Reflections on Brooklyn

The other night, my family and I watched the film Brooklyn, based on the 2010 novel of the same title by Colm Toibin.  To everyone’s great surprise, I was the only one who spent the entire two hours weeping.  (My husband, who is stirred to tears by every Hallmark movie he watches, was especially impressed with my display of emotion.)  I, on the other hand, understood perfectly well the reason for such an overflow of emotion: the movie told the story of my life, more or less, so I could relate.

    I’ve never been particularly drawn to turn-of-the-century immigrant stories, especially ones that villainize New York City; I find the subject well-worn, cliched, and simplified into the scripts of children’s movies (consider An American Tale, for instance).  So I didn’t really have high expectations for the Saturday night family movie we had selected to appease a husband, his wife, and her mother.

    The story begins with Ellis leaving her mother and sister in economically famished Ireland in order to find gainful employment in Brooklyn, New York.  She is under the wardship of an Irish priest who aids her in getting settled at a women’s boarding house and starting a position as a sales clerk at a local department store.  So far so good.

    What initially clinched my emotions was when Ellis receives her first letter from home; she retires to her room in order to read it and promptly bursts into tears.

    I know that feeling—of being in a foreign place, touching for the first time something that reminds you of home, cherishing it because suddenly it has become translated into an artifact from a lost world.  Not too long ago, home had been a mundane, lifeless place, void of any real opportunity.  But once your home has been suddenly taken from you, and in such a dramatic way, you begin groping for it, like a child in a frantic search for his blanket.

    That is the initial, raw emotion of separation.

    It is what the college student feels for the first time while sleeping in her dorm room, so many miles away from her family.  It is a good separation, for a worthy purpose, but a painful one.

    The soldier who has to return to the battlefield, the bride to her husband, the child to his school: there are many examples of these unhappy but necessary separations in life.

    Well, Ellis eventually grows less homesick, simply because she has to find a way to cope with her new surroundings.  The real turning point comes, however, when she meets Tony, the Italian immigrant who shows up at the Irish Catholic dance because he likes Irish girls.  The fact that he is slightly shorter than Ellis is endearing; their opposing accents, although charming, foreshadow the unlikeliness of their relationship.  I was certain the sweetness of Tony would end quickly; he was too good to be true, too interested in who Ellis really was: a little plain, very intelligent, committed to her family.  Who falls for girls like that?

    Tony did.

    And that was when my tears first started, because I know that feeling.  When somebody loves you for who you are even though the entire rest of the world passes you by for all the same reasons.  It is a miracle that such love can develop without the appeal of family connections or mutual friends or reputation.  Or in spite of those things.

    That type of falling in love is largely directed by chemistry—the spectacular reaction caused by the mingling of two well-suited personalities—but it is also strongly circumstantial.  Those people under those particular conditions are the perfect fit.  It is not a simple love, like the high school sweethearts or the office coworkers.  It is a love that really seems impossible, even totally irrational.  An Italian and an Irish girl?  Maybe—but only in Brooklyn, where something new is being created.  It just might take the impossible match in order to prompt a paradigm shift.

    Even though I was happy for Ellis and her newfound love, I was sad, too.  Irrationally sad.  I perceived the foreshadowing of significant change—Tony brought her home to meet his family, he talked about their kids being Dodgers’ fans.  If she were to continue down the path with Tony—maybe marriage, eventually children—she would then have to close the door on other possibilities for her life, particularly a return to her former life in Ireland.  And she loved that life, just like she now loved Tony.  Somehow she could love two things that could not be reconciled; she created her own dilemma.

    What Ellis was already sensing, though, was that the home of her childhood was no longer the same place at all.  She had changed while living in Brooklyn, and because she had changed, her home could not mean the same thing it had meant to her before her move.

    That is the problem with nostalgia, if anyone besides me has ever grappled with it: we long for a way of life that no longer exists; we need to move forward.

