The Brooklyn Trees of Our Lives
Note: This was originally published on my old blog, and garnered nearly 900 views on a blog that averaged maybe 70. The sentiment in it is still applicable nearly two years later, so I have updated it and republished it here.
Hiraeth (Welsh) (n.): a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for lost places in your past.
When I was in seventh grade, I read Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
It was one of the first "grown-up" books I read. Though it wasn't my first classic and didn't have any particular impact on my life, something about it has stuck with me all these years.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945 film.
If you asked me to describe the plot in detail and name all the characters, I probably couldn't. I've forgotten quite a bit in the ten years since I read it. But the book struck an emotional chord in me that still vibrates all these years later, and if you asked me to list my top favorite books, it would be among them.
I think the main reason A Tree Grows in Brooklyn resonated with me so much was because it is a bildungsroman that I read at a time in my life when I went through a "coming-of-age" myself. Shortly before the start of seventh grade, my granddad on my mom's side passed away from lung cancer. It was the first major death I experienced and put a lot of perspective on my life for the first time. Mortality is real. Life changes dramatically and suddenly. That, on top of the fact that I was starting a new school (at that time in my hometown junior high ran from 7th-9th grade), made me realize that my childhood was really, truly fading away.
So it is only natural that, as I'm on the other side of another major family change, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn returns to the forefront of my mind.
Last fall, a little over a year ago now, and shortly after Thanksgiving, my grandma passed away. She had been moved to an assisted living place in Albuquerque after leaving her beloved home in Raton nearly a year before.
The house is well over a hundred years old and had been in my family since around the '50s. Every summer since I was a baby, we went there to celebrate the Fourth of July. One of my mom's sisters lives in Wichita, a couple hours away from us, and my summer memories consist of driving to New Mexico with our two families, a roughly ten-hour road trip through desolate western Kansas and eastern Colorado. Stopping in Ulysses, Kansas to eat lunch at Sonic. Cheering as we crossed the border into Colorado, knowing that we were getting closer and that mountains would grow along the horizon soon. My favorite stop was Kim, Colorado (population: 69) at an outpost where the owners recognized us from so many summers traveling that same route. We'd load up on sugar for the final push to Raton. I always got sour Skittles and Sunny-D.
I think about the owners of that outpost occasionally, wondering if they'll ever think about us, why we haven't been there in so long.
My immediate family had a simple, one-story house in Raton (the "Little House," we called it), only a couple blocks away from my grandparents'. We used to spend a good three weeks there in the summer--and often return for a second trip in August, right before school started.
That house was sold almost two years ago now. It was in my life longer than my family's house in Kansas has been.
The "Little House." Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
My grandparents' house. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
My mom's other brothers and sisters (she's one of seven) would come to Raton for the Fourth as well. I have a lot of cousins on her side.
The whole family. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt
Those were my summers: the cool, crisp air of north-eastern New Mexico; afternoon rain showers that my brother, cousins, and I would watch on the front porch while eating ice cream; dark clouds over Johnson Mesa that soon faded to a saturated blue sky; skidding down mountains on hikes while avoiding cacti; my granddad's laugh; and the flowers Grandma taught me to press. Granddad taught me how to laugh at the world, and Grandma taught me how to find beauty in it.
Granddad and me making ice cream. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
Grandma and me picking out roses. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
Granddad proposed to Grandma in the front room of their house, and he died in the back room. My family's Little House was my second--and, often in my mind, my truest--home. It was the place where we used to catch horned lizards in the backyard and befriended a neighbor whom we dubbed "Chile Pepper Kid" because he once ate chile pepper flakes without flinching.
Last winter, I walked out of my grandparents' house--the house where us kids used to play hide-and-seek on rainy days, and in front of which we'd spread blankets in the grass, eating lunch and sucking on popsicles--after my grandmother's funeral, knowing that it would be the last time I'd see it. The last time I'd see it with my family inside and most of the furniture and family photos and trinkets collected over the decades in their proper places.
More likely, the last time I'd see it ever again.
I had to step out on the porch for a few minutes due to an asthma attack from my uncle's dogs, and I remember standing out there in the freezing December air, watching a few cars pass on the wide residential street and catching a glimpse of the illuminated "Raton" sign on top of Goat Hill to the left and through the tree off the side of the porch we'd jump off of as kids. There was a tone of finality. Not the end of the chapter, but the end of the book. Part of it killed me, but another part of me had made peace with it long ago, all the way back when Granddad died and our trips to New Mexico changed, much as we tried to pretend like they didn't.
The Dream Team. Image credit: Alexandra Wendt.
That's my childhood. It was my haven during the hellish years of elementary school. In some ways, it's more of a home than my home in Kansas is. I can't even imagine what my mom and her siblings went through, as I myself feel like the last piece of my childhood was ripped away, leaving me bobbing along, grasping for some certainty, some constant. A buoy in a rocky ocean.
At the end of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie makes her goodbyes to the places that are familiar to her, the places where she grew up. She visits the library one last time and promises never to return to her old neighborhood.
"If in the years to be she were to come back, her new eyes might make everything seem different from the way she saw it now. The way it was now was the way she wanted to remember it" (487).
Our trips to New Mexico weren't the same after Granddad died. Now I'm not sure I could bear going back to Raton and driving by my grandparents' house and my family's Little House. It would feel like strangers stepped into my life, parasites that twisted what was once familiar into something uncanny.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn closes with Francie looking at a young girl taking her former place, reading on the fire escape. These are Francie's last remarks:
"But the tree hadn't died...it hadn't died.... It lived! And nothing could destroy it. Once more she looked at Florry Wendy reading on the fire escape. 'Good-bye, Francie,' she whispered. She closed the window" (493).
Much like Murphy's Law of "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong," I've come to learn that change often comes in large batches at a time. After all, I'm writing this post while sitting in a café in Siena, Italy--still true, two years after I originally posted this!--and on the verge of embarking on the next step in my life. I have no idea where I'll be next year.
Even my neighborhood back home is changing. It sits near the edge of town and for fifteen years felt like we lived near the countryside. Now houses breed like rabbits there. The thicket of trees behind my house--my "Terabithia," as a kid--were all chopped down to make way for one.
Change is inevitable. It will come, and all you can do is embrace it or let it crush you. Change isn't always easy, but what helps is looking at the constants--the Brooklyn Trees--in our lives. Even if the "tree" is nothing more than a memory, it's still there, always inside you, reminding you of who you once were and encouraging you to keep growing.