“A dear, and nothing else:” the death of the actual Beth March

In May of 2022, I presented on Lizzie Alcott via zoom to a symposium known as “Bearing Untold Stories.” Dr. Azelina Flint, co-editor of The Forgotten Alcott: Essays on the Artistic Legacy and Literary Life of May Alcott Nieriker hosted the symposium. The following is my presentation. I apologize for the lack of citations.

“A dear, and nothing else:” the death of the actual Beth March

The deeper meaning of Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s terminal illnessand why it matters today

reisen bookWhy would the demise of a shadowy young woman in 1858 matter to anyone? No one would have known she existed if not for Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical classic, Little Women. Through Beth March, Alcott immortalized her younger sister Lizzie. Saintly Beth was perfected through death, ascending to greatness denied her in temporal existence. She became Jo’s spiritual guide, transforming her older sister’s life. Beth reflects the transfigured Lizzie in Louisa’s life.
Some scholars dismiss Lizzie as weak and insignificant. Biographer Harriet Reisen writes, “Lizzie (as well as her fictional counterpart Beth) was so lacking in blood, spirit, and will that [women today] find her alternately pathetic and infuriating.” I object to Reisen’s statement because of her focus on what was seen. Louisa probed the unseen, revealing her sister’s fortifying inner strength and courage, inspired by faith in something greater than herself. Louisa’s spiritual beliefs with their promise of an afterlife formed her core—and Lizzie’s. Through such a lens, Beth’s demise is a victory.

march sisters bookEssayist Carmen Maria Machado believes Alcott does a disservice to Lizzie by fashioning Beth into someone without faults or complexity—“A dear, and nothing else.” Machado maintains that Lizzie, “a woman who lived and had thoughts and made art and was snarky and strange and funny and kind and suffered tremendously,” never had a chance to belong to herself. The hagiographic narratives established by her father, Bronson (though his unpublished work, “Psyche”), and Louisa (through Little Women) confined Lizzie. For Machado, a woman with lifelong health problems, Lizzie emerges from behind the saintly veil with a compelling story worthy of our attention.

Previous scholarship has viewed Lizzie as a peripheral figure in Alcott studies. My research brings Lizzie’s life to the forefront for the first time. Her story is not of Transcendental philosophy or education reform, writing best-selling books or creating renowned art. Instead, Lizzie’s value lies in her account of the invalid female experience in the nineteenth century and how it translates to the chronically ill today. The ninety-one family correspondences provide a detailed historical chronicle of Lizzie’s symptoms, state of mind, and courage in the final days. Her narrative is universal.
Lizzie’s story undoes what Machado had lamented, Beth being a dear and nothing else. Lizzie was “cheerful’ and “shy” like Beth. Sometimes that behavior was genuine. But she also donned that demeanor as a mask to “hide [her] feelings in silence,” as her father would say. Beth showed no signs of anger; Lizzie’s outbursts a few months before she died demonstrated the depth of emotion she had smothered over a lifetime.

Letter from Lizzie Alcott to Bronson Alcott
ESA to ABA December 13, 1857, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (25-27)

Like Beth, Lizzie was christened a saint by her family. Sainthood implies an impossible standard of perfection that Lizzie strove to achieve. She suffered from low self-esteem, never living up to her high expectations. Beth called herself “stupid,” “little,” and useless.” In a December 1857 letter, Lizzie admits: “I don’t speak of my troubles they seem so common, every day, things to me, and seeming not of interest to any-one around. “One month later, Bronson asked his daughter, “Have you thoughts of your not recovering sometimes?” She answered, “Yes; nor have I believed otherwise for a long while past … I can best be spared of the four.”

