A Tree Grows in Gainesville

I used to love flying because it was an excuse to read a book for several hours with zero distractions. Then I had children, and any flight has been reduced to providing a constant stream of snacks and shushing small people. Needless to say, I was SO looking forward to my flight to Texas for Hope Spoken. When it came to prepping for the trip, I dedicated the most mental energy to deciding what books to take.

One of the categories in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 2016 reading challenge is “a book you’ve already read at least once,” and I knew I wanted to reread Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I first read that book as a college sophomore in 2007. That was almost a full decade ago, and my recollection of the plot has faded. What I do remember is my reaction when I finished the book. I flipped it closed, grabbed my journal, and scribbled, “Some books make me want to be a writer. Other books help me believe that I will be a writer one day.”

On the first leg of my flight, I cracked open that same copy. “Cracked open” is probably the wrong phrase, as this is not a shiny new hardcover. This is a soft, well-worn paperback that was schlepped across UF’s campus. It really flopped open.

Within the first few paragraphs, Francie says that she likes to memorize poems because they remind her of different seasons of her life and the corresponding feelings. It turns out that it’s not even necessary to commit the text to memory: just let the pages flop open on an airplane tray table.

My maiden name is written along the edge of the book in pencil: “L. Jameson.” Within the book’s pages are a slew of underlined passages. In the margins are small smiley faces and a record of the random impressions I had as the story unfolded.

I feel light years away from that 20 year-old girl, and I’m wondering about her. What was it about any given passage that made her pull out her pen? Did she love the imagery or the characterization? Did she love the glimpse into history or did she see herself in the pages? I can’t remember.

I am reading about the piano in Francie’s living room and the organ grinder wandering down her Brooklyn street, and I am remembering the purple desk in that 2007 bedroom and the Jansport backpack that girl carried across campus. And I am here: parenting my two boys in Michigan, grinding coffee beans in the morning, watching Downton Abbey on Sunday nights.

At Hope Spoken, Holley Gerth spoke of her grandmother, who dropped out of school to get married at fifteen. She later earned bachelor and master degrees and went on to teach the two high school grades she had been unable to complete herself. Holley said to remember that if we have missing years in our stories or time we want to get back, God redeems.

I am flipping through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I am wondering about who I was in 2007 and if I could have foreseen who I am today. Within a few months of reading that book, I ended a relationship that was far past its prime, and I asked God to write a better story. I led a Bible study and asked God if I might have something to say. I read Blue Like Jazz and began to give God my questions. Within a year, I had major back surgery and read The Irresistible Revolution while confined to the couch, and I learned what the gospel is all about. I got back to school in the fall and promptly changed my major. I guess 2007 was the year Jesus got a hold of my heart.

And to think! I might have forgotten all that if not for revisiting this book, letting Francie and 2007 me spill forth from the pages. From here on out, I won’t wait so long before revisiting an old favorite.

2 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Gainesville

  1. love this glimpse into your story — made me tear up a little! 🙂 my mom always referenced “a tree grows in brooklyn” and the idea of pouring a little coffee down the drain – because we can? i can’t remember that clearly from the book, but i do remember really liking it. maybe i’ll try to re-read it soon again, too. so glad for the story God is writing in and through you. seriously, any time i get to read one of your posts, it brightens my day!

  2. Thank you, Laura!! And YES to pouring coffee down the drain. 🙂 Katie (the mom) let’s Francie pour herself a cup of coffee but never drink it, because she says that everyone deserves a little indulgence now and then.

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