At the beginning of the Minneapolis summer (qualified as “Minneapolis” summer because this year it began about three weeks ago), I decided to re-read my favorite and most influential books from childhood. The ones I hadn’t already re-read more than once, that is, including:
1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. 2. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. 3. Swiss Family Robinson, by Johan Wyss. 4. The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. 5. Bambi, by Felix Salten. 6. So Big, by Edna Ferber. 7. How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn.
My sister Oatie was the inspiration behind this decision. She reads an enormous amount and she has excellent taste, and a year or so ago she told me that she re-reads A Tree Grows in Brooklyn every year.
I thought about that for a while, this re-reading of our favorite childhood book. I pictured Oatie lying on the couch in her living room in New Hampshire, absorbed in the story of Francie’s life. She must know it perfectly by now. I admired that.
I didn’t know how she had the guts to do it, though, because every time I have thought about that book, all these years between elementary school and now, my heart has felt cracked.
Doesn’t something bad happen to Francie in that book? Something really bad? That was all I could come up with, for the way the words a tree grows in Brooklyn made my heart hurt.
But if my sister Oatie, who has a heart the texture of a melted marshmallow, could read it every single summer, then so could I. I went to Magers & Quinn and bought a new copy, the one you see relegated to the bottom of this page because, per usual, I couldn’t figure out how to make it smaller.
It took me a while to get through the book, partly because I’m a slowish reader and partly because I kept turning down the corners of pages so that I could go back and copy out the beautiful passages that made me keep stopping. This is something I do with all the books I most love, and then I never do go back and copy out the passages, and that is why my bookshelves are filled with books that have turned-down pages. Good intentions, good intentions.
I copied out this, though, in Francie’s voice.
The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day.
What had Granma Mary Rommely said? “To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”
I read and re-read those passages. To look at everything, and everyone, as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time.
That little guy to the left, the one in my arms, is my baby nephew. He’s a few weeks old now, just easing himself into this world. Sometimes he catches his breath the way that newborns do, as if he can’t quite remember how to take that next one.
He will stare at a scrap of white paper with black lines on it for minutes and minutes at a time, utterly absorbed. Everything about the world is new to him.
For one moment in time, my nephew was the youngest person in the entire world.
I think about that sometimes, when I walk the sidewalks of the city. I look at the people scurrying or sauntering or drooping by, and I think: Everyone was once someone’s baby.
To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time.
Let me look upon you, elderly woman carefully holding your one-pound weights and stepping up one step and down again, up one step and down again, there in the stairwell of the Y, as if this is the last time I will ever see you. Let me smile at you as I duck around the corner on my way to the weight room.
Handsome man that I always hope to see when I walk into the weight room, if this is the last time I will ever see you, let our eyes meet and let me admire you even more than usual today.
Man at the front desk who swipes my card, let me look at you as I leave, and ask about that book you’re reading, and wish you a good day in this beautiful weather, because what if this is the last time I will behold you?
Walking Man, as my daughters and I call you, oh Walking Man whom I have watched walking the streets of this city for 20 and more years, only in the last three years slowing down, let me imprint on my eyes the sight of you sitting now, on that bench on Hennepin, you with your hands folded on your lap and your feet in their brown shoes planted on the sidewalk and your slow nod when our eyes meet as I pass, for this may be the last time.
Beautiful girl with the tumble of dark curls spilling down your back, those green eyes of yours, let me hug you before you go upstairs to pack up your clothes, because. . . no. No, no, no. Never. For you, green-eyed girl, I will look upon you as though I were seeing you for the first time.
This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day.
It took me a while, but I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I used to be afraid to re-read the books I loved so much when I was a kid, because I figured that through my grownup eyes, I would think they were terribly written.
They’re not. They’re beautiful. They’re in my bones. It was partly through those books that I learned how to see the world. How to translate what I saw and how I felt into words on a page.
The terrible thing that I was sure had happened to Francie, the thing that I couldn’t remember but was so afraid of re-reading? Nothing specific. Nothing that doesn’t happen to everyone: heartbreak, courage, sorrow, love, loss.