Tree Grows in Brooklyn EditA Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

Grandma, this will always be your book, our book. The world Francie grew up in was the world you grew up in. Every time you and I read this book together, you took me back into your own memories. Even this old volume, this particular copy handed down from you to me, brings you close.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. Dozens, probably, over four decades. The whole book is a time capsule of small memories saved from oblivion. I think of the place in the book where Francie tries to fix a moment of time by sealing it in an envelope. A newspaper cutting, some lipstick, a loved poem, small scraps of life as it was at that instant, to be opened decades later, hoping that what has been preserved there will still be as real as it once was. This entire book does for me what that envelope did for Francie.

I lived my entire life with Grandma. In some ways, I feel as though I belong to a generation earlier than my own. I have memories of more distant times, closer and more personal memories than most people my age have. Grandma wasn’t just an occasional presence in my life, but a constant and intimate one. Her own recollections of her girlhood were strong and vivid, and I lived with those recollections every day, until they became my own recollections too. Other people my age have such second-hand memories of the generation immediately before our own, stories of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Raised by Grandma, I heard the stories of her youth, of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in the same detail. More than that, Grandma carried a strong recollection of her own mother’s memories, and passed them along as though they too were her own, memories of the decade before the first world war.

History is history, but memory is memory. There’s a personal scent to memory, an emotional content that goes deeper than the knowledge of history. This book is the catalyst that activated memory. Whenever we used to read it, Grandma’s memories would come alive and pour out in floods, carrying me with her into her world and her mother’s world. The way I feel now, reading this book when Grandma is gone, feeling her presence, flooded with her memory, this is how Grandma felt when she used to read it, feeling the presence of her own mother long gone, recollecting her own mother’s memories.

We both wanted to keep alive another person’s life. We both wanted that life, those experiences, those memories, to live into another generation, not to be lost. I know, sadly, that the whiff of Grandma’s mother’s life that I touch over the century between us is only a fragment, that so much of that memory was carried away in Grandma’s dreams, lost to me. I know that my own fragile ark of Grandma’s life is carried largely beyond words, inside my own dreams of her, impossible to completely pass along to someone who didn’t know her as I did. But I want to say, “Here’s some of it. Don’t lose these bits. Keep them safe.” I want to seal a slice of time in an envelope as Francie did. I want Grandma, age 18 and completely young and alive, to step out of that envelope and speak again.

A few years ago, when Daddy was cleaning the attic, he brought down a garbage bag of trash to take out and dump. Curiosity led me to paw quickly through the bag before tossing it. Almost lost, almost destroyed — Grandma’s diary, which neither of us had ever seen, written when she was a teenager. That night, reading those faded pencil scrawls, I touched Grandma alive, and went with her back into memories of her girlhood, memories that made me see and hear and smell the days long gone. It was like opening Francie’s sealed envelope.

This is what it’s like every time I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”