Tuesday, June 08, 2010

It's A Wonderful Stoop!: My Life In Brooklyn

Stoop Sitting
Brooklyn Stoop Sitting in the late 1920's
My little family on our Carroll Garden's stoop in 1992
(photo by John Kernick)

"When summer came, the children spent most of the day outdoors on the stoop. They were the only children in the house, so there was always room on the stoop. Francis, who was going on four, had to mind Neeley, who was going on three. She sat for long hours on the stoop with her thin arms hugging her thin legs with her straight brown hair blowing in the slow breeze that came laden with the salt smell of the sea, the sea that was so nearby and which she had never seen. She kept an eye on Neeley as he scrambled up and down the steps. She sat, rocking to and fro, wondering about many things: what made the wind blow and what was green and why Neeley was a boy instead of a girl like her."

From A A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

When I arrived in this country from Europe as a fifteen-year old, the very first book I was able to read in English from cover to cover was A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. I had picked it up from the library of the Long Island high school in which my mother had enrolled me upon our arrival in America. I cannot remember now why I chose Betty Smith's coming of age novel over all the others. It may have been the sepia colored cover of a young girl with a book in her lap, sitting in front of a row house that reminded me of the house which we had left behind in France. But whatever drew me to the book, once I entered Francie Nolan's Brooklyn, I could not abandon it.

Although I had never heard of Brooklyn and could not imagine what it looked like, I had a vivid imagination and soon created my own vision of the place in my mind.

With a dictionary by my side, I painstakingly deciphered and translated each word, page by page from English to French. I re-read entire passages several times until I gleaned enough of the meaning before continuing on to the next paragraph. Occasionally, I would look up and ask my mother, whose English was much better than mine, for help. For the most part, she was able to fill in the blanks, helping me to understand the text.
However, there was one word that even stumped her.
"Mama, what does the word 'stoop' mean?" I asked her one day.
"Stoop?" she repeated after me, "Stoop?"
"Yes. S-T-O-O-P" I spelled out.
"Let me see it on the page", she said, taking the book out of my hand and quizzically checking for herself. "I have never heard the word before. It doesn't even sound English. Just skip over it and keep reading" she advised.
And so I did, missing its meaning each time I encountered it in my reading.

It was only ten years later, in 1985, when I began my formal Brooklyn education, that the word 'stoop' entered my vocabulary. By then, I had met and married my Brooklyn-born husband, who introduced me to Brownstone Brooklyn and soon after, we moved into our Carroll Gardens home and I discovered the pleasures of 'stoop sitting'.

The five steps leading to my home's front door have, over the last twenty-five years, become the place of wonderful memories and countless hours of conversation with family, friend and neighbors. It is here that, on sunny days, just like Francie Nolan on her stoop, I watched over my children when they were small, always ready to catch them as they attempted to climb the steps on their chubby, wobbly, toddler legs. It is here that I supervised their ball playing in the front garden, and where I waited anxiously to see them reappear at the corner after I hesitantly gave them permission to ride their bicycles around the block.

Most of my family's significant moments have been captured on the stoop in our photographs. All our 'firsts' were dutifully recorded for posterity: first day of every school year, first day of every soccer season, first day with braces and the first day without, as well as dances and proms.

Every visit from relatives and friends was captured in a photograph on the stoop. Our family albums are filled with the smiling faces of the children with proud, visiting grandparents. And with each consecutive visit, the younger generation had grown taller and the older looked smaller and frailer. As the years passed, the photos, now hanging in frames in our parlor, became precious reminders of loved ones who are no longer with us.

It was during one of my mother's last visits to Brooklyn before she passed away that I mentioned A Tree Grow In Brooklyn to her again. By then she had read the novel herself and loved it as much as I had. We sat together on the stoop, waiting for the car service to come and take her to the airport.
"Do you remember, when we first came to America, we did not know where Brooklyn was?" I reminded her.
"Oh, yes!" she smiled. "So much was new and unknown back then." She slowly surveyed my house, my front garden and the adjacent row of brownstones on my block, as though she were looking at them for the first time.
"I could never have imagined, so many years ago, when you were reading that book that you would end up in Brooklyn, married and raising a family." She seemed amused.
"Neither could I" I admitted. "It does seem rather ironic. I just know, I said turning my head towards her, "that I am very happy here."

When the car service pulled up, I watched her as she got inside. I waved to her from the top step of my stoop until the car turned at the end of the block and I lost her from my sight.

"Here's to you, Francie Nolan," I said softly to myself. "And here's to Brooklyn!"

Won't you please share your stoop story?


Alexandrea said...

so, wonderful.....

Margaret said...

Oh, Katia, that was so beautifully written. Thank you. "Stoop" comes from the Dutch "stoep"- pronounced the same and means the same.

Kelly said...

Thanks Andrea and Margaret.

What would our neighborhood be like without our "stoeps"!

Mrs G said...

Wonderful story Katia! Only GOD knows where life takes us.
Thanks for sharing. I too love "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". Love the two movies made(that I know of) - with Peggy Ann Garner 1945 and Pamelyn Ferden 1974 as Francie Nolan)as well. I still never tire of it!

Kelly said...

Hi Ms.G,
I don't think I ever watched the 1974 version. Will have to rent it.
I love the 1945 movie. I watched it years after reading the book, but I felt that it really captured the story well.

Mrs. G said...

Hi Katia,

The 1974 version was made for television. Cliff Robertson played the husband.
Yes, the 1945 FAR surpasses the 1974 one, but you will still enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

man, did my mom love to sit on the stoop, the 3 contessas, my mom, my grandma and my grandma all told me stories how they would sit on the stoop, as a matter of fact, my dad met my mom sitting on the stoop, ah, memories.....................yeah, mom wanted to be quiet, sit on the stoop until some stupids decided to start hitting ballons around in the front gate and others looked at my mom and wondered, "hey, what a big stoop, she don't need all that stoop", then the balloon stoops thought, "hey, free stoop"

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful story, and beautifully told, too, with those lovely old sepia-toned family photos.

I, too, was fascinated by Francie Nolan's world long before I ever imagined myself living in Brooklyn. And now here we are, living (and writing) our own stories of joy and heartbreak in the borough of Kings.