Every single time I pour out a half drunk cup of cold coffee, I am reminded of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Each and every time, I become Francie in her belief that this is what rich people do; to waste coffee is a luxurious act of defiance against personal poverty. I didn’t grow up like Francie but I hate waste, so it’s become a conscious act of extravagance.
I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was about ten; I had a VERY active imagination combined with an overabundance of empathy and I would take on the persona–I BECAME the character I most identified with–and so I became poor Francie.
Just like I became Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie or Anne Frank or Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.
In my case, these multiple personalities weren’t anything more than trying on a new dress or pair of shoes; I always returned to my own authentic self–wolf lover, nature lover, underdog defender, wearer of rose-colored glasses—but it was part of the process of individuation to slip on these other personas and feel as if I was walking in another’s shoes to learn about how other people live and think.
Mom Katie Nolan believes that Francie is entitled to throw her coffee down the drain if she wishes, saying that it’s good for poor people like them to be able to waste something.
“There was a special Nolan idea about the coffee. It was their one great luxury. Mama made a big potful each morning and reheated it for dinner and supper and it got stronger as the day wore on. It was an awful lot of water and very little coffee but mama put a lump of chicory in it which made it taste strong and bitter. Each one was allowed three cups a day with milk. Other times you could help yourself to a cup of black coffee anytime you felt like it. Sometimes when you had nothing at all and it was raining and you were alone in the flat, it was wonderful to know that you could have something even though it was only a cup of black and bitter coffee.
Neeley and Francie loved coffee but seldom drank it. Today, as usual, Neeley let his coffee stand black and ate his condensed milk spread on bread. He sipped a little of the black coffee for the sake of formality. Mama poured out Francie’s coffee and put the milk in it even though she knew that the child wouldn’t drink it.”
“Francie loved the smell of coffee and the way it was hot. As she ate her bread and meat, she kept one hand curved about the cup enjoying its warmth. From time to time, she’d smell the bitter sweetness of it. That was better than drinking it. At the end of the meal, it went down the sink.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn–Betty Smith
Did you ever read this classic? What did you like about it?