Lizzie’s fatalism represents the shared feelings of many of the chronically ill. Pain, depression, and anger are pressing issues for the invalid, but family and friends tire of hearing it because of their inability to help. Lizzie needed most to be taken seriously and listened to in the present moment, as evidenced by her letter. The hagiographic version Louisa created in Beth glosses over the whole truth. Scholarship must not ignore Lizzie’s voice—her life expresses the day-to-day convalescent experience. My research gives Lizzie the public platform she deserves.

eden's outcastsBeth never embraced adulthood; neither did Lizzie. She died at twenty-three of a wasting disease, weighing less than 84 pounds. Biographer John Matteson noted how family and friends referred to the young woman as a “child.” While Beth’s symptoms were ambiguous, Lizzie’s included severe gastric distress, weight loss, depression, confusion, erratic behavior, coughing, fever, feebleness, and hair loss. For Beth, “the ‘tide went out easily;” Lizzie endured acute pain, finding little relief from wine, ether, or morphine. Beth’s face was placid, while Lizzie’s betrayed her suffering, appearing as “a woman of forty … with all her pretty hair gone,” according to Louisa.

meg jo beth amy anne boyd riouxThe standard theory among Alcott experts is that death resulted from congestive heart failure, brought on by rheumatic fever, a complication of scarlet fever from which Lizzie suffered in May 1856. Scholar Anne Boyd Rioux contends that neither Beth nor Lizzie showed any symptoms of heart trouble. None of the several physicians who attended Lizzie mentioned rheumatic fever, a known disease in the mid-1800s. One suggested consumption, a typical wasting disease, while another diagnosed hysteria, “maladies in women with psychological causes that male doctors couldn’t explain,” according to Rioux. Lizzie’s actions and psychological profile suggest Anorexia Nervosa, first revealed in 1873 as Hysterical Anorexia.

Descriptions of Lizzie’s decline, which began three years before she caught scarlet fever, verify a psychological component. Bronson, Abba, and oldest daughter Anna recount incidents that illustrate a strong connection between physical and psychological symptoms

  • “collapse of the brain, “immovable, almost senseless for a time.” (Abba, November 1853)
  • “out of sorts bodily and thin as a rail.” (Anna, March 1857)
  • “Lizzy …is very miserably, extreme absence of animal spirits – dreadfully dyspesic (sic)– has long spells of quiet weeping and unexpressed misery.” (Abba, April 1857)
  • “She is … refusing all stimulating meats and drinks, and at the cost, we think, of her general health … she is acutely sensitive to everything about her … She sleeps far too little … nor do I see any chances for her immediate restoration till these lurking causes are removed.” (Bronson, June 1857)
  • “She tried her leaf tea again and as it made her cross, it brought on her “hunger pang” so that I found her down stairs one night stealing gold ‘vittles’ … However she caught her hair afire which frightened her so she has staid [sic] guilty in her bed ever since.” (Anna, November 1857)
  • She weighs 84 – and when you couple how much clothing this cold weather requires – it leaves a final … for flesh and bones. Her condition is most peculiar, I should think most precarious.” (Abba, December 1857)
  • “She seems much of the time … variable and nervous – eats some days voraciously and then repents on simple things for a week.” (Abba, January 1858)

Lizzie’s downturn began in 1853 with two events involving her mother, resulting in a nervous breakdown—the aforementioned “collapse of the brain.” The first consisted of her inability to go to the Normal, a teacher training school for secondary school students. As Abba meant for her daughters to learn trades, she prepared eighteen-year-old Lizzie to attend in January. No record exists of Lizzie enrolling despite three mentions in Abba’s letters that she would go. The only other reference comes from Louisa, writing that her sister was in “fear and trembling preparing for the Normal.” Going to school would have provided an opportunity to enter the wider world. Had Lizzie gone, she would have been the only sister to receive a formal higher education. But following through with Abba’s wishes presented a dilemma: while Lizzie lived to please her parents, she could not muster the courage. Lizzie likely suffered punishing guilt for disappointing Abba and herself. Secretly, she could have resented her mother for placing her in such an untenable situation.
That same year Louisa wrote, “Betty [Lizzie] … had a little romance with C.” All that is known is biographer Katharine Anthony’s assertion that “C” was the son of a family friend who lived in their Beacon Hill neighborhood. Sometime after, Lizzie had her breakdown, suffering nausea, vomiting, and debilitating depression.

