Reminiscing About Bayside Childhood

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By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

“This is the truth the poet sings That sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.” - Locksley Hall

Things that really matter are rarely committed to paper, and with that preface I should like to devote this column to some childhood memories that matter a great deal to me. I hope my small effort will cause my readers to relive and recollect and enjoy reminiscing about their own childhood whatever their generation.

In human affairs the history of childhood, which should be of major import, has not had the attention it deserves from historians. The old truth still stands: “The child is father to the man.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote so poignantly of childhood in his “Child’s Garden of Verses,” had a very strong impact on my early life so long ago. How his words still sing to me today! His verses abound with the feelings and emotions of children that are at once universal yet more uniquely attuned to a not-too-distant past that I knew when I was growing up -- a time when most children who lived outside of congested urban areas were so fortunate and were sustained by a simpler country-like atmosphere. They were challenged to employ their ingenuity and imagination and to provide their own entertainment in simpler ways. Not programmed to rely on technically complex man-made products, children turned to books and games. Reading was an important pastime.

Though I was born in New York City, we soon moved to New Jersey, and it was there that I attended kindergarten. We moved to Queens and settled in Bayside when I was 7 years old, so I am a longtime resident of this area.

Long Island in the days of my childhood was still an island of small towns, each preserving its special milieu. Every village, town, and neighborhood reflected its own special rhythm, depending on its location, geographical features and, of course, the sum of its residents whose life stories make up their history

As one gets on in years, childhood memories and life’s simple pleasures become dearer to the heart and one realizes that each day is a gift.

As I look back on the those less complicated, quieter days when I was growing up, so many things come to mind that I shall have to practice a personal and selective memory for the purpose of this column.

Farms existed in Bayside and there was still a blacksmith shop operating here. Large tracts of land were evident where apartments and multi-family dwellings now stand. Stores and businesses were family-owned through more than one generation and the merchants knew their customers as neighbors and friends. Parking was never a problem, although most people walked to town.

The library was housed in a storefront building and was a friendly meeting place for young and old alike. The movie house was small but adequate, and you knew the policeman on the beat The variety of stores was such that you could purchase most any item you needed on “Bell Avenue” without leaving town and I remember only one or two restaurants, though there might have been more. Eating out was not so prevalent in those days and home was the center of a family’s entertainment and social life.

Despite the proximity of a thriving metropolis, there was a generation or two that relied on the phonograph, the radio and the movies. Television CD players, tape decks and “boom boxes” were as unknown as computers and video.

So many things come to mind as I think back over my childhood days. I look at a picture of my handsome, young father standing beside me as I sit propped up on a brown and white spotted pony. I am muffled to the ears in scarves, my small body so swathed in warm clothing that only my eyes are peeping out like two brown almonds. From my father’s heavy overcoat and the way I am bundled up, it was probably a cold day in late fall or early spring. But in those days the coming of the man with the pony was a special treat and the time to have a picture taken. Thirty years ago my own daughter enjoyed that unforgettable experience because the man with the pony still came to our town. Where, I wonder, is he or his counterpart today?

I remember when I was 4 years old how delighted I was when we lived in a spacious colonial-style house with a large yard in which there were several beautiful pear trees. Back among the trees was an abandoned chicken coop which my father restored and cleaned so that my younger sister and I could crawl inside and pretend to “keep house.”

But, more important, it was a refuge and a place to make-believe and to dream dreams. In the dark, velvety summer evenings under the bright stars and a shining moon I remember, too, the pleasure we had watching the fireflies glow in the dark and then meeting their challenge and capturing them for a few moments in a jar. The mystery of that light always intrigued me until many years later when my chemist husband explained it to me as he was wont to do about so many things during our life together.

One of my fondest memories is of my own very first reader which my father bought for me before I was old enough to go to school and from which I taught myself to read. Vividly impressed in my memory is its brown cover and the bright red, shiny apples illustrating the letter “A”. I remember, too, my pride in mastering and deciphering those first words.

A common sight when I was a child was the organ grinder and his monkey. I could not get enough of watching the antics of that agile little animal as I tossed him the few pennies I had. The last time I saw a “hurdy-gurdy” man with his monkey was in a small village in Provence in the south of France, three summers ago. Like the Carousels I have enjoyed in Central Park, in European cities and wherever I have found one, I always hope to find an organ grinder and his playful monkey. I wonder if they, too, have completely disappeared.

As I meander through the pages of my young life, other memories come flooding back like the rope and plank swings that my father made for us and which hung on the huge maple tree in our yard. When the swings were put up each year, they heralded not only the glories of summer but gave flight to our fancies and provided a source of inspiration for the imagination of my sisters and me as we devised many a scenario for our play time.

At harvest time my father would gather corn stalks from our large garden plot and fashion from them wonderful play “huts,” which served as props for many a game by the neighborhood children who came from all around to take part in “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and Indians” or even to play “hospital” and care for the aviators who “flew” in our swings.

I remember the school yard at P.S. 130 in the spring and the chocolate grahams one would buy at recess time for a penny. At holiday time they came in a variety of shapes like bunnies and Christmas trees. Later in the upper grades when adolescent love began to bloom you might receive one as an offering from your current young “swain.” In that vein, I remember returning to my eighth grade classroom after a long siege with pneumonia (a dangerous disease. in those days when there were no antibiotics) and having my heart turn over when I found a big bunch of pink rambler roses in my inkwell placed there as a welcome back by a young man I very much admired then.

I remember picking blackberries at the old abandoned Willets Mansion, which stood across from our house. What adventure it was to explore those wildly overgrown acres and wonder about the life that the house once held. But best of all I remember the fragrance of the jams and jellies as my mother preserved them for the days ahead.

During the Depression years my mother went back to work as a nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital at night while she still managed, on very little sleep, to take care of us and to run the household. I remember that Christmas I received a wardrobe of doll clothes she had made in her spare time from material she had on hand, including parts of frocks, coats and evening gowns she had worn years before when courted by my father in 1918.

The clothes were made for my favorite doll, now a collector’s item named “Patsy Ann” (circa 1930). The wardrobe and the clothes my mother made as a true labor of love are among my most precious possessions today.

Currently there is much discussion about the remake of the classic “Little Women.” I received that book as a gift when I was 11 years old and have reread it so many times. I learned to play “None But the Lonely Heart” on the piano after seeing the first movie. My first introduction to Beethoven’s “Pathetique” was in the chapter of that book called “Heartbreak” when Jo refused Laurie’s proposal and he played that sonata as he watched her walk away in the garden outside of his window. My heart went out to Laurie then and it still does!

There are so many childhood memories that I could recount, but these will serve for now as I resolve to remember in the coming new year that our lives are shaped by the simple pleasures that live on beneath everything we do.

Somewhere recently I read: “Life is a sonnet. You’re given the form and then must write your own poem.” I believe that memories, even the dark ones, help us to achieve this.

Posted 7:17 pm, October 10, 2011
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