Wednesday, July 09, 2014

My Mother and Betty Smith and Elia Kazan.

"You can skip this one if you like, that's fine."  So Mrs. Buce, the keeper of the Netflix queue.  The topic was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from 1945, Elia Kazan's first, which she remembers* as a favorite of her childhood.--"No, actually, I'd like to.  It was a favorite of my mother's.  I remember it myself."

Turns out my memory is a bit sideways here.  On careful examination, I don't think I ever did see the movie before, although I'm reasonably sure I read the book--the Betty Smith novel which I see was the a Book-of-the-Month club selection in 1943.  I doubt very much that I actually read it at the age of seven but those charmers did tend to hang around, and even though I wasn't that great a reader in those days, I can imagine I did idle away a few hours with it around, say maybe 1948.

Whatever.  It certainly is a watchable movie, put together, it seems, by a guy who knew from the beginning how to make things happen on the screen.  I suppose it's excusable to indulge in a furtive smirk at the sheer gauzy niceness of it all:  life on the ragged edge of nothing in a world where nobody--not even papa--is anything other than decent and honorable and brimming with good will.

I suppose this is the way my mother liked to remember her own childhood, but here we're getting to the interesting part: my mother's own childhood must have been, in its own way, pretty tough.   In the movie, Dorothy McGuire had only two, then three, children.  My own mother was one of eight, then seven.  McGuire's husband is a feckless charmer, fatally given to "the thrink," as they call it in one of the few perfunctory attempts at an Irish accent.   He dies, leaving mama to pick up after him.  My mother's father also died early.  I never heard a hint that he was subject to any comparable vice; indeed, I never heard anybody say an unkind word about him at all.

Yet it must be that he left a merry old mess behind him.   And however kind the memories, the word "feckless" might not be too far off the mark. I know he left Sweden to go to sea, and later fetched up in the United States--I suppose he just overstayed his liberty.  I know he farmed for a while--if you can call it farming, in Southern New Hampshire where the principal crop, then and now, would be rocks.  I have no reason to suppose he had any experience on the farm--or knack for it either, seeing as how he carted his family out there in 1901 and back in 1907 (my mother would have been born there, in 1902).     Beyond that, I don't know much.  I had had it in my mind that he worked as a milkman--a good job, I suppose, for a likable guy who knows how to get  up early.  Lately I was told that there's a death certificate saying that he was working in a tea room. Say again, a tea room?  The milkman who came and stayed?

Anyway, here we have the widow left with eight, then seven, children (the youngest died, so my memory tells me, the same week).  If I have my dates right, the oldest would have been 16.   My grandmother succeeded in holding this family together--a fact which astonishes me more with each passing year.

And here is where life and movie begin to merge in a puzzling way,  My mother never made the slightest effort to conceal her humble provenance.   She liked to tell the story, a least in outline as I  have done year.  Yet it can't have been that smooth.  It can't have been, like the movie,  a life in which the rough places are all made so smooth.   Was she kidding herself?   I doubt it not her style.  Was she concealing stuff?  Possibly--she did keep back a couple of gnarly stories until I was an adult, but not enough to break this thread.  My best guess is that she just preferred the gauzier version and let it be.

*Not to put too fine a point on it, if I was too young for the first showing, I can't imagine how she could have seen it at all. --"Are you holding back on me about this age thing?" I asked. You think after 35 years I'd know. --"No, no, I must have seen it in some kind of rerun."  Rerun?  Did we have reruns in those days?

Fun Fact:  I see a scriptwriting credit goes to Tess Slesinger, whose novel The Unposessed, about Greenwich Village, is witty and acerb, not gauzy in the least.

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