I tell two fictions about the tree tattooed on my left shoulder. The first story is that it is a tribute to my father, “roots and branches” is what I say when I tell this one. Here is what is true. I had a father and he died, and, two weeks after his death, I had a tree tattooed on my left shoulder.
The second story is that the tattoo is inspired by my favorite novel, Betty Smith’s, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, given to me by my Grandma Rosemary when I was eleven years old.
I want the gift of the book to be significant. I want my grandmother to have given me the book because she knew it would provide me with the answers I sought to the questions I didn’t know I had until I turned eleven.
Here is what really happened. I was spending the weekend with my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who wasn’t the kind of grandmother to sit down to a game of rummy or to bake cookies with me. She was the kind of grandmother who left me to occupy myself, and this is what I loved most about her. Grandma Rosemary knew that when I came to her house, it was to be in my own head, to escape the noise and crowding of the tiny home I shared with my parents, my two sisters, one dog, and three cats.
Finding A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was happenstance, I saw its red spine on the shelf, opened the book and started reading about a girl named Francie Nolan and a tree some called the Tree of Heaven.
My grandmother permitted me to keep the book, and this kind of disruption of her space was a rare thing. My grandmother kept her home orderly to the point of obsession—placing paths of plastic runners throughout the rooms to protect the carpet and raking the grass after she mowed it to remove the wheel tracks. Later, I came to understand that my grandmother’s need for order served as a barrier to the chaos her life had been. I didn’t realize for years that Grandma Rosemary (I never called her just “Grandma’) offered me a different story than the one I was living, and by then she was gone, and I couldn’t tell her that I knew. But looking back, I don’t doubt that the books in her living room were arranged by height, spine thickness, and cover color—arranged how she wanted them. In this way, the book was a gift, even if it wasn’t a gift in the way I wanted it to be (or maybe it was).
I found a kindred soul in Francie Nolan, the Irish-American girl being raised in Brooklyn by her cleaning-lady mother and her alcoholic, unreliable father. Francie read books out on the fire escape of her third-floor tenement and imagined she was living in a tree because up there on her perch, she could be a different girl for a little while. I understood her because, like Francie on her fire escape, I often sought the solace of my own mind. I went to the woods, a space where I could blank out my life and imagine it was different. This woods was just a small stretch of trees off the side yard of our slab home in a Youngstown, Ohio neighborhood romantically named Brownlee Woods. That name covered up the realities of what those slab homes held—families living from one paycheck to the next, fathers who wore their names in white ovals on their blue shirts, cigarettes in those shirts’ pockets, and mothers whose lipstick was a decade old because a new tube was too much of a luxury.
When I was eleven, I didn’t think of my family as poor. But our family was crowded in the way that Francie’s was in their New York tenement. It felt like inside our homes, we were always on top of each other. The fathers drank and neglected their families. The mothers scrubbed. The brothers teased. The baby sisters tagged along. The connections between Francie’s life and my own found me.
Francie’s relief through books and through her imagination showed me how to live my life, how to carve out a space in my narrow world. Francie became more real to me than my own sisters or my friends from the neighborhood.
To become more like her, I began to internally narrate my life. My actions became more deliberate and story-worthy. I longed to be a character worth describing when I snuck to the top of the pull-down stair that led from the utility room to the converted attic bedroom I shared with my older sister. The small light at the top of the stairs was enough to read by when I was supposed to be sleeping. I imagined one day I’d become novelized, like Francie, and so I thought about the girl I was creating. What did she see? What did she feel? What was true?
One truth—I spent most of my life frightened, although I wasn’t ever certain of what.
Another truth—when I got tattooed with a tree just after my father died, it was because he would have hated it. I planned it when I knew he was dying. I chose the design, and I waited until he wasn’t here to see that I’d marked my body. My tattoo says what I never could—I belong to myself. It’s a tribute to me, fragile and frightened in my attic perch, looking for answers.
