"The Penderwicks in Spring" and Expectation Games

You guys. I just finished the latest Penderwicks book by Jeanne Birdsall. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy as soon as you can, because it was wonderful! Surrounded by tissues, red-nosed, and teary, I am remembering all of the reasons that this little family is my favorite. Now, before you roll your eyes and pronounce me a hopeless sap for crying over a kids’ book, let me explain. I read the first book in the series, The Penderwicks, when I was a freshman in high school. This family of four sisters, a devoted but forgetful father, and a trusty Hound-dog captured my heart with their warmth and reality. As one of six kids brought up in a tight-knit, homeschooling family, I know what it is like to be friends with one’s siblings (albeit reluctantly at times). Sometimes, the very quirks which drive you mad with frustration become your sibling’s most endearing qualities. With all my siblings still at home, provoking me to laughter or to tears in equal measures, I saw myself in the Penderwick family and I loved them.

Since that first triumphant, sun-drenched episode, Birdsall has written three sequels, with one more still to come. I’ve loved every one of them, but somehow this most recent addition caught at my heart in a singular way. In this book, my favorite little family enters a time of transition. Batty, the baby of the family, is now eleven and has outgrown her butterfly wings at last. While sisters Skye and Jane navigate the treacherous waters of high school and Rosalind finishes up her freshman year at college, Batty feels keenly each frightening shift in the family dynamic. Each of Batty’s twinges and chuckles prompts me to consider what a drastic change home-leaving is, both for the leaver and the left-behind. The change draws out the ugliness and brokenness, the insecurities and fears, the needs and insufficiencies of everyone involved. Batty waits for Rosalind to return from school and clings to the hope that the long-awaited visit will erase all her loneliness. She dreams of the moment when Rosalind will guess her fondest wish (a sister-chat, just the two of them) and grant it before Batty needs to ask. Predictably, Rosalind disappoints. Absorbed in her relationship with a dashing college boy, she forgets all about Batty and spends the entirety of her visit draped on his arm, blind to her family’s jealous disgust. Batty wilts with disappointment.

Having just graduated from college, my feelings towards this transition time are still fresh. With an older brother and four younger siblings, I have experienced both sides of this expectation game and I can tell you, whether you are the leaver or the left-behind, you enter college vacation laden with the dangerous hope that someone will satisfy your needs. Chronically self-absorbed, you become easily frustrated with those you love best and, craving fulfillment, you retreat to your corner like Batty to Quigley Woods, to lick your wounds and pray for a savior.

In one of the climactic moments of the book, a disillusioned Batty has crawled into the inky-blackness of her closet and buried herself with clothes, hoping to have a quiet cry and avoid a penitent Rosalind. Yet even as she shrinks from reconciliation, claiming that there’s “no room” for another sister in her hideout, Batty longs for Rosalind’s company in spite of herself. As Rosalind begs forgiveness, Batty finds herself with nothing to keep her company but the list of expectations which disqualified her sister. Overwhelmed by the loneliness of such a bitter list, Batty finds herself shifting aside to “make room.”

I see myself so clearly in both Rosalind and Batty, the leaver and the left-behind. Batty’s bitterness and Rosalind’s penitence alike resonate as I remember countless instances of failure with my own siblings. Arms crossed and unfulfilled expectations on the table, we sit opposite one another, staring in mutual disappointment at the mess we’ve made and the pain we’ve caused. “How,” we ask one another, “could we possibly recover from such failure?” Birdsall’s answer lies in Batty’s hesitant attempt “to uncurl herself and scrunch over to one side.” Realizing that her need for Rosalind’s friendship exceeds her need for justification, Batty “makes room” for her sister, forgiving her in spite of all her failures. In the end, it’s their common need for love, their mutual preoccupation with satisfaction that drives Rosalind and Batty back to one another, repentant and forgiving, ready for relationship in spite of disappointment.

As my family and I brave our own transition time, I’m reminded daily that we are all bound to fail in the expectation game. Whether we are like Batty, curled up in the hideout nursing bitter feelings, or like Rosalind, standing outside the door, guilt-ridden and penitent, we have already failed to love one another unconditionally. Only the sufficient love of God can heal our brokenness. In the meantime, with all our failures on display, we can only turn to one another and “scrunch over to one side” to “make room” for a fellow sinner in our hideout.