A Favorite Memory

by Marjorie Godlin Roemer

        I am always surprised at what we remember and what we don’t.  These memories are early ones from the days when I was in nursery school.  I know I went there for at least a year, perhaps two.  Yet these two memories are all I’ve got from what must have been hundreds of days.  All the intervening times are gone.  It was The Sunnyside Progressive School just off Queens Boulevard.  Probably about 44th or 45th Street.  I remember that when the teacher read stories aloud, little bits of spittle collected at the corners of her mouth.  Her name is a blank; the stories are a blank; where we sat; what the routine was . . . nothing . . . just that about the spittle remains.

            The more interesting memory from that time is this one.  We were allowed to go to the easels and paint whenever we wanted to, I think.  (Progressive School, you will remember.)  Most of the children painted the same little pictures of a small house, with a path, a picket fence and a tree.  I remember this because most of us had probably never seen such a house, and we certainly didn’t live in such houses.  We lived in big apartment houses, but this little image was the sign for a home that we had seen in picture books, the image that said that this was a home and what we lived in was something else entirely.  

            However, I never painted that particular symbol.  I just threw paint at the paper and let it splash about, drip together, frolic on the page.  The teachers would say: “Marjorie Ann, what are you painting?”  And I would reply: “A design.”

            The teachers, apparently easily impressed, were.  They were transported, telling my parents how talented I was, how I must be enrolled in “The Little Red School House,” an even more progressive school at the other end of Manhattan.  They likened my “work” to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”

            Now, as I think about this, I don’t know if I did what I did because I had the word “design,” and so that freed me to paint the way I did.  It gave a name to something that became a possibility, or did I find the word because I wanted to do that sort of painting.  Either way, I’ve been painting like that more or less ever since.

            I went to the High School of Music and Art; I went to the Art Students’ League, but I never became a draftsman, just a wild colorist.  I didn’t study art for years and years after, but when my husband died, I thought I’d go back to painting again, and I enrolled in a class at the Danforth Museum here in Framingham.  In the first class the teacher set up a white on white still life, a very difficult assignment.  The other students were setting about very realistic replications of the scene.  I didn’t have those skills.  I felt defeated.  Almost in tears, I said to the teacher: I don’t aspire to be Vermeer; I want to be Matisse (or maybe Duchamp).

Marjorie Godlin Roemer is a retired creative writing teacher at Rhode Island College.  She currently teaches memoir writing to Seniors at the Brandeis Osher Lifelong Learning program.