I’m recycling a blog about my love for A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN but first a sabbatical update 🙂
- Finished a draft of “The Teardrop Sisters of Bodrum Castle” and I love these sisters and a weepy Dragon Princess who showed up unexpectedly.
- Revised “Georgia Ivy and the Old Pump Organ” into a tall tale set in Louisiana, which has been so much fun to play with. Lucy, my sweet girl, gave me the idea to give Georgia Ivy some crazy chores to avoid doing, and so far my favorite one is Daddy asking her to “floss the alligator’s teeth with a string of creeping Quackgrass.”
- I’m close to finishing VULCAN and now focusing on the tasks he’s asking Millie-Graciela to perform so she’ll leave him alone as he is grouchy and no miracle worker.
- I’m grateful for my new tiny writers group of poets & writers as we are keeping each other on task.
- I finished an essay about my brother-in-law Jimmy and addiction and our family just to keep things light and breezy.
- I received a 13 page document for all my duties coming up as Director of the Creative Writing Progam. Gulp. Enough said about that.
- Still finishing up a Helen Norris Bell piece for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
- This Sunday is our annual PoemMemoirStory selection meeting so we’ll get next year’s issue cooking.
- Wrote an annual review letter which is something required every spring of professors to try and list everything you did the previous year – sigh.
- What else? I’ll save the summer plans for the next blog, but we’re working on lots of this and that, but mostly I’ll get to be with Kiffen, and Norah is going to have her own adventures too.
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Other than that I’ve had petty car woes – before they started we had a lovely time in Monroeville visiting dear friends, saw the play, heard about the reading series for Truman Capote’s novels – they are even planning a black and white ball in the courtroom this fall with a local artist helping with masks. Hooray for Nathan Carter and all his good work! Crissy Nettles and her son, Andrew, were luminous in the play as Miss Maudie and Dill. It was such a lovely production and on Saturday, I was very glad to see Thomas Lane and Hilda Butts who are frail now but still so full of stories and kindness.
On the way back Norah and I had the most delicious barbecue in Greenville. Unexpectedly fabulous. Maybe I was just hungry but that barbecue brought tears to my eyes.
Then just to keep things exciting, we had a blowout of a brand new tire on Saturday night on 65 with a good samaritan, Cody, waiting in the wings to help. Of course, it had to be followed by the refusal of the tire place to acknowledge any responsibility, which meant an awkward departure (won’t be going back there again) and three hours at Costco Hoover and three new tires blah blah. It’s only money. Now I sit at Tire Engineers getting new brake shoes but the mechanic is nice – Marty – who greets folks, “Just another day in Paradise.” He was recommended by Edwin who doesn’t work on ‘domestics.’ I have 2006 Chevy HHR which I intend to keep running as long as possible because it’s paid off!
Marty said they get filled up with cars in the afternoon and added, “Sometimes, we have a lot of cars to spend the night with us.”
He makes it sound like car slumber party/sleepover.
But back to the blowout (terrifying, freakish) I loved Cody, the guy who changed my tire, in the darkness on 65, trucks screaming by. It was effortless to him or he made it seem so. He had every kind of tool in his car and was on his way back from Florida since his wife had had a bad time there with her party friends who still act all high school, so he went to down to pick her up. They had their son with him. Cody is one of 14 children, an Auburn fan, although two of his family members sadly defected to Mississippi State and Notre Dame. His mother is a psychiatrist and the first time he lied to her as a teenager about a girl she took him to the kitchen table and said, “Sit down son.” She saw right through it. He advised me to take surface roads and texted me: “Pay it forward. Too many people in a hurry to go nowhere.”
There are books for me that I can climb back into and walk around and breathe again. I believe the most important one is Betty Smith’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. I don’t even know how many times I have read this book. I remember that I ordered it from a Scholastic Book Order when I was in 7th grade at St. Teresa’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was worried that it would be too hard for me or possibly too boring.
I also recognized the no-nonsense, practicality of Katie Nolan from the women on both sides of the family. I read everything by Betty Smith from JOY IN THE MORNING, MAGGIE NOW, and TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER, but nothing was better than A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN although JOY IN THE MORNING was a joy to read.
I grew up in a house without a lot of books. Mother got us a library card in every new football town, but we didn’t have many books with all the moving around. We had SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and LADIES HOME JOURNAL, and I learned to read the delicious “Can This Marriage Be Saved” in that magazine. I can recall a menacing green book that sat on the shelf called DARE TO DISCIPLINE by Dr. James Dodson.
