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November 30, 2008

Wendy Corsi Staub on LITTLE WOMEN

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Today's guest blogger, bestselling author Wendy Corsi Staub, thinks back to the Christmas she received the most perfect gift from her mother --- a copy of the timeless and beloved LITTLE WOMEN --- and the literary heroine she discovered within those pages.

Christmas was, in my small-town childhood, everything it's supposed to be. It was all about tradition: family, friends, Santa, church, parties, lights and decorations, sledding and skating, giving and receiving gifts, baking cookies, volunteering our time and giving to charity, watching annual TV specials together, perpetually hearing carols on the piano, stereo, and car radio.

And then there was the snow. Having grown up in southwestern New York's blizzard belt, I remember white Decembers, always. Reeeeeeeeally white. As in, three or four feet --- sometimes more --- of white. When I reminisce about childhood Christmases, it's like peering at a festive scene through a swirling snow globe.

The celebration always began Thanksgiving Day, when my father drove the long way from one set of grandparents' house to the other (for our second meal) in order to see the candy cane lamppost decorations lit up along Central Avenue. No school the next morning, and we kids were up early to stack the stereo spindle with our collection of vinyl albums (Perry Como, Bing, Barbra, and our favorite: The Partridge Family). The merriment lasted through New Year's Day, when my parents came home from a night of dancing to serve a wee-hour breakfast to a houseful of friends, then managed to get us all to my grandparents' house by noon for their once-a-year homemade egg pasta.

Yes, it was all about tradition.

White candles in the windows, seafood on Christmas Eve, incense at midnight mass. Taking turns opening gifts in chaotic living rooms crammed with wrapping paper and homemade cookie platters and people and noise. Milk spilled, candle wax dripped and hardened on tablecloths. There were instantly broken toys, toys without batteries, unassembled toys that were impossible to put together. Toddling cousins tripped, toppled. Teetotalers tippled. There was caroling. There was, of course, plenty of snow. There was love --- plenty of that, too. And there was LITTLE WOMEN.

Oh, that last one? That's mine alone.

One December when I was about nine, I had checked Louisa May Alcott's classic out of the library and read it cover to cover over Christmas break. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy --- I fell in love with the March sisters that year. I could relate to all of them on some level. Of course, I had a special affinity for Louisa May's alter-ego, aspiring author Jo, because I had long dreamed of becoming a writer, too. And I was clumsy, just like her.

How well I remember curling up on snowy nights with that beloved book. It might have been written over a century earlier, but it mirrored my own life, filled as it was with cozy family gatherings and snowy, festive, small town scenes.

I was as proud as Marmee of the March sisters for giving up their own Christmas breakfast for their destitute neighbors. I rejoiced when Meg had her twins, cried when Beth died, was properly surprised when Jo turned down Laurie's proposal and then he and Amy, of all people, found each other abroad and fell in love.

The following year at the library, I read everything else Louisa May Alcott had ever written. When Christmas rolled around, I checked out LITTLE WOMEN again, nostalgically rereading it amid cookie baking and gift wrapping. My mother, from whom I inherited my love of books, became interested and read it too, so that we could discuss it. That's the kind of mother she was.

My mother, too, loved the story. And she, too, saw writer Jo in me.

I don't remember her commenting on my re-reading LITTLE WOMEN the following Christmas, or the one after that, but she probably noticed that the same library book appeared around our house every December. She must have, because on Christmas morning when I turned thirteen, I found under the tree a gorgeous, leather-bound copy of LITTLE WOMEN. It has a green satin ribbon bookmark stitched into the binding, and original pen and ink illustrations. On the inside cover, it's inscribed in pencil in loopy, middle-school girl script: Wendy Corsi, Christmas 1977.

The book hadn't been on my Christmas list. I hadn't thought to put it there. But I realized, when I saw it, that I had wanted it more than anything. It was the perfect gift, from someone who knew me better than anyone --- and loved me more than anyone.

Over thirty years later, I treasure my copy of LITTLE WOMEN. In fact, I glanced around for it as I began writing this essay and there it was, as always: about ten inches from my right elbow on the bookshelf just beside the desk where I have written over seventy novels of my own. I am, like Jo March, a writer.

As they say, there's no place like home for the holidays. I left that small town for good at twenty-one, moving to New York City, where I remain today with my husband and children. And I lost my beloved mother much too young, to breast cancer. I miss her every day of my life, but always, in particular, at Christmas.

Yet whenever I open my own dog-eared leather-bound copy of LITTLE WOMEN, I'm transported, for just a little while, back home, to cozy childhood Christmases surrounded by love.

Tomorrow, photographer Kevin Rivoli discusses how he became interested in taking pictures, and the set of books that helped him pursue his lifelong passion.