Why did Lizzie respond this way? Biographer Sandford Mettik Salyer suggests that Abba disapproved of the romance and sent the boy away. A typical teenage reaction would have been to rebel against the parent in favor of the boy. Instead, Lizzie again hid her feelings in silence, her body expressing her anguish. Abba could not discern her daughter’s trouble, writing that “there is a great struggle going on in her mind about something. I try not to be curious.” That struggle represented Lizzie’s existential conflict: repressed anger towards her mother for thwarting the romance and self-condemnation for feeling that way. Bronson had forbidden expressions of anger, calling out Louisa for her inability to manage her temper while praising Lizzie for her self-control. With nowhere else for her feelings to go, Lizzie turned them inward, causing depression and physical illness.

The failed romance with “C” was the turning point. For a moment, Lizzie exercised self-determination in daring to form an attachment outside of the insular family dynamic. The breakdown crushed any further attempts, and she regressed. There is no mention of a full recovery, but Abba noticed the fragility of her daughter’s ego, writing that “Lizzy lives so much in the success of her sisters that any defeat would most kill her.”

In May 1856, Lizzie contracted scarlet fever. After hovering near death for a week, her father reported improvement though she was “greatly spent” by the fever. Anna and her youngest sister May also sickened as Lizzie recovered but had light cases. Was the severity of Lizzie’s scarlet fever related to the nervous breakdown three years prior? As her coping mechanism was to stifle negative feelings without resolving them, lingering depression would have weakened her immunity.

10 king's beach red rock 1898
King’s Beach, near where Lizzie and Abba stayed during August of 1857.

From that time onward, Lizzie declined precipitously. That summer, the attending physician suggested Lizzie and Abba visit the shore, where a change of scenery and the ocean air could prove restorative. Lizzie described how she relished having their mother to herself in long letters back home. Although plentiful, food did not add flesh to her bones. She called herself “your little skeleton” to her sisters in a dark joke. Abba described her as “thinner than ever … the incarnation of frailty – her smile is sweet but ghastly – and at times she is dreadfully distressed.”

P1090262 cropped - house where E diedAfter a month at the shore with no improvement, Lizzie and Abba reunited with the rest of the family. Bronson made arrangements to return to Concord, Massachusetts, partly because of Lizzie’s fond memories of living there as a child. Surrounded by her kin and concerned neighbors, Lizzie’s spirits lifted, but her physical condition did not improve. Abba and Bronson brought in a Boston doctor, and for a time, his potions eased her pain and calmed her anxiety.

By December 1857, Lizzie had reached a crisis point. Anna reports, “It is evident to us all that Lizzie is failing … She has for a month been nervous, cross, & pretty much disliked us all, & being wholly unlike herself … Lizzy’s memory & mind seem weakened, & her body is a perfect skeleton … she doesn’t care for any of us, & doesn’t want mother near her, thinks I am horrid, & only wants to be let alone & do her sewing.”

martha saxton paperbackBiographer Martha Saxton writes, “Lizzie … [revealed] for the first time in her life her resentments and desires. She had been passive, undemanding, and therefore, in family terms, blameless. In dying, she was angry, frightened, and complaining.” What constituted those resentments and desires?

  • Lizzie felt crushed at times by her family’s poverty and the turmoil that ensued; Abba had written, “I think Anna and Lizzie are a good deal oppressed with this [economic] uncertainty ….”
  • She felt the great weight of responsibility for the housework. As much as she appreciated her father’s praise, she also needed his support; Abba reminded Bronson to “remember that Lizzy must be cared for in many little ways or the work will oppress her.” His response? “Elizabeth’s part comes off to the quietest perfection in whole and detail … So please spare all anxieties ….”
  • Lizzie pined for her father. Short letters to Bronson revealed her craving for his company:
    “We live along here without you, but I am sure miss you very much … I wish we heard as often from the dear father; but I suppose you are very busy tho, am sure, do not forget us.
    “I can see your face now as I write above me, but I wish twas your own dear self, whom we miss so much amongst such quiet days! Your coming will indeed create quite a stir. When will it be?”
  • Although Bronson loved his daughters, he was a narcissistic man, often far away physically and emotionally. Lizzie buried her feelings, but the hurt and disappointment festered as these excerpts show.
  • Lizzie’s ambivalence towards her mother for her insistence on attending the Normal and opposing her romance with “C” 1853 remained unresolved.
  • At twenty-two, Lizzie grieved at the prospect of dying rather than growing up like her sisters. Beth confided to Jo, “But when I saw you all so well and strong and full of happy plans, it was hard to feel that I could never be like you, and then I was miserable, Jo.”