A story—when I was eleven, I learned the word “alcoholic” in health class at Paul C. Bunn Elementary. I must have heard it before then, and I’d certainly seen alcoholics depicted. I remember an episode of Little House on the Prairie when a hard-drinking man discovered the error of his ways, most likely aided by the stern but loving guidance of Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls. The details I forget, but the message I remember. The father who drank realized he was hurting his family, and he quit drinking within the hour-long episode, not even a to-be-continued.
That redemption narrative was so compelling that I thought it a real possibility until I learned in sixth grade that my father was an “alcoholic.” I also believed that I had some control over this redemption, that something I said or did in the right moment would be the catalyst, and then the drinking would stop and our problems would go away. Dad would stop referring to mom as “Dummy” and instead call her by her movie star name, “Jeannette.” I remember coming home from school that day, too, edging up to my mother in the kitchen as she cooked dinner to be on the table for dad when he got home from work at 5:30, a bottle of Stroh’s next to his dinner plate. I asked my mother, “Is dad an alcoholic?” I don’t remember her answer, only her anger, only that she didn’t want to talk about it. In that same class, I learned about addiction. I learned the bottle of Stroh’s had stopped being a choice probably before I was born. I learned, but I didn’t believe. My father was a giant. He wouldn’t grow thin and shaky (but of course he did). At eleven, I still believed in his possibility. In ours. I believed in a different ending for our story.
When my mother was still a girl, my Grandma Rosemary divorced her violent alcoholic husband, my grandfather. My mother often told us about her father, who seemed a brute in comparison to mine. Her father beat his children with dog leashes and shoved liver down their throats when they refused to eat it. My own father menaced more than he hit, but he did hit, and he snapped his belt when he yelled at us. The folded-over leather looked like an angry mouth. The yelling seemed to come from the belt mouth.
I never knew the brutal grandfather. I had Grandpa Howard. My grandmother called him “my Howard.” I also never knew a moment when they weren’t deeply in love. Her story presented a possible redemption, too. I didn’t want my father replaced, but I wanted him changed. I wanted him to transform into a Howard for us, someone who would play the violin and pull my mother into a slow dance when Frank Sinatra came on the radio. I wanted someone who didn’t hide out in the garage, hovering over his brown bottles and an ashtray full of stubbed out Camel regulars.
Francie Nolan’s life gave me another narrative possibility. Francie’s father was handsome, like mine, and he was an alcoholic, like mine, but he adored his children and he thought his wife was beautiful. So even though he drank and couldn’t hold a decent job, Johnny Nolan, with his whiskey-soaked gentle kindness, was a good man in my eleven-year-old eyes. If my father couldn’t become a Howard, I would settle for a Johnny.
My father never became a Howard or a Johnny. My mother never divorced him. My father got sick again and again, and he died slowly. His death came two years after he’d had a laryngectomy, his booming yell that terrified me so often replaced with the robot voice of an electro larynx. He died hard. No story prepared me to deal with it. Who has written the narrative for mourning a father I never felt fathered by?
A truth—Grandma Rosemary healed from a broken nose, many broken ribs, and a broken man. She loved and was loved.
A fiction—Francie Nolan’s father drank himself to death, but Francie kept living, like the tree in the tenement yard.
A story—I had a grandmother who gave me a book about a Tree of Heaven and a girl who loved her father. I had a father who died, and, after that, I got a tree tattooed on my left shoulder. When people ask about my tree, I give them an answer.
Kris Harrington writes place-infused creative non-fiction about her lifetime home, Youngstown, Ohio. She coordinates and directs The Strand Project, a full-length theatrical production of original dramatic monologues, now in its third year. A lecturer for Kent State University, Kris’s work has appeared in The Sun and Jenny. She has read at YSU’s Summer Festival of the Arts and other local events including Slice of Life and Women Artists: A Celebration. She teaches community writing workshops