: when you expect too much, you’re heading towards disappointment.

Yet expectation would have to be a close cousin of hope and I reckon we all need hope, otherwise why bother.

I hoped our Christmas might be good enough for us here, and it was. More than that, it was fun and no one who shared Christmas day with us seemed out of it, though I imagine inside their hearts there were some who found it tough. 

While others revelled in it.

Come Boxing Day, I’m blessedly relieved, to rest for the first time in an age and to enjoy our afternoon Boxing Day tradition of taking in a movie, the more magisterial the better.

In the last, we’ve watched all of the Hobbit movie and Lord of the Rings trilogy, year after year on Boxing Day, and now we’re onto Star Wars. 

This year’s Star Wars does not cop a good rating, but who cares? 

It’s not a movie I’d watch as first preference but two grandsons who love such hype and others too, it’s enough for me to bathe in reflected joy.

Afterwards we eat together, those of my lot who can make this pilgrimage to the Rivoli or the Lido, whichever movie house offers the best time and we debrief over Christmas and get ready for the holidays ahead. 

For most take holidays at this time of the year. 

And then to suggest something of the Grinch at Christmas, my husband showed us this newspaper clipping he’d kept from years gone by. 

His Horoscope in 2003, which presumably he shared with other Virgos:

Jean-Paul Satre’s famous saying that “hell is other people” is truer for Virgos than anyone. You’re surrounded by fools, nincompoops and absolute ning-nongs – but you can’t fail that patience exam, can you?

He and Marian Keyes might share something in common in terms of their awareness of the dark side of life, and both might plead for more good will. 

It’s a tough time of year, so watch your expectations. 

Even our gargoyle agrees.