Lessons

    by Ann (Annluise Williams) Wyrick

          We moved to Sunnyside the summer before Kindergarten. We rented an apartment on 44th Street, two blocks from grandma and grandpa. My father was about to be called up to serve in the army. Until then, he had been classified as 4F and stayed out of the war. He was very slight, weighing only 116 lbs and was not deemed fit to serve. Now, in1943, he was being reconsidered as an able body, fit to fight.

 

          We moved to be near my father’s mother and father and also so that I could attend P.S. 150 which was a known to be a very progressive and enlightened school. Grandma and grandpa both worked at "Liquidometer" a factory in Long Island City that served the war effort. My grandmother, Rose Williams, was the original Rosie the Riveter, or so I thought.

 

          Sunnyside was a tale of two cities. The one uniting feature was the smell. In a prevailing wind, the odor from the "glue factory" was very strong. That smell was overwhelming. Then, there was the more pleasant smell of the Wonder Bread factory. Long Island City, the home of Sunnyside, was a large industrial area in Queens. LIRR was housed in the area: the candy factories, the bread factories and the factories that produced parts for airplanes and trucks and jeeps. But, the smell from the "glue factory" was unique and overpowering.

 

          Our three room apartment was a block away from Sunnyside Gardens and a light year away in class and status. Mother said, "the Comrades" lived in the "little houses" and we lived with the Catholics and the "bar babies". Skillman Avenue was the equivalent of crossing the railroad tracks, for our street had at one end a very active Catholic Church, Queen of Angels, at other end, next door to our apartment building, a thriving neighborhood bar, the Celtic Cafe..

 

          In the warm weather the babies were lined up in their strollers, sitting in the sun light, sucking on their bottles. My first encounter with children on the street has stayed with me all my life. I brought my doll and baby buggy down stairs and met a girl, older than I, who said, "We will play with you, but first you have to kneel down and pray to Jesus." I didn’t know much about religion, but I knew I was not going to kneel and pray to anyone.

 

          Happily, school started and I was enthralled with my teacher and the class. Miss Larkin was both my Kindergarten and first grade teacher. My major memory was of drawing and coloring with thick colored pieces of chalk. Miss Larkin had taped paper all around the chalk board, and I drew a barn and a cow and sunflowers and colored them in with the vivid colors of the chalk. I don’t remember learning to read or write, I only remember painting, coloring and acting in plays. I do remember being chastised by the teacher, as she said I squeezed the tube of paint from the middle of the tube and not from the bottom. "Your mother must be angry with you if you squeeze the toothpaste in this way,” she said.  I was mortified.  But, she didn’t know my mother. My mother would never be angry at such a thing.  I was not chastised for much.  Mother was very laissez-faire. She let me do anything I wanted.  I don’t know if I brushed my teeth.  Mother was not a stickler for cleanliness or routines of any kind.

          Looking back, I think my mother and father where the original hippies. They didn’t conform to anyone’s ideas. They were rather, free spirits. On a school night, if there was a movie they wanted to see, off we went. I don’t remember ever being asked if I had homework to do, or if I ever did homework. I saw so many movies, and so many were so inappropriate, that I credit my parents for making me dislike movies. From the first, "Fantasia" that I saw when I was about 4, to the "Lost Weekend" and a boxing horror with John Garfield, (mother’s favorite), I spent a large portion of the movie, on the floor, under the seat, or in the bathroom. Movies scared me to death.

 

          Second grade was very scary also. Miss Dunn was an old lady who walked up and down the aisles, checking on dirt under the fingernails and watching to make sure your hanky was pinned to your dress. Before lunch she monitored the aisle, clutching her box of Lorna Doone cookies and munching as she surveyed her realm. If we needed to use the bathroom, we were to put our hands on our heads, and she would nod her head if she thought it your turn. When we read a passage in our readers, I tried to scan the paragraphs to see if I could read silently the correct paragraph before reciting. It was a stressful year. Not very progressive! After second grade, all was wonderful, but it is amazing that Miss Dunn has held a lasting memory of dread and misery.

 

          During the war, we ate supper almost every night, with grandma and grandpa, in a delicatessen on 43rd Street. The regular patrons sat behind a drape and were served meat, when meat was available. Dinner was interminable. They all sat and drank coffee after eating and smoked and chatted and I had nothing to do. I would go outdoors and look in the shop windows and wait. We ate out so often I think that experience too, has colored my taste for dining out. Saturday night we usually ate Chinese food and Sunday, Italian at a restaurant across Queens Boulevard where I only ate spaghetti with butter sauce.

 

          I believe it was in second grade that mother found a dance studio and a piano teacher for me. She had looked at a studio across Queens Boulevard, but thought it too commercial, as the teacher taught tap and ballet and held recitals where the girls wore glittery outfits. Of course, she didn’t like the fact that I would have to cross Queens Boulevard. I would, by necessity, be going by myself, because my mother worked in a union office in Manhattan and didn’t get home until five o’clock or later. She found the studio of Ann Helen Lee, who had been a soloist in the Metropolitan Opera, a studio in the basement of her mother’s home on 43 rd Street. Perfect!

 

          And it was perfect. She was a fine teacher and I went there Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for many years. She was a lovely young woman, who taught well and allowed the students to improvise at the end of each lesson. Oh how I loved that section of the class. She was probably the most innovative of all the subsequent teachers I studied with. She believed in freedom of expression, a rarity in the formal ballet teachers’ belief system.

          Then my father came home in taxi one evening with a cabaret piano that some bar was getting rid of.  It had only 66 keys and the red paint was peeling off, but he carried it up the one flight of stairs to our apartment and a teacher was found and I began piano lessons. Mother scouted around and found a "comrade" who was trained in Russia and who lived nearby in the Sunnyside Gardens.

 

          Mr Kantorovsky was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful man and a wonderful pianist.  Mother had done it again.  She scouted out the best that was available.  Mr. Kantorovsky was probably the most influential teacher of my life.  To this day, I can remember his playing on some of the Bach Preludes and Fugues that I play today.  I am always reminded of him and his interpretation on individual pieces that he taught me.  So I didn’t have a baby sitter after first grade, I had activities that I attended. If I got home early and mother was not there yet, I called her at Circle 5-8440 and told her I was home.

 

          School was wonderful.  Miss Frankel, in third grade, who played recordings to introduce us to Classical music.  “Beethoven, he was great, in the symphony he called the eighth”.  “This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished”.  “Morning is dawning and Peer Gynt is yawning and Grieg is shining his shoes”.  I guess this is what I learned and remembered forever.  We put on plays and recited cantatas and performed the “Life of Young Mozart”.  I think my classmate David H. began to think of himself as a prodigy because he had the leading role in the play in Mrs. Levine’s fourth grade class.

          In Mrs. Malden’s fifth grade, we would arrive in the classroom and she would be sitting on a high stool, reading the Daily Worker.  We read Howard Fast, and again put on plays and recited poetry.  A most unusual elementary education!  I so wish my children had been as fortunate.

          Teachers always took us on trips.  We went to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History.  We took our lunch bags and held the hand of a buddy, rode the subway and carried sketch pads and charcoal and sat on the floor in the different wide corridors, sketching men in armor on horseback.  We had a trip to Hunter College and saw a wonderful production of the Mikado.  These are my memories of school.  I didn’t learn to spell and still can’t, but I do recall some of the poetry and music.

 

          When in Junior High, which was a terrible shock and horrible, traumatic two years, we had a group that continued to go to museums on Saturdays, without a chaperone.  We had our own leader.  I vividly remember a lecture David gave in front of the Guernica at the MOMA