I also remember my mother reading GREEN DARKNESS by Anya Seton at the adult pool where we would go beg her for money for the snack bar and she’d shoo us away, warning: “This is the adult pool! Beat it!” My father read Dale Carnegie’s HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE and a slew of books about achieving the perfect golf swing. I also remember them both loving the book THE GREATEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD by Don Robertson and reading parts of it aloud to us.
In 8th grade, I discovered Irwin Shaw’s RICH MAN POOR MAN, and I became consumed by the lives of those two very different brothers during a weekend state basketball tournament for the Saint Teresa Titans. Seventh and eighth graders jumped on beds and took tons of pictures, and in every single picture I was in the corner reading. Later, when the pictures got developed, kids said, “Did you do anything at State besides read? We won by the way!” I was embarrassed. Of course, I knew the boys basketball team had won.
But A TREE GROWS IN THE BROOKLYN was the book I returned to again even as an adult, maybe especially as an adult. I loved this paragraph about Sunday Mass in Brooklyn: “On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to the early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to early mass, got it over with, and went home and slept all day absolved from sin.”
I used to think about those people who stayed up all night in New York and then slept all day long. I wanted to be like them when I grew up and explore the city, and go to the theatre and eat Italian or Indian at midnight and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I was utterly and completely with Francie Nolan eating the peppermint wafers reading IF I WERE KING on the fire-escape beneath the Tree of Heaven when Betty Smith wrote:
“It was a sunny afternoon. A lazy warm wind carried a warm sea smell. The leaves of the trees made fugitive patterns on the white pillow-case. Nobody was in the yard and that was nice. Usually, it was pre-empted by the boy whose father rented the store on the ground floor. The boy played an interminable game of graveyard. He dug miniature graves, put live captured caterpillars into little match boxes, buried them with informal ceremony and erected little pebble headstones over the tiny earth mounds. The whole game was accompanied by fake sobbing and heavings of his chest. But today the dismal boy was away visiting an aunt in Bensonhurst. To know that he was away was almost as good as getting a present.”
A LAMAZE FOCAL POINT?
Yes, I even brought A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN with me to be a “focal point” while giving birth to my son, Flannery, at the Natural Childbirth Institute in Culver City, California in 1988. The midwife, Nancy McNeese Marshutz, whom I adored, advised me to bring pictures or objects that would help me focus during labor as suggested in Lamaze. Well, I set out A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN on a table, but when labor slammed into me with a force that I described at the time as “cinderblock surrealism,”A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN was the last thing on my mind. I never found my glasses, which meant I couldn’t see a thing anyway, so I didn’t focus on jack except having the baby. When I begged for painkillers, Nancy said, “Having the baby will be your painkiller.” Of course, I’d like to think that I closed my eyes and thought of how Francie helped her mother, Katie, through the home birth of her little sister, Annie Laurie, but I know I didn’t. I do remember telling my husband, Kiffen, and Nancy, the midwife, in the middle of things, “Please let me go home. I’ll come back on Thursday and do this. I swear.” It was Tuesday, and Nancy said, “You’re not going anywhere. The baby is coming today.” And he did…November 8, 1988. I even had this idea I might vote on the way home from birth in the Presidential Election. That didn’t happen either.
BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
It’s hokey, I suppose, to say that books saved me from a childhood of loneliness but they did. I didn’t really learn how to be a discriminating reader until I was an exchange student in England at Manchester University. I took a Women in 19th Century Literature tutorial, and discovered Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, George Sand, George Eliot (we share the same birthday!), Guy de Maupassant, Honore de Balzac’s COUSIN BETTE (I felt like Bette because my nickname growing up was “Gertrude Marblecake,” and I was known for bursting into tears over nothing and having no sense of humor and for being able to clean a kitchen with gusto). I also discovered Emile Zola, Henry James and so many more in that tiny tutorial in the professor’s office where we met on rainy Monday mornings. It always rained in Manchester and I loved it. In bake shops filled with “scones and biccies,” clerks, pronounced “clarks” would say to me, “How are you, luv” or “Ta, luv” and I felt loved.
