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June 12, 2008

Growing Up Tales…

Patricia A. Kelly

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Katie Nolan was 17 when she married Johnny, a charming, musical foil to her tiny, brisk, dark-curled practicality. She gave birth to her daughter Francie in 1901 in a tenement while Johnny, sent off by the women, spent 24 hours drunk, and lost their job cleaning a school at night.


As she lay in bed exhausted after the birth, it came to her that she would be taking care of two people for the rest of her life, a baby and a man. It was her growing up moment.


My moment came when I was 19. I found myself strapped to a table, screaming through a tight black mask filled with vomit, and feeling sure that a hot knife was cutting me in half. I was giving birth to my first child; and, needless to say, things weren’t going well. Cavalier about my life and death until that moment, I suddenly prayed, “Please God, let me live. My husband could never raise a baby by himself.”


I could relate to Katie.


The book, written through the eyes of that daughter, was a delight to read. Raised by a romantic, loving father and the tough little mother who loved her brother better, and told her daughter, “I know you’ll find a way to succeed, but I have to push your brother.” Francie did make a success of things. She even learned to cope with the disparity that she found so painful.


Katie, I think, was the strong heroine, one who essentially told her children to “Suck it up. The life you live is the life you live. You’ll have to work hard to make it more.” She did not always seem nurturing, but helping her children live through a difficult reality and reach for more was an incredible accomplishment on her part.


The best books come with universal truths.


Written 60 years later, Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers is another example. Abigail Adams was left alone for years to run both the family farm and a home in Boston while her husband John worked gratis to help emancipate America from British rule. She told him occasionally that he must come home for a little while to earn some money. She supported the cause and didn’t mind running everything, but knew that they might lose it all without a little income now and then.


She asked him, in perhaps the most famous of her letters, to “Remember the ladies…do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands….” He laughed, and asserted that the real power was already in the hands of the underlings, the women. As Ms. Roberts says, “Very funny. It would be decades before women could control their own property.” Yet they, not only Abigail, contributed mightily to the Revolution and to the development of freedom of America.


Kitchen table wisdom and kitchen table heroism are a legacy of which we must be proud as a society.


At about the time I was on my growing-up table, a close male friend was experiencing his own growing up moment. He was in Cambodia preparing to use his Buckeystown farm boy shooting skills to assassinate a Viet Cong commander. Listening to his radio, he heard President Nixon declaring for the world that the United States was absolutely not operating in Cambodia. But that's another story.


I highly recommend both books, and salute real grownups everywhere.





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