Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Everyone Needs a Little Bit of Johnny Nolan in Their Life

It's no surprise that every 12-year-old girl who has “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith placed upon their desk by their English teacher, falls in love with Francie Nolan, including me. Though few of us live in a world that resembles the immigrant community of Brooklyn in 1912, almost all of us, especially as kids, can relate to Francie, sitting on her fire escape, under a canopy of tree, dreaming big dreams about making our way in the world. Francie has big dreams, like her father Johnny, but is taught how to practically make her way in the world by her mother Katie. Like all of us, Francie has to learn how to navigate her path in life between having fantastic dreams and seeing the magic in life tempered by the reality of living on a day-to-day basis.

Johnny Nolan attempts to serenade his way through life in his immaculately combed hair and dapper tuxedo (the only set of clothing he owns), telling tales, singing Irish ballads and creating fantasies that make others feel good. He also dreams of becoming famous: “The satin lapels of the tuxedo were threadbare but who would look at that when the suit fitted him so beautifully and the crease in his trousers was so perfect?” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith, Harper & Brothers, 1943, Pages 8, 26. He projects an ideal, happy life, something that's far from true: “Johnny looked like a handsome, devil-may-care Irish boy instead of the husband of a scrub-woman and the father of two children who were always hungry.” Page 26. Johnny was a singing waiter, and was the only man in his union who didn't have a steady job during the week to supplement the waiter jobs he would pick up on the weekends. The one time Francie visited her father at Union Headquarters, Johnny introduced his daughter: “'My daughter,' he said proudly. The waiters looked at the thin child in her ragged dress and then exchanged glances.” Page 22. Johnny is also a drunk. At the mere thought facing any of life's hardships, he drowns himself in alcohol. Johnny himself says: “I drink because I got responsibilities that I can't handle.” Page 24.

Despite all of this, Francie only sees the Johnny that people loved, and she adores him. Though Johnny teaches Francie how to use her imagination and set amazing goals, he does very little to provide his family with food and shelter. All of the hard work of actually providing for Francie and her little brother Neeley, falls on Katie: “Everyone said it was a pity that a slight pretty woman like Katie Nolan had to go out scrubbing floors. But what else could she do considering the husband she had, they said. They admitted that, no matter which way you looked at it, Johnny Nolan was a handsome lovable fellow far superior to any man on the block. But he was a drunk.” Pages 6-7. Though protective of her family's reputation, Katie will go to great lengths to save a penny, and she doesn't care who she offends (which is much different than the jovial Johnny). Katie makes a home for her family, despite their abject poverty. She is creative in making meals all week long from a few loves of stale bread and gives Francie detailed shopping instructions so the family frequently gets good deals and sometimes special treats from the scraps of delicacies sold to the rich. Page 31. She makes sure her children read one page from the Bible and one from Shakespeare every night, hoping it will make them more educated so they'll have a better life. Page 37. Katie religiously saves money in a can so that someday her family might be able to have a house, something that seems impossible. Pages 65-6. She watches every penny, works like a dog and tirelessly frets about her family's well being, so why does Francie and so many others, like Johnny better? “Francie knew that mama was a good woman.... then why did she like her father better than her mother?” Page 24.

Katie too starts out totally beguiled by Johnny's charms: “Katie had married Johnny because she liked the way he sang and danced and dressed.” Page 54. After one dance with the debonair Johnny, Katie is awestruck, and the dream of Johnny suspends any of her good judgment: “She asks nothing more than to look at him and to listen to him for the rest of her life. Then and there, she decided that those privileges were worth slaving for all her life.” Page 41. But Johnny soon begins to unravel after the birth of Francie and the pressures of providing for a family. When Katie is in labor for Francie, Johnny can't handle it, gets drunk, isn't there after the baby is born and then gets fired for not showing up to work. Pages 57-8. When he finally does return, a weak Katie has to comfort him. Page 58. Katie soon grows tired of Johnny's weakness and her heart becomes hard: “Gradually...Katie lost all of her tenderness.... She became capable, hard and far-seeing. She loved Johnny dearly but all the old wild worship faded away.” Page 71. “Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it. Katie wouldn't accept it.... She exchanged her tenderness for capability. She gave up her dreams and took over hard realities in their place. Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer.” Pages 71-2. Johnny eventually dies of pneumonia when Katie tells him she's pregnant with their third child and he disappears onto the cold streets trying to force himself to find a good job and live up to his responsiblities. Page 207.

Why does everyone, including Francie, like Johnny better than Katie? It doesn't seem fair. Francie is able to worship her father only because Katie takes up the slack. Francie would be resentful of her father if she didn't have her mother working so hard to put at least a little food in her belly and make her a home that is somewhat comfortable. Others who don't rely on Johnny for anything can enjoy his stories and songs as a brief distraction from their own hard lives. Katie, on the other hand, when she errs on the side of being too hard, she becomes off- putting and it's difficult for Francie to see how much her mother loves her. Katie becomes obsessed with helping the family get by and she neglects the emotional needs of her kids. When one of Francie's articles are published for the first time, Katie is too busy with housework to stop and look at the newspaper. She reasons that surely Francie will have more articles published and then Katie will have more time to read them. Pages 174-5. Though, there are moments when Katie finally seems to realize that she needs to fill her kid's heart's not just their bellies.

Now that I have little “Francie Nolans” of my own, this is a lesson that resonates with me. I may spent all day making sure that my kids are fed, clothed and have their homework done, but they miss out if I don't take the time to really connect with them emotionally. That's what they respond to, and that's what they remember. They remember that we giggled together at bedtime, or that I really listened to their hopes and dreams, not that the house was immaculately clean. One day, my oldest asked me: “Mom, what's it like being a grown up.” I should have stopped and listened to such a poignant and important question, but instead, amidst me furiously making dinner for a hungry family and my toddler crying because he hit his head, I snapped: “Not now....” Later, as I was tucking her into bed, I told her I was sorry and tried to answer her question, but her interest had passed. It made me think, we all need a little bit of Johnny Nolan in us. We must all find the right balance between living like Katie, but leaving room to have a little bit of Johnny Nolan in our lives.