I became friends with a group of British Drama students who had their books all lined up on shelves, and I knew that for the rest of my life I would always make sure to have shelves and shelves of books no matter where I lived. I came home and gave my family required reading lists. Mother read MIDDLEMARCH by the swimming pool that summer, and my sister, who was in 9th grade, attempted PORTRAIT OF A LADY, but her heart wasn’t in it as she was preparing to do GODSPELL in the fall. I can’t remember which brother refused to read Hardy’s RETURN OF THE NATIVE, but one or both of them did. My father was coaching for the Detroit Lions, so I didn’t push any novels on him as I knew they would have been refused.
THE STORIES MY OWN CHILDREN LOVED….
The first book I read to my son, Flannery, was WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and we danced the wild rumpus to that book for years, which became his favorite part. He ate up Roald Dahl books as a boy followed by CS Lewis, Gary Paulsen, Lois Lowry, J.R.R. Tolkein, and now he can’t get enough of Raymond Chandler as he drives around Los Angeles thinking of Noir plots and stories. He is 21 and a filmmaker-actor-musician, who got his first job three weeks ago as a PA on a film in pre-production. He sent me a picture of his employment badge and first paycheck.
My daughter, Lucy, loved Laurie Halse Anderson as a young teen, but as a little girl, we read everything from The VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR to THE STORY OF FERDINAND to SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE to SWAMP ANGEL to BUZZ to THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS to CHRYSANTHEMUM and later Frances Hodgson Burnett, but now Lucy loves Joan Didion, Dave Eggers, and Raymond Carver and so many more. But the love of Joan Didion was due to a cruel English teacher, who informed her in the beginning of 9th grade that she was “No Flannery” when it came to books and reading and intelligence, (she’d been in his class two weeks). I despised him on the spot and wanted to take her out of the class, but Lucy wanted to prove this teacher wrong (and not wreck her sports schedule at school). She did exactly that and along the way fell in love with Joan Didion and is now a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She wants to be a photo-journalist.
Our youngest, Norah, is reading CATCHING FIRE to me, but she won’t let me read it at night because she’s worried I’ll be too sad. She was very unhappy with MOCKINGJAY and isn’t sure if I should read it at all. She reads aloud to me when we drive the back roads exploring Alabama together. She has often told me that she prefers fantasy over historical fiction, and her favorite authors include: Diane Wynne Jones, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling, Lois Lowry, Garth Nix, Michael Scott, Kristen Miller, Jean Auel, and too many more to name. She has to find a stopping place in a book whenever we arrive somewhere in the car, which may take her anywhere from 3 to 7 minutes, sometimes longer.
I just gave a talk on literacy to the DIVAS of Birmingham, (Developing Initiatives and Values Among Sisters) who were raising money for the UNITED WAY literacy campaign. I told them that I tell kids to be “Story-Catchers” in my writing workshops and to write their stories down or paint them in pictures or simply tell them…I tell young writers to ask questions and listen to the stories and read read read! The DIVAS gave me a fabulous centerpiece, which now sits on my table next to the Courthouse of Monroeville, Alabama where Harper Lee set another of my most favorite books in the world, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
ALL THE PLACES I USED TO READ…
As a child, I read in a front yard on Central Avenue every summer in Leavenworth, Kansas visiting my grandmother, Elizabeth, who’d bring me a plate of Swiss steak and cucumber salad to devour along with my library books. I read on the side porch in Washington DC and my other grandmother, GranMary, would let me read my book at the “hot shop” where we’d go for chocolate milkshakes. I read in the backseat of a Buick through thousands of miles across the country to football towns in the South and Midwest with two brothers, a sister, parents, a styrofoam ice chest that NEVER survived the trip, and a drooling black lab named Clancy. I read in trees and attics. I read in the woods and at football games. I read under my desk at school in Sister’s Joel’s geometry class (I don’t recommend it) and late into the night and on the beach and in mountain cabins and on Greyhound buses and in China where Kiffen and I spent our first year of marriage. I read A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN aloud to my sister, Keely, on trips to Kansas to visit the grandparents, and Kiffen has read parts of it to me over the years.
BOOKS, PEACHES, AND LUST
At the age of thirteen, I told my cousin, Mary Margaret, that I “lusted for peaches.” She looked at me and said, “You read too many books, and by the way, a person can’t lust for peaches.” But I did, and I know I lusted for books too. In fact, Mother used to find tons of peach seeds in my room because nothing was better than eating a summer peach on a Saturday afternoon and reading a book.
Betty Smith said it best in the opening words of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN:
“Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.”