Occasionally, one reads an article that resonates at many levels with the reader. A few days after having seen the movie Brooklyn, based on the book by Irish writer Colm Toibin, there was an article in the New York Times in which he and author Alice Walker were interviewed. The part of the interview that resonated with me mirrored the film, which touched me in many ways, as it took place during my preteen years in Brooklyn.
That the story revolves around an immigrant from Ireland who settles in Brooklyn had, from the start, themes familiar to me, having been influenced greatly by my Lithuanian-born grandmother with whom I shared a bedroom along with my sister, during these same preteen 1950s years.
Without my realizing it, her life experiences and her penchant for telling stories about her immigrant and early working years in Brooklyn profoundly affected and perhaps laid the groundwork for my final professional decisions to focus on geriatrics and eldercare. When people ask me why I gravitated to that medical specialty, besides the unpredictable factors of opportunity and chance and good fortune, I often respond that the great joy in eldercare, beyond the usual satisfactions of doing meaningful medical work, is that all of my patients come with stories.
These stories often rivet and connect me to the patients and become part of my own meaningful collective medical and life narrative.
The film Brooklyn resonated because it was not just an immigrant story, but it took place in the Brooklyn that I recall so fondly – the Brooklyn of the Dodgers, from just prior to their being at the bottom of the “Wait until next year” story, to the 1955 World Series Championship, to that terrible year in 1957 when it was announced that our beloved Dodgers, with their home in the tired but always welcoming Ebbets Field, would be moving to Los Angeles, which they did in 1958. For many, it portended the end to their love of and engagement in the world of baseball.
The movie has scenes of Coney Island, a few kilometres up the beach and boardwalk from my home in Brighton Beach, and Brooklyn College, where the heroine goes to study at night school, and was my alma mater. It reminded me of the common need for immigrants or the first generation of Americans to study at night while they worked to support their studies and help with their families during the day – my father took more than 10 years to complete his engineering degree at Cooper Union, another of the marvellous and accessible universities in New York – and followed this with a lifelong career as a civilian working for the U.S. Department of Defence.
In the New York Times interview, Toibin says, “I had to be careful not to preach… in the book, just tell the story. But I hope that when you see the young Lithuanian girl at the cash register in the supermarket looking really sad one day, you know it’s for good reason: she’s missing home. I hoped the book might contribute to that public debate.”
It was that quote, which, as they say, closed the circle of the movie for me: my experience of growing up in Brooklyn and the immigrant experience I heard stories about from my Lithuanian-born grandmother – she was not at a cash register but at a sewing machine, initially in a factory, and, over the years, she became an active Lady Garment Workers member and organizer (ILGWU), a socialist influence that was not lost on me during my early years.
For a lovely and moving film experience, Brooklyn is a jewel – I have not read the book, but am sure it is equally as moving, and as is usually the case, although the story may be the same, its presentation and development and language would likely add another important dimension to this universal and individual immigrant experience.