a tree grows in brooklyn quotes by ironic sans

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Quotes that Made Me Cry

“If you could expect nothing better, why did you come to America?”

“For the sake of my children whom I wished to be born in a free land.”

“Your children haven’t done so well, Mother.” Katie smiled bitterly.

“There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here—hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest. He may rise—but only to his father’s state. In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.”

“That is not so. Your children have not done better than you.”

Mary Rommely sighed. “That may be my fault. I knew not how to teach my daughters because I have nothing behind me excepting that for hundreds of years my family has worked in the land of some overlord. I did not send my first child to the school. I was ignorant and did not know at first that the children of folk like us were allowed the free education of this land. Thus, Sissy had no chance to do better than me. But the other three… you went to school.”

“I finished the sixth grade, if that is what is called education.”

“And your Yohnny” —she could not pronounce ‘j’ — “did too. Don’t you see?” Excitement came into her voice. “Already, it is starting—the getting better.” She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms. “This child was born of parents who can read and write,” she said simply. “To me, this is a great wonder.”

“Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I will work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.”

“I will read,” promised Katie. “What is a good book?”

“There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book. I have heard tell that all the wonder of life is in that book; all that man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. I have never spoken to anyone who has seen this great thing. but I heard the lord of our land back in Austria say that some of the pages sing themselves like songs.”

“Is Shakespeare a book in the German?”

“It is of the English. I so heard our lord of the land tell his young son who was setting out for the great university of Heidelberg long ago.”

“And what is the other great book?”

“It is the Bible that the Protestants read.”

“We have our own Bible, the Catholic one.”

Mary looked around the room furtively. “It is not fitting for a good Catholic to say so but I believe that the Protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it. A much-loved Protestant friend once read some of her Bible to me and I found it as I have said.”

“That is the book, then, and the book of Shakespeare. And every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing what is great—knowing that these tenements of Willamsburg are not the whole world.”

“The Protestant Bible and Shakespeare.”

“And you must tell the child the legends I told you—as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and the evil eye which a hex put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son.” She crossed herself.

“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.”

Mary spoke sharply. “You do not know whether there are not ghosts on earth or angels in heaven.”

“I know there is no Santa Claus.”

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable things which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

“The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed.”

“That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

“If that is so,” commented Katie bitterly, “then we Rommelys are rich.”

“We are poor, yes. We suffer. Our way is very hard. But we are better people because we know of the things I have told you. I could not read but I told you of all the things I have learned from living. You must tell them to your child and add on to them such things as you will learn as you grow older.”

“What more must I teach the child?”

“The child must be made to believe in heaven. A heaven, not filled with flying angels with God on a throne”—Mary articulated her thoughts painfully, half in German and half in English—”but a heaven which means a wondrous place that people may dream of—as of a place where desires come true. This is probably a different kind of a religion. I do not know.”

“And then, what else?”

“Before you die, you must own a bit of land—maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit.”

Katie laughed. “Me own land? A house? We’re lucky if we can pay our rent.”

“Even so.” Mary spoke firmly. “Yet you must do that. For thousands of years, our people have been peasants working the land of others. This was in the old country. Here we do better working with our hands in the factory. There is a part of each day that does not belong to the master but which the worker owns himself. That is good. But to own a bit of land is better; a bit of land that we may hand down to our children… that will raise us up on the face of the earth.”

“How can we ever get to own land? Johnny and I work and we earn so little. Sometimes after the rent is paid and the insurance there is hardly enough left for food. How could we save for land?”

“You must take an empty condensed-milk can and wash it well.”

“A can… ?”

“Cut off the top neatly. Cut strips down the can the length of your finger. Let each strip be so wide.” She measured two inches with her fingers. “Bend the strips backward. The can will look like a clumsy star. Make a slit in the top. Then nail the can, a nail in each strip, in the darkest corner of your closet. Each day put five cents in it. In three years there will be a small fortune, fifty dollars. Take the money and buy a lot in the country. Get the papers that say it is yours. Thus you become a landowner. Once one has owned land, there is no going back to being a serf.”

“Five cents a day. It seems a little. But where is it to come from? We haven’t enough now and with another mouth to feed…”

“You must do this: you go to the green grocer’s and ask how much are carrots the bunch. The man will say three cents. Then look about until you see another bunch, not so fresh, not so large. You will say: may I have this damaged bunch for two cents? Speak strongly and it shall be yours for two cents. That is a saved penny that you put in the star bank. It is winter, say. You bought a bushel of coal for twenty-five cents. It is cold. You would start a fire in the stove. But wait! Wait one hour more. Suffer the cold for an hour. Put a shawl around you. Say, I am cold because I am saving to buy land. That hour will save you three cents’ worth of coal. That is three cents for the bank. When you are alone at night, do not light the lamp. Sit in the darkness and dream a while. Reckon out how much oil you saved and put its value in pennies in the bank. The money will grow. Someday there will be fifty dollars and somewhere on this long island is a piece of land that you may buy for that money.”

“Will it work, this saving?”

“I swear by the Holy Mother it will.”

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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  1. I don’t see that anyone has commented. I found the citation of great interest. And good sense. To dream is good. To sacrifice in order to accomplish what was dreamed of is very good.

    1. Hey Ray! Good to have you back.

      It’s an incredible passage. You nailed it – of vision and action. It’s one of the better ideal-realism / neoplatonic passages I’ve come across from someone like Betty Smith. It’s sooo good.

      Have you read the book?

    2. It’s been some years since I had time to read ANY book. Nowadays it’s e-mail, with my in-box holding at least 200 most days and me having to decide which to move to trash and which to read and handle. I appreciate the internet. It enables us to keep in touch with others we can’t go to visit in person. But I need more time to work on other things which are at least as important. Like books I edit or publish or write.

What's on your mind?

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