Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nurturing Hope

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
I Remember Mama
A Raisin in the Sun

As a child, my family always provided me with a sense of pride and hope that I carry with me to this day. I immensely enjoyed my childhood and often look back on it fondly – so much so that my wife, who doesn’t have the same feeling about her childhood as I do about mine, often refers to me as Peter Pan.

So it is no wonder, looking back, that I found great joy in movies about families. And the movies of this genre that I enjoyed the most were A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (a black-and-white movie released in 1945), I Remember Mama (b&w, 1948), and A Raisin in the Sun (b&w, 1961). These movies are about American families of, respectively, Irish descent, Norwegian descent and African descent. Also, the homes of these families are in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. But despite the cultural and geographic differences, these families have a lot in common – the main commonalities being, they revolve around the mothers and they encourage their children's dreams.

Katie Nolan, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, appears to be the family’s primary breadwinner. She works as a scrubwoman in the tenement where her family lives. It is a steady job. Her husband, Johnny, a good-natured drunk, works as a singing waiter who apparently has a hard time maintaining steady employment. So it is Katie who provides the stability in the family, which includes the teenager, Francie, her younger brother Neely, and by movie’s end, baby Annie Laurie.

Marta Hanson, the mama in I Remember Mama, does not work. But when her husband, Lars, brings home his weekly pay, Marta is the one who handles the budget. Although she doesn’t work, Marta’s hands are full taking care of her four children – daughters Katrin, Christine and Dagmar, and son Nels. She is also the one who keeps peace between her three sisters (one bossy, one who seems to see herself as a perpetual victim of life in general, and one who is shy) and brother (a gruff but kindhearted man who runs roughshod over his siblings, except for Marta).

Lena Younger, the matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun, sees her purpose in life as guiding her grown children through the crucible of being black in America. Her husband is dead and she plans to use his insurance money to get her family out of the three-room apartment where she lives with her daughter Beneatha, her son Walter Lee and his wife Ruth and son Tavis live. She would eventually use some of that money for a down payment on a house in an all-white suburb. She rules the roost.

In fact, they all rule the roost. Johnny Nolan and Lars Hanson readily defer family decisions to their spouses without argument. That is not the case with Lena Younger, who engages in an ongoing battle with Walter Lee over his desire to go into business for himself. But like the other two mothers who encourage their children’s dreams, she eventually gives in to her son’s dream – which sadly, heartbreakingly, turns into dust.

The children in the other two families have greater success with their dreams. Katrin Hanson becomes a successful writer and her brother appears on his way to becoming a doctor and Dagmar plans on being a veterinarian. Francie Nolan talks her mother into allowing her to attend, and graduate from, a better school in a different district – where she decides that she, too, wants to become a writer. To attend that school, she has to provide a false home address – with her mother’s blessing.

But the best thing – for me, anyway – that these well-acted and wonderfully staged motion pictures have in common is the way they can touch your heart.

On graduation day in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Katie Nolan attends Neely’s ceremony and Aunt Sissy, Katie's sister, attends Francie’s. By this time, Johnny Nolan is dead. He succumbed to pneumonia while trying to find a job – and Francie had not been able to shed one tear for his demise. On graduation day, however, she found a spray of flowers on her desk with a card from her father. Aunt Sissy explained that Johnny had given her the money for the flowers and written the card before he died – apparently having a premonition that he wouldn’t be there for this momentous day. Aunt Sissy then takes Francie to the bathroom, where the child breaks down in tears that she could not find earlier.

The scene from I Remember Mama that stays with me is when Marta and Lars decide that Dagmar’s cat needs to be put to sleep. Lars tells Marta that she should be the one to administer the chloroform to the ailing pet. The next morning, Dagmar wants to see her cat and pushes her way by her parents, who are trying to prevent her from seeing her dead pet. As she carries the cat wrapped in a blanket up to her room, Lars and Marta see that the cat’s tail is wagging. Apparently, Marta gave the cat only enough chloroform to put it to sleep and upon waking, the cat was fine. Dagmar thanked her mother for taking care of the cat and was up the stairs before Marta could explain what happened.

“She will think I can do anything,” Marta said to Lars.

“Perhaps that’s a good thing for her to think,” Lars replied.

Toward the end of the movie, when Uncle Chris, Marta’s gruff brother, dies, they all learn that Uncle Chris, who was thought to be well off, was penniless. The reason? He had spent all his money helping lame people get the medical attention they needed so that they could walk unencumbered again. Though Uncle Chris had promised to help send Nels to medical school, the family showed no disappointment or recrimination. In fact, they were proud of the old man’s generosity.

My A Raisin in the Sun moment is the moment Walter Lee finally matures and comes to grips with what his mother is trying to do. A man representing the white neighborhood where the Lena bought the home visits to Chicago tenement to offer the Youngers more money than they paid for the house. The man had been there with the same deal before and was told no. After Walter Lee’s crushing disappointment – he was swindled out of the remainder of the insurance money that his mother trusted him with, some of which was to pay for his sister’s education – he was ready to take the offer.

Earlier, after being swindled, Walter Lee learned that Ruth was pregnant. He urged his wife to get rid of the child, much to Lena’s dismay. Now, he wanted to seal the deal with this white man and although Lena disapproved, she told Walter Lee that she was relinquishing her role as head of the family and the decision was his to make. Walter Lee then made this speech to the white man about how hard his father had worked for that insurance money and about his mother’s hopes and his sister’s dream of being a doctor and the future of his children – and when all was said and done, he told the white man that he could keep his money.

Despite death, hardships and disappointments, all these families displayed an underlying strength that came from a sense of unity, accomplishment and purpose. When the movies ended, you knew the stories weren’t over but you were left with the feeling that whatever may come, they would handle it together – as a family.

At the beginning of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie is upset that the tree in her tenement’s courtyard has been, as she sees it, brutally trimmed. Johnny tells her not to worry because the tree will begin to return to its previous condition in the spring. At the end of the movie, while standing on the roof with her brother, Francie points out that her father was right and that the tree was indeed returning to the way it was.

These are the lessons that my family of Americans – Democrats, Republicans, black, white, brown, tan, yellow and red – should remember today.

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