At work, my mother and father split a deli egg sandwich for lunch to save money. Dad wore two sweaters at the underheated store. My sisters and I wore off-brand sneakers from Fayva Shoes. But when I read about Lenski’s Florida “crackers,” I thought they were the hardscrabble ones, deserving all my sympathy. The girls in Lenski’s story wore dresses made from flour sacks. This was a fate that could be avoided with education, I reasoned.
Before middle school, I found Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” the quintessential New York immigrant novel, which underscored the power of education. When the young mother, Katie Nolan, who finished only the sixth grade herself, gives birth to her daughter, Katie’s immigrant mother, Mary, tells her that though she was a “greenhorn” who hadn’t known enough to help her own children, Katie could raise her children differently. Mary instructs her daughter to nail down an empty milk can in the dark corner of a closet to save coins in and to read to her children daily from good books so that they may read and write.
On payday, Katie, a janitor, throws coins into a tin, and each night she reads a page of Shakespeare and the Bible to her daughter, Francie, and, later, her son, Neely. Despite their hardships, Katie’s children begin to earn good money, surpassing the wage rate of the less educated adults.
Our first year in America, Uncle John took us to the I.B.M. Christmas party at a company recreation facility. No doubt the party was intended for immediate family members, but somehow Uncle John had included my sisters and me along with his daughters. In the large party room, buffet tables were laden with pans of prime rib and noodle casseroles. The number of cakes, cookies and colorful candies took my breath away. Uncle John told us to eat as much as we liked. Near the end of the party, Santa appeared and gave all the children presents. Strangely enough, I can’t recall what I received, but I remember the colored foil wrapping and ribbon.
My mother and father worked six days a week. They were on their feet all day and exhausted by the time they returned home. We had presents, but my mother didn’t have time for decorations, feasts or cards. At the I.B.M. party, the feeling I had was of visiting abundance. There were multicolored lights, tinsel, festooned trees and a man in a red velvet costume wearing a white beard giving me presents just because I was a child. Life could have trimmings.
In the presence of bounty, I still feel a sense of awe. My favorite book characters feel this, too. When young Francie Nolan goes to Losher’s bread factory for the family’s “semiweekly supply of stale bread,” she lingers in the nice-smelling outlet store, waiting her turn. It doesn’t matter that she’s buying stale bread and a pie with broken crusts that costs a nickel. At least she’s a customer. Surely, it could be worse: There could be a day when there is no nickel in the family budget for the pie — a day of just dry loaves or, perhaps, no bread at all.
In high school, I read heavier fare, in which the characters wanted things but didn’t get them or lost everything. That seemed to be the point — as if the reader needed to know that life would be hard. I read books in which life could pulverize your dreams. I’ll never forget the broken Hurstwood in Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie,” who refused to accept that his love would not be returned. I was learning about tragic archetypes like Balzac’s Père Goriot, who might have commiserated with Shakespeare’s King Lear. Life could take away everything if you weren’t minding the store and adapting as well as you could, and even if you were.