    So she wants to be with Tony, but now she hears word that her sister has suddenly died; because of this sudden tragedy, Ellis decides to return home for a visit in order to console her mother.  Tony presses her to marry him before she leaves, and at first Ellis resists.  The two of them never talk about their feelings, but there are obvious reasons Tony is insistent and Ellis is ambivalent: a journey across the ocean and a return home is just enough time for Ellis to justify forgetting that Brooklyn (and Tony) ever happened.  In Ellis’s case, marrying Tony before the trip meant she would need to finally make the decision to stay in America, a difficult commitment to make at a time when she was feeling the obligation of her home and her family weighing on her.

    For me, this conflict evoked genuine pain because my sister died when I was twenty (she was twenty-three), leaving me with my mom.  (My father, like Ellis’s, had already died, leaving my mother a widow.)  Now Ellis feels like she is all that her mother has left.  I can relate to this, too.  It is a wonderful yet difficult burden: to be so special to someone for such a particular reason, yet designed long ago to be something else entirely.  It is a tragic love I feel again and again with my own mother: the desire to fill the immense crater that used to be occupied by my father and sister, yet knowing I could never fill it. 

    Ellis does not tell her mother or her friends that she married Tony, possibly because she fears they will interpret her marriage as rejection of Ireland and her past.  Maybe she doesn’t have the words to explain the difficult questions: Why him?  Why there?  Why now?

    Regardless, because Ellis keeps Tony a secret, all sorts of people are pushing her towards Jimmy, an eligible young Irish man from Ellis’s home town, someone who just inherited his parents’ house and was now on the look out for a bride.  To make matters even more confusing, the original reason Ellis left Ireland (lack of employment) has now been resolved: she is taken on as a part-time book keeper to fill the position her sister Rose now left empty.  

    How could it be that her old life was suddenly becoming so much more inviting when she had clearly chosen a new path when she married Tony?

    I started crying some more when I saw how Ellis could easily suppress her memories of Tony because nobody in her immediate environment knew he existed.  In fact, without him in front of her, it was possible for her to question whether he existed.  It made me think of the days I had been dating my husband—he all the way in Louisiana, me all the way in Wisconsin, connected only by a telephone and some emails.  We had grown so close—closer than I had ever grown with any other person—yet somehow the entire relationship could easily be erased by either one of us.  My friends and family were taking my word that Phil existed, but they had no solid way of confirming it.  In my moments of self-doubt, it was possible for me to question whether Phil truly existed, or to wonder whether my mind had merely conjured him.

    The idea is sickening.  Can someone literally be erased from existence if we choose to erase his memory?

    Of course not.  Tony and Ellis still existed, and were Ellis to ultimately conceal this truth (forsake her husband and remain in Ireland), she would be forsaking truth altogether.

    Ellis’s dilemma was more than just a choice between Ireland and America, though.  It was a choice between a life with her mother and a life without her mother.  If she stayed in Ireland, married Jim, and worked as a book keeper at her sister’s old company, she’d be filling the role that had been left empty after her sister’s death.  She would be performing a duty to her mother, and she would never need to feel guilty that she had left her mother to fend for herself.

    Although that sounds like a win-win (freedom from guilt, a stable life), another more toxic emotion would have eventually emerged: resentment.  Ellis would have been living the life her mother wanted instead of the life Ellis was designed to live.  Living a life that pleases somebody else will not produce growth, not for either person.

    Still, I have to ask the question: Why do our talents and our dreams sometimes have to separate us from the people and places we love?

    Why couldn’t Ellis have met Jim in Ireland first, and have been happy to have lived close to her mother?  Why did Ellis’s true path have to separate her so profoundly, so painfully, from her roots?

    Today, I ask the same questions of my own life.  Why did the man I love have to take me away from my family?  Yet I chose to go away—it wasn’t his fault.  I’ve created my own dilemma.

    In the movie’s final scene, Ellis appears on a street in Brooklyn where she sees Tony for the first time since leaving for home.  The look on his face erases any uncertainty—he is witnessing a miracle, the girl he loved returned in the flesh.  There is nothing more satisfying in life than the evidence of our faith made real.  And that is the answer to all those questions—Why him?  Why there?  Why now?  Because it is a miracle, when it’s all said and done, and nobody can turn away from a miracle.  It is the sort of opportunity that would compel us to trade away almost anything in order to seize it.

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