Living Up to 'Little Women'

The day the movie ''Little Women'' premiered in our town, I was at the theater with my two younger daughters. I was not there just because I loved the book and all the stories of Louisa May Alcott. Nor did I make this rare appearance at a movie theater just because I longed to escape, for a little while, into the picturesque and gentle atmosphere of life in the late 1800s.

I went to see ''Little Women'' because we, too, are a family of four girls and I wanted these sisters to see, on the big screen, the tangible and enduring affection that can be present between four lively, unique sisters.

From the first joyous cry of ''Marmee's coming!'' when all the sisters gather into a wild tangle around their beloved mother, I was drawn into the poignant story, my tears streaming almost throughout.

Madeleine, my five-year-old, sat rather stoically, I thought, chewing her popcorn and watching the chair pop up whenever she shifted forward a bit. Christina, at 9, was more involved in the story, asking me questions such as, ''Isn't Laurie a boy's name?''

By the time we met my husband and older daughters in the lobby after their science-fiction movie, my eyes were swollen and all I could mumble was the insistent promise to Emily, 15, and Maria, 13, that I would take them to see ''Little Women'' the next day, if possible.

Madeleine and Christina had little to report about their viewing, excited as they were with a new kind of candy their grandfather had bought for them.

I was disappointed that the movie seemed to have no lasting impact on the girls. They did not dramatize the scenes as the two daughters of my friend had. Her girls had practically memorized lines as they re-created Jo's ill-fated haircut and Amy's burning of Jo's manuscript.

After the 10th quoting of Amy's famous line that sisters have the closest bond in all the world, my daughters begged me not to talk about ''Little Women'' anymore. And when the oldest two began a simpering parody of sisterly affection and called me Marmee in their shrillest voices, I decided to give up, wishing silently we had lived in 1857.

HAVING been an only child for 14 years before my brother came along, I had always longed for a sister, which is why it has been both a delight and a worry to watch our four girls growing up together.

I have rejoiced to see them playing school or stocking the treehouse with stuffed animals or lining up behind the bathroom sink to brush their teeth, all wearing handed-down nightgowns.

But I have been shocked quite repeatedly to see sisterly squabbles blaze forth that seem to shake the house with fury. I never knew that sisters could fight so much, yell so loud, or resist all attempts by their mother to be made to get along.

These four can find just about anything to fight about, mostly revolving around the eternal theme of ''her'' vs. ''me.'' I hear that it's ''my'' turn to sit in the blue chair this time or ''her'' turn to fold the laundry or ''my'' friend who is visiting and ''she'' can't play or ''her'' ball that hit me in the head.

Usually, when the fight gets out of hand, I separate the girls. What has amazed me over and over has been how quickly these small and not so small quarrels are forgotten, particularly if in a united response against a mother's discipline. It is as if, in the passage of those instants, a wave has washed away the eddies of discontent. Resilient, they move on as friends once more.

Emily, at age 2, was not thrilled to see her new baby sister move into her old crib and our outstretched arms. As she endeavored to repeatedly prove her head start in life, I watched her both manage and outrun Maria, leading to the dramatic day when she was 4 and when she raced into the house first, slamming the metal screen door on her sister's tiny fingers.

Although they share neither a bedroom nor a bed, as they were known to do in their early years, these sisters, as young teenagers, can be found late at night brushing long wet hair in the kitchen and discussing the social intricacies of school. By breakfast they may be trading insults, but the very relentlessness of family life seems to ensure a constant flow from rancor to reconciliation.

The day I told Emily, who was 10, that I was expecting Madeleine, our fourth daughter, she was enchanted and exclaimed breathlessly, ''This is the best news I've ever heard.''

And it was she who brought me endless hot water bottles while I was in labor and who proudly walked newborn Madeleine up and down our long farmhouse hall when she fretted in the night.

I try to remember this when I hear her pushing her little sister out of her room because ''I want to be alone'' or ''she's annoying me.''

When Maria tells Christina that her hair is too short and she had better not touch her cat, I sigh and wonder why they don't share their deepest thoughts, like Meg and Jo, or at least a bag of candy.

Madeleine and Christina can be heard defining the boundaries of their shared bedroom and bickering over who can read a little later at night while the other wants to sleep in darkness. And they can slap, kick, and even pull some hair or rip a favorite drawing.

Through the years, I have tried to interject the thought that it is a great fortune to have three sisters. ''Just think,'' I will tell them, ''long after Daddy and I are old, you'll have each other to count on, to reassure you, and to share the childhood memories no one else will know.''

They listen skeptically, and, depending on their mood, may tell me how much they look forward to living far apart from each other.

And yet, there are unexpected moments, little epiphanies that give me hope, and just a little envy. Like last week when Madeleine kept popping into the kitchen to ask, as she does so often these kindergarten days: ''How do you spell 'best'?''

And two minutes later: ''How do you spell 'the'?''

I spell these isolated words automatically, not trying to string them into meaning.

BUT there it was. The evidence. As Christina got into bed that night she found upon her pillow an envelope decorated brightly with magic marker. And inside, upon a piece of white paper, were words painstakingly formed in uneven letters one-inch high, creating the message: ''Christina is the best. Love. Madeleine''

For no apparent reason, this six-year-old had done the unexpected. She made tangible that sentiment of sisterly affection that runs throughout the frustration and forgiveness.

My daughters are still in the throes of their evolving family history, particular as it is to the late 1900s and to the temperament they each possess.

''Little Women,'' there on the big screen, was for me a poignant reminder that four sisters, no matter how they may deny it, are united in an irreplaceable and enduring bond.

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