The reality of her terminal illness and the constant pain plunged Lizzie into despair, stripping away the mask of tranquility she had worn all her life. Such hopelessness can take over if not warded off; fighting it takes inner strength and courage. Lizzie, frail and sickly, found that strength. Anna wrote that after a month of struggle, Lizzie regained her composure, having full knowledge and acceptance that she would die. “[She] is glad it is to be so as she is ready & willing to go anytime,” noted Anna.

Carmen Machado believes Lizzie died an angry woman; I maintain that she overcame it. A touching gesture toward her mother indicates healing of any enmity she harbored. In January 1858, Abba wrote, “[LIzzie] copied for me the psalm of aspiration [“Nearer My God to Thee”]… she wept while doing it but went on to the end.” Lizzie wrote all eight versions with perfect penmanship in her mother’s journal. She persevered through her pain for hours to complete it.

Louisa watched as Lizzie wiled away the sleepless hours without trying to trouble anyone, singing to herself, sewing, and reading her New Testament. “So sweet and patient and so worn,” Louisa wrote. Lizzie did not surrender to self-absorption and despondency but focused outward, striving to remain cheerful, writing notes to friends, and making trinkets for neighborhood children. Such small gestures seem insignificant, but to Louisa, they represent the goodness she longs to emulate: “I shall be better all my life for these sad hours with you,” she concludes in her journal. Louisa recognizes the transformative power of Lizzie’s life. She wants her readers to know it: “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

The end came in March, but not without several days of searing pain and no relief. After bidding her family farewell, Lizzie drifted into a coma and passed away on March 14, 1858. Louisa and her mother witnessed “a light mist ris[ing] from the body, and float[ing] up and vanish[ing] in the air.” The doctor explained that this mist was a visible departure of life from the body. This incident solidified Lizzie’s saintly position in the family.

Louisa perceived her sister’s death as a life lesson: “So, the first break comes, and I know what death means — a liberator for her, a teacher for us.” She called death “beautiful,” no longer fearing it but finding it “friendly and wonderful.” Because she believed in a loving and Divine presence, she felt assured Lizzie was happy and safe from pain.

lizzie colorizedFamily and friends cherished Lizzie, but she never understood how deeply. Louisa told the world with Beth March. Knowing Lizzie’s story puts Beth in sharper focus, providing readers of Little Women with a sense of Beth that goes well beyond her being “a dear, and nothing else.” The historical account provided by the Alcotts raises Lizzie to a level of importance beyond that of Beth March. Lizzie Alcott’s death and life matter.

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Register for free symposium today, featuring my presentation on Lizzie Alcott

lizzie alcott2On May 31st at 11am, I will be giving a 15-minute presentation on Lizzie Alcott that I believe will be groundbreaking. To see the talk, you need to register right away for this free international symposium, “Bearing Untold Stories: A Hybrid Symposium.” Registration closes tomorrow. Here is the link:


You will receive a link to view the presentations. The Alcott Panel begins at 11 am EST – there are 3 panelists and I am the second presenter. The title of my talk is “‘Our Angel in the house’: the death of the actual Beth March: The deeper meaning of Elizabeth Sewall Alcott’s terminal illness and why it matters today”
I am including the program for the entire symposium in case you want to see any of the other presentations. This is the link to register for the second day:
I hope you are able to see our presentations; along with mine will be Lauren Hehmeyer’s on May Alcott Neiriker, and Jill Fuller on the Luken sisters. Azelina Flint is chairing the panel; she is also presenting on May Alcott Nieriker at 8:30 am.
Here is the program to download.




