Saturday, January 25, 2014

O, Pip!

          Of all the curses that exist, a mother's curse is the worst. Inevitably, it takes the form of, "Just you wait," which is, of course, its genius. The curse of a mother never affects you in your childhood years. It waits until you're grown to spring out and ever after remind you of your callousness.

          My mother only cursed my sister and me once, but it has really been rather more than sufficient.

          She was reading Little Women to us. Marmee had gone to Washington to nurse the girls' father, who was wounded while fighting in the Civil War. The girls were left at home to run things, which duty they acquitted with less than total success. Little things—like feeding their pet canary—got forgotten because Marmee wasn't there to remind them, and none of the girls wanted to take responsibility for anything.

          If you've read Little Women, you know how very Moral a book it is. It bases its plot loosely on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, for goodness sake. Alcott intended it as a primer on how to become a Good Person, as well as a charming story. And in the telling of this Moral story, the girls' canary must needs die of starvation in order for Alcott to make a point about taking responsibility.

          When the girls discover the little canary dead on the floor of its cage, our mother, who is tender-hearted, starts to sniffle. My sister and I are small and have yet to be thoroughly civilized, so we are unmoved. A dead bird is a dead bird. Not our problem. The March girls argue about whose responsibility it was to feed Pip. Our mother starts to weep. J and I are as stone. One of the March girls suggests they try to revive Pip by sticking him in the oven. Mom weeps harder. J and I burst into hysterical laughter. Who ever heard of trying to revive a dead bird by warming it up in the oven? We can't stop laughing. This is the funniest thing we've heard this week.

          Mom, who knows what it's like to lose a pet (although not by starving it to death, I hasten to add) is by now is a complete mess, the pathos of the pet canary dead at the hands of the very girls who should have been taking care of it not lost on her as it is on the two barbarians—her own flesh and blood!—sitting in front of her.

          "Just you wait," she sobs, shutting the book.

          "They wanted to put Pip in the oven!" my sister and I crow, still in hysterics.

          Years later, I was watching a dog food commercial, one of those ones where faithful Shep waits on the corner every day for little Tomasina's bus, and I burst into tears. No dogs, real or imaginary, were harmed or even inconvenienced in the making of that commercial, and faithful Shep and little Tomasina are reunited, yet watching faithful Shep wait for his little human made me weep. I can no longer watch dog food commercials without getting teary. My mother's curse has come home to roost at last.

          Do you remember what happens in Alien? I don't, even though I saw the movie. I was too worried that the cat wasn't going to make it. Didn't care about the humans, but I was terrified for the cat. In a movie. Whose plot was entirely fictional. My mother's curse at work.

          I don't read animal stories. If they're true, the animal dies at the end and I weep inconsolably. If they're fiction, the animal dies at the end and I weep inconsolably. My mother's curse rides again.

          In effect, if there's an animal, real or fictional, anywhere in the picture, count on me to puddle up and reach for my hanky. It's become more than a bit of an embarrassment, my mother's curse.

          Mom, if you're reading this, can you undo the curse? I reread the Pip scene the other day. I cried harder than you did. I think you've made your point.

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