Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Tree Still Grows

When I was a very little girl, the big Bestseller (capitalized in my mind even then) was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My mother in her never-ending hope of Upliftment(of the material kind) was a social director at a hotel where its author, Betty Smith, was a guest, and telling her that her daughter, then maybe around eight, wanted to be a writer, succeeded in getting her to write to me. I remember the way the letter looked, all carefully typed and single spaced and filled with kind advice, none of which I remember now, but all of which I hope I took. I treasured the letter for years but so many years have passed I haven’t a clue where along the line I lost it, but then I lost wedding pictures, too, not to mention the people in them. But I do remember almost as clearly as if I were reading it now that her main counsel was to look at everything, and take it all in, and when I wrote about what I saw and felt, to write from the heart. I think she told me to love people, but I might just be being fanciful, because it was so generous of her to bother writing me, and single spaced at that, and hers was—this I do remember for sure—a wonderful book.
But I had never been to Brooklyn until yesterday. It was, almost as though prescribed, a remarkable day. The one before it had been too hot, and today is too cold, but like Goldilocks I was ushered into a day that was JUST RIGHT. There was a soft wind blowing off the waters which I had never really noted were nearby in spite of this being an island—at no time during my life have I had a sense of geography—even when traveling the world for the Journal I never knew exactly where I was, but the kindness of strangers, etc. and a lucky gift for language got me where I was going. Yesterday though I had a wonderful guide, the husband of a new friend who has a palpable love for his borough, and gave me details even The Museum of New York would be hard-put to match(”There the house of Diamond Jim Brady, who was mayor, and there his mistress, a dance hall girl.”) Children did not play in the streets, but there were acres of green they might be hiding behind, and parks and cemeteries to take care of all the city’s no-longer-living history, including someplace to bury Boss Tweed, and Leonard Bernstein, returned there by his own request.
My hosts live in a red-doored brownstone, with polished wooden floors, a real house with nooks and a stained-glass skylight, a backyard where Francie Nolan might be playing even now. There is that neighborhood feel to it, that somehow you just can’t get in Manhattan where I once lived in a high rise and never met anyone else in the building until I had my hair cut at Dusty Fleming’s in LA and the woman getting shampooed in the next chair was from my New York floor. Yesterday being Memorial Day Brooklyn was quiet, the storefronts closed, Weight Watchers along with those selling what would ruin their determination to slim down. But we found a charming almost sidewalk cafĂ©—that is to say, it had sides that opened and there were two tables on the sidewalk, so Mimi, who was present, could come along as though we were actually in Europe, Greece in this case, with a menu that had a water-color rendering of – was it Santorini?—someplace magical in Greece, and we drank retsina and had almost Spanikopitas(it was spinach pie) and something cheesily pleasing in dough. So it was all breezily Mediterranean, and a fine memorial to the diversity that still makes up New York, especially if you cross the bridge.
I wish I knew where that letter was.