A Grandmother’s Legacy by Lisa Martorelli Mancuso
She barely finished grade school, but my grandmother, or Nana, as she was known to all of her grandchildren and great-children, was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.
Even though her schooling was limited, learning was everything to Nana. And in her case, what she wasn’t able to learn in the classroom, she continued to learn from books. As the oldest child, and like so many of her generation, she had to quit school prematurely to help support her family. But that never stopped her from reading.
I grew up listening to stories she told about the books she loved, in particular, Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Before I was old enough to read those books, I knew all about Jo Marsh and Francie Nolan. She identified with both of those characters and talked about them as if they were real. That’s not too surprising considering the parallels of her life and theirs.
My Nana’s name was Josephine, but most people called her Jo. She wanted to be a writer, she often said, and was so proud when later in life she became editor of her apartment complex’s newsletter. She loved that she shared her name with Louisa May Alcott’s feisty character whose dream of being an author ultimately came true.
I think, though, the character of Francie Nolan was closest to my grandmother. Nana was the eldest of 13 and the daughter of hard-working Italian immigrants; although Francie had just two younger brothers and was of Irish descent, they had much in common. Both families were very poor and lived in Brooklyn. Like Nana, Francie had to leave school to help her family, but just like my grandmother, that didn’t diminish her passion for books. (They also both had a large, extended family with some very colorful characters, but that’s a whole other story!)
Growing up, I loved listening to Nana talk about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. We would sit around the kitchen table (as my mother said she and her sister did when they were younger) and she would fondly retell parts of Betty Smith’s tale of Francie Nolan and her family. “The librarian never believed Francie read all of the books she borrowed from the library,” Nana would say, explaining how the little girl would love to sit on her fire escape while reading those books. Or, when she was drinking coffee, my grandmother would often point out how, in the Nolan household, it was the one ‘luxury’ they were allowed to waste.
Being so poor herself, Nana clearly empathized with Francie’s feeling of delight when she was allowed to pour the unused coffee down the kitchen drain. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop picturing an upside-down, empty coffee can nailed to the bottom of a floor when I open a closet door. After all, that was where Francie and her family dropped whatever pennies they could spare in their pitiful efforts to save money.
I don’t recall when I finally read the book for the first time, but I know I immediately fell in love with the story. Francie was everything my grandmother told me she would be. I’m sure when I was younger I didn’t understand that my grandmother’s deep connection to the book had a lot to do with that poverty, but I had no problem recognizing Francie and my grandmother’s shared love of books.
Every few years, I would re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the older I got the more real the character of Francie became because of my grandmother. I loved talking to her about the novel; no matter how many years went by, she was as passionate as ever about it. Nana passed away about six years ago at the age of 98. Even at that advanced age, she never lost her love of reading. We found a recent paperback of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in her apartment after she passed away; my cousin had bought it for her. With her permission, I took it home. It’s displayed on my hall table, beckoning to me to once again open its pages and start reading.
When she’s not reading and talking about books, or aimlessly wandering around her neighborhood bookstore, Lisa Martorelli Mancuso supports her reading habit by working at a nine-to-five job as a PR/blog writer. She lives on Long Island with her husband in their somewhat empty nest. She is working on a children’s book and plans on starting her own blog very soon.
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