Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries 25

Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws. Barbara Kingsolver

A_Tree_Grows_in_BrooklynI recently read a book in which there was a passage that greatly affected me. While I have always been a person who becomes emotionally and intellectually involved with compelling characters in books I read, and have even been known to mourn them when they die, I am surprised by my reaction to this particular passage, described below in a note to my mother. My guess is that I feel particularly connected to the young mother in the story as I now have a child, and I’m particularly vulnerable to the world around me and to his experience within it–I can feel the woman in the story’s love and protectiveness, her hurt and her rejection. And I am aware of my connection with my own mother, who responds to my note with understanding, sympathy, and a hint of how to handle these very tender feelings. Thus is information passed from one mother (a literary creation) to another (me, the newish mother), to my own mother…it’s an empathetic, comforting connection which illustrates “the strength of motherhood, passed through generations.”

 

Dear Mom,

At my book club meeting the other day (it’s really a book swap for a group of expatriates in the valley who want to read English language books, and not pay for them), I borrowed a book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Now, courage is a quality I admire most in people, and value greatly in myself, but I fear I can’t finish this book because it’s so sad: the story is told from the perspective of a little girl, a poor, tenement child growing up in turn–of-the-century Brooklyn. She’s precocious, an avid reader, but usually hungry – it hurts me to think of hungry children. Her mother works hard as a washer- woman, and her father is a sweet, but rather useless dreamer. Anyway, there was a passage last night that made me cry and cry and I could not get the image out of my head, and as I write this note to you, tears are coming to my eyes…

In the chapter, a pretty young woman, Joanna, who lives on our narrator’s block, has an infant son. She works in the factory during the week and Joanna’s mother takes care of the baby while Joanna is at work, but she never takes the baby outdoors because the child is a bastard and it’s “unseemly” to take him out of doors. This fact starts to tug on my heart as I think of the poor baby that has shame cast upon him, and they’re so impressionable and sensitive, through no fault of his own. One day, young Joanna takes her baby out for a walk (on the street of the tenements), as it’s a gorgeous spring day. The carriage is clean, the baby is dressed in clean white (uncommon among these “great unwashed”), evidence of Joanne’s love and conscientiousness, and the baby and she are smiling and happy to be enjoying the spring day together. But the women in the neighborhood, angry at their own circumstances, their savage husbands and loveless marriages, whatever, are cruel to her. At one point, they say to her that she has no right to be on the street and needs to go indoors. Again, my heart constricts with this notion, the meanness, and tears well up in my eyes. Joanna responds defiantly, crying, “It’s a free country!” The women start to throw stones and manure at her. One of the stones accidentally hits the baby in the forehead and a thin line of blood starts to run down his face. He starts to whimper, seemingly afraid to cry, as though he knows that he has no ‘right’ to cry out loud (this is where I started sobbing), and quietly holds his arms up to be picked up. The women are ashamed, but don’t apologize, just go away. Joanna takes the baby into her arms, comforting him, she’s covered in manure and now disheveled, and returns home. She abandons the carriage in the street. Our little narrator sees Joanna and the baby in the vestibule outside Joanna’s house, the baby touching Joanna’s face tenderly, and Joanna softly speaking to him, but they are never seen on a walk again.

I can’t reconcile myself to this today, can’t make my heart hurt less, it’s such a vivid scene and it has hurt me to the quick for that poor baby and his sweet, pretty, hard working mother (the father was a coward), and I’m so distracted that I’m finding it hard to focus on anything…do you have any salve for my soul?

 

Dearest Tori,

I understand.  Tears are in my eyes as I read the retelling of this part of the story. There is so much unfairness in the world. I tear up both at sad stories in the daily newspaper (usually about a child) and touchingly reassuring stories of kindness, of sympathy, of generosity, and I try to be a person of kindness and generosity. I can’t avoid my “soft-heartedness,” nor do I really wish to do so.  My sadness reaffirms my intention to be caring, but I then have to wipe my tears away and return to my more common, daily world and tasks, or else I, too, will be one of the broken ones unable to act to free oneself from meanness or purposelessness or lack of hope.

One cannot forgive or forget the sad things, but one puts it away in one’s “heart” and goes on.  Think, too, how the author of that story was able to convey the picture of people in a slum–in which there are, as I recall, Aunt (Cissy?) brassy and funny, and–the little, brave tree which grows amidst the stones and sidewalks and dead-end, unhappy, mean people.

Finish your guide for *. You’re helping to make kids lucky enough to be studying that play aware of things such as rejection and unfairness and also feisty rejuvenation and wisdom and some created happiness, instead.

Love, Mom

 

 

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