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Lizzie’s words, in her own handwriting – the Hillside diary, and other news

I just received my order from the Houghton Library at Harvard for Lizzie’s Hillside journal. Now you can read Lizzie’s words in her own handwriting:


00 page 1 from Lizzie's journal for blog post
MS Am 1130.9-1130.12 Volume 9, Houghton Library, Harvard University (both images)

Presentation on Lizzie Alcott, sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Lancaster University, UK

I would also like to announce that I will be presenting a 15 minute paper on Lizzie for an international symposium known as “Bearing Untold Stories,” hosted by Lancaster My presentation will be on Tuesday, May 31 at 11 am EST as part of a 3-person panel on the Alcotts. The event is free but you need to register as there are limited spaces. Livestreaming will be facilitated through MS Teams. You need an Outlook account to join MS Teams.

Go here to register for the symposium:
Click here to register for 31st May (either online or in-person): https://lancaster-uk.libcal.com/calendar/english-literature-creative-writing/bearing_untold_stories_day_1

I will be posting a video of my presentation a few days after the symposium, in case you cannot attend.

Book Update

Finally, an update on my book: I am in the middle of compiling my research for the rest of the chapters. As I have been doing this, I have realized that the book needs to take a different direction. I am excited at the prospect  because of how Lizzie’s story will be shared. Let me assure you, it will  not be a dry, chronological rendering!

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My presentation on the life of Louisa May Alcott

I am pleased to present this 54 minute video presentation on my interpretation of the life of Louisa May Alcott, as told through her family.  As there would be no Jo March as we know her without Marmee, Mr. March, Meg, Beth, and Amy, there would be no Louisa May Alcott without Bronson, Abigail, Anna, Elizabeth, and May.

This talk was presented in Dec. 2021 at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan and in March, 2022 at the Kutztown Community Library, Kutztown, PA. Here are some comments I received:

“Thank you so much for that presentation. It was wonderful.”
Jacqueline Sharayko, Assistant Director
Kutztown Community Library

“I loved the look on your face when you were talking about her at times – you have that affectionate smile that is really nice to see. We love her so much! You did a marvelous job, I learned a lot, too. I thought I I knew a lot about her but you did such a beautiful job. So glad I was able to tune in, thank you so much!”
Robin Stratton

“My wife and I very much enjoyed your presentation last night; we also learned a lot!  Thanks so much for sharing your passion for Louisa with all of us!”
Ken and Pam Betz

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Join me for a Zoom presentation on the life of Louisa May Alcott tonight, March 16.

I am giving my talk tonight, March 16, on the life of Louisa May Alcott at the Kutztown Community Library in PA from 6:30 to 7:30 EST via Zoom.

You can register by sending an email to kutztownlibrary@gmail.com

Visit https://www.berkslibraries.org/events/3391 for more information.

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Update: Chapter 3 first draft complete; Chapter 2 in the can

I haven’t given you an update since April of 2021 on my progress but I am pleased now to say that Chapter 2 has been edited and the first draft of Chapter 3 is complete.

Chapter 3 proved quite the challenge.  I covered the seven-month-long Fruitlands experiment (June, 1843 through January, 1844) and the Alcotts’ brief time in Still River before returning to Concord (January to October 1844).

Fruitlands, from 1919 and the present day.

“Brick Ends,” Still River, MA

512 fruitlands - gathering the grain
At Fruitlands, gathering the grain

It is no exaggeration to say that there is a mountain of information on this important yet short period in their lives. The Fruitlands era is difficult to understand, let alone write about succinctly. The only way that works for me is the immersion technique — take as many notes as I wish so as to be completely drenched in the philosophies, emotions and turmoil of that period, and then begin to consolidate before writing. Getting down the first draft synthesizes it further. The editing process will complete the trimming so that only what matters to the story of Lizzie comes through in the end. It is a draining, tedious, and yet exhilarating experience. You really have to love the process, and I do. I am so blessed that my various health problems interfere little with writing.

During this time, I had an opportunity to read a variety of stimulating books, from fiction, to spiritual, to academic, many of which I have reviewed for BookTrib.com. I revised an old practice of journaling as I read which is helping me to discover a bolder voice within. I believe that voice is emerging in Chapter 3.

BIO-Logo-itunesI have also found tremendous support in a round table group of women from Biographers International who are devoted to rediscovering the lives of forgotten women. We meet monthly for zoom meetings and discuss our work, and we email a lot in between. This group of accomplished, published authors has done much to build my confidence and chase away doubt.

cover smCertainly the inclusion of my essay in the recently published anthology, The Forgotten Alcott: Essays on the Artistic Legacy and Literary Life of May Alcott Nieriker (Routledge / Taylor & Francis Group) has done much embolden me as a writer. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up in a book with so many distinguished Alcott scholars! Or that anything I would write would end up in college and university libraries. As Amy Grant once sang, “Life is a curious thing!”

I begin today to assemble my research for Chapter 4 and the Hillside era. It is here where Lizzie speaks for the first time. I can hardly wait to immerse myself in her thoughts.

p.s. Your support has been phenomenal! I am deeply grateful to all of you for accompanying me on this grand journey.

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“Let Genius Burn” podcast explores the Alcott sisters

Jill Fuller and Jamie Burgess, creators and hosts of the “Let Genius Burn” podcast series, have been thoroughly immersed in the life and legacy of Louisa May Alcott for well over a year. The podcast debuted on July 12 and each week a new episode is released on Mondays. This week’s episode The podcasters focused on the Alcott sisters, discussing each one in depth, along with the relationship that sister shared with Louisa. Any Little Women fan knows how much Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are derived from Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May. Fuller and Burgess present many interesting (and lesser known) facts about the sisters along with penetrating insight into the sibling bond that made up this “Golden Band.”

Episode Two of “Let Genius Burn” focuses on the Alcott sisters.

I was most impressed with the presentation on Lizzie. Referring to her by the name to which she was referred within the family instead of addressing her as “Beth” told me right away that Fuller and Burgess would take Lizzie seriously. While her illness and death are the most notable aspects of her short life, Fuller and Burgess took care to speculate on what Lizzie meant to Louisa. Their analysis of Louisa’s poem, “The Angel in the House,” was especially interesting.

I highly recommend listening to this entire series. You can find it at https://www.letgeniusburn.com/listen

An Update on the Lizzie Biography

Chapter Two is in the can, and I am now working on Chapter Three  . . . Fruitlands . . .

Lizzie Alcott’s story told in quilts

I saw this article on a quilting blog and thought you might find it interesting. I wish I knew more about quilts and the significance of their design but perhaps some of you can offer help in your comments.

Here is the article:

Hands All Around #5: Star Puzzle for Elizabeth Alcott

Block #5 Star Puzzle by Becky Brown

A block for Elizabeth (Peabody) Sewall Alcott, the quiet sister.  The puzzle may be: “How could anyone be quiet in that family?”

 Elizabeth (Peabody) Sewall Alcott (1835-1858) 
Crayon (chalk) portrait by Caroline Negus Hildreth 1857
Collection of Orchard House

Continue reading: http://civilwarquilts.blogspot.com/2021/05/hands-all-around-5-star-puzzle-for.html

First draft of Chapter 2 completed!

I am pleased to announce that I have completed the first draft of chapter 2 which focuses on the Alcott family’s first home in Concord. This was a fun chapter to write as there was much to say about the sisters. There are a couple of revealing letters from Bronson to Lizzie plus reminiscences from Lizzie’s best friend and next-door neighbor at the time, Lydia Hosmer.

Concordia (aka Dove Cote) courtesy of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Society

Now that I have finally figured out the methodology for writing this book (and that has taken years as I am teaching myself), the writing goes along much faster. And as I edit, I learn new things — how will I make this book read like a novel rather than just a regurgitating of facts? What words and methods will I use to make the reader feel Lizzie’s story? And how will I make this story interesting to readers who are not familiar with the Alcotts and Little Women?

They say the writing is the best part of being an author (even over being published). I agree — I love this process! I’m still pinching myself that I am retired and get to do this every day. Life is good!

Another stab at fiction – Father, sisters and childhood from Lizzie’s point of view

This is a series of scenes that I wrote for fun a few years ago. Sometimes I wish I didn’t work so slowly! I hope I stay healthy long enough to write a novel as well as a biography. I really love taking Lizzie’s point of view and seeing life as I imagine it through her eyes. But I can always write scenes. 🙂

This is the first draft.

Memories of Father

My first memory was of his face. It was a kind face with blue eyes like still pools, and I could see myself in them. Such a sweet countenance, one I could look at from morning till night. It broke into a smile, and a quiet voice spoke my name: “Elizabeth.” My arms shot up in an instant, hoping he would lift me.  He granted my wish, and as I snuggled close to his chest, he looked into my face and kissed my cheek with tenderness. I giggled, the lovesick babe that I was, and ran my fingers through his silky blond hair. He’d always let me explore his face with my hands. I’d touch the pronounced yet noble nose which I later realized resembled mine, the decided chin, and those lips that spoke in sweet and soothing tones.

Father loved to tell of how he would take me from my crib in the late evening and tiptoe down the stairs so as not to awaken Mother, who was exhausted from her duties around the house. He’d lay me in the cradle next to the fireplace in the parlor, quiet and empty after a busy day. It was Father’s favorite time to ponder great spiritual mysteries and write about them in his journal. He described how he would carry me around the room, amused and transfixed by the expressions on my face as I marveled at the dancing orange and yellow flames in the fireplace and the flickering shadows that made the statues and pictures in the room come alive.

“My dear Elizabeth,” he would say, “you are the key. Inside of you is the secret to everything I have been searching for. Beautiful flame, yet more beautiful gazer …” and I heard a sigh of contentment that matched my own.

I never understood much of what my father said, but I didn’t have to. All we had to do was just to be together. We saw each other so clearly through the blue eyes that we shared. We shared many things: soft voices, a love of flowers, plants, and trees, the craving for stillness and order, and the ability to be content, wherever we might be.


My sisters, Louie and Annie, were not quiet. And I couldn’t wait to be able to run after them and join in their fun.

“Lizzie, come here,” Louie said one day. “Look at what I have for you.”

She pointed to a stack of building blocks in the middle of the floor of Father’s study. “Ohh!” I said, looking at all those colorful blocks. Louie and Annie smiled in an impish sort of way as they saw my eyes grow round, and a smile spread quickly on my face. They knew how much I loved pretty things. After running over to take possession of my newfound treasure, I plopped down on the floor and started to play, examining each block and then stacking them as high as they could go. I could hear my sisters whispering and giggling in the background, but I didn’t pay any attention to them.

“Annie, here, take these books,” said Louie.

“What are we going to do?”

“You’ll see …”


A wall of books grew around me on all sides, but I didn’t care. The blocks were so pretty. I set them all in a perfect row and ran my pudgy finger over each one, up and down the little bumps and crevices created by some magical toymaker. I picked one up and pressed it close to my nose — Mmmmm! I wanted to make a castle out of them where princesses lived, just like in the stories I’d hear from Mother. A staircase appeared, leading to a window, and I walked my fingers up to the window, thinking of a beautiful princess with the wind blowing through her hair as she leaned out the window.

“Look at her! She doesn’t even care that we’ve built a fortress around her,” I heard Louie say.

Annie giggled. “She can’t take her eyes off those blocks. Don’t you think, though, we should leave a way for her to get out?”

“Oh no, where’s the fun in that?” Let’s see how long it takes for her to beg us to let her out.”

Flickr Creative Commons Artful Magpie Building Blocks

I don’t have any idea how long I played with those blocks. The room was warm, and as the light of day faded, I soon found my head drooping. Curling up around the rows and stacks of blocks, I settled in for a nap, curling up just like my kittens. I tried to purr, puckering my mouth just so, but all that came out were puffs of air, so I mewed softly to myself instead.

I awoke with a start at the sound of my name. “Elizabeth? Elizabeth, where are you? Girls, where is your sister?”

Sitting up, I rubbed my eyes to see a stack of books come tumbling down with a big crash. My sisters peered in, smiling but looking guilty too.

“Lizzy, there you are, my darling, come to Mar Mar,” and my mother’s strong arms lifted me off the ground. “What happened here?” And she turned to look at Annie and Louie.

Annie looked down at the ground. “We’re sorry, Marmee.” She cast a quick glance at Louie, who then piped up, “We thought it would be fun to build a fortress around our little princess! Lizzy, you didn’t mind at all, did you?”

Holding up a block I had clutched when Marmee picked me up, I smiled.

Marmee always marveled at how I could never stop smiling. “Why Lizzy, you smile on everything as if love was as cheap as dirt,” she’d say. It’s true. I was blessed with an even temperament, much like Father’s. It just seemed like the inside of my soul was one beautiful garden full of buttercups, daisies, and violets gently bending with the breeze. As a child, the stirrings inside were gentle, never violent; hills and valleys were not steep, and storms would quickly pass. I took great pleasure in watching the world go by and then turning over in my mind all that I had seen.

Big sis, little sis

Annie was like me; we both loved to dream. Sitting close to her, she would brush my long hair before bedtime, and we’d pretend to be angels, flapping our “wings” and giggling. She would tell me things that Father had told her, especially about the Good Man who loved children and the poor. I looked at my favorite picture on the wall of Jesus blessing and kissing the little children, and I wanted to spread my wings and fly right up to that picture and kiss His cheek.

By Unknown author – The story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59586833

Sometimes I’d find Annie sitting quietly and looking at me as I organized my blocks, placed all the seashells I collected in a perfect row, or put my dollies to bed, giving each one of them a gentle pat and a kiss. She was like a second mother to me, teaching me my lessons when Father was away and showing me how to take good care of the house just like Marmee did. We both considered it a great privilege to straighten up Marmee’s room, making sure the bed was carefully made, plumping the pillows so that she could sink her head into them at the end of a long day. The bureau with all its trinkets was carefully dusted, each item put in its place. I admit there were times when we’d both stand in front of the mirror, taking her combs and trying to pile our long hair on top of our heads. Mine was so straight and slippery! Annie’s hair had some curl, so she could manage to make a nice bun out of it. “How’s this?” she’d say, and I always told her, “You look so grown up, just like Marmee!”=

Tomboy Louie

Louie was a different sort, so full of fire and energy. There was never a day she didn’t come home from playing at the Hosmer’s with a bump on the head, cuts on her knees, or mud all over her dress. Mother refused to buy her girls’ shoes and made her wear boy’s boots; she clumped around happily in them! She could make anything exciting and loved to tell of her adventures. I envied how bold Louie was; she would try anything! My body wasn’t as strong as hers, so I was afraid to climb the tall trees as she did (the crab apple tree was fine with me). She’d climb to the very top and entice me with tales of seeing all of Concord and Walden Pond. “Come on, Lizzie, you can do it!” she’d say, and at that moment, I’d wish I really was a fairy so I could fly right up there with her. And how she could roll hoops! I could roll the little ones, but she could roll hoops taller than herself. In fact, she could roll hoops better than any boy on the block and would never call any boy her friend until she beat him at hoop rolling. That Cyrus Hosmer, he’d always daring her to try things, and she’d do them, just to prove how tough she was. Why he even dared her to climb to the top of the barn and jump down. She was unceremoniously carried home in a wheelbarrow with two sprained ankles, beaming with satisfaction.

Louie told wonderful stories, especially at night with the lights out, spinning tales of ghosts, witches, and goblins. She’d get Annie going, and Annie would add princesses whisked away by evil princes on horseback. With mouth open, leaning forward, I would drink in every word. I knew I could never tell stories as they did, but that didn’t matter. It was a privilege to be their audience.


I’ll never forget when Baby came to us. At first, she had no hair, but it was a mass of blond curls when it grew in. Father called her his little Queen. They named her Abby May, and she looked just like the cherub Father would describe to us, round and golden with rosy cheeks. Annie was so lucky; she got to take care of her when she began to walk. I wanted that job but knew I wasn’t old enough.

Flickr Creative Commons, Shawn Ford crayons 5

Abby loved to draw, and from the moment she could pick up a pencil or a crayon, she’d scribble on something, whatever was around. She’d even draw with her fingers on the floor. Making mud pies with her was the most fun. She’d squeal, digging into the dirt and using the water from the brook to mold it like clay into all sorts of interesting shapes. I couldn’t make those shapes, but I loved the feel of the moist dirt against my hands, lifting up a handful and taking in the sweet scent. I knew Marmee would scold us for getting our dresses so dirty, but I’d help with the scrubbing; it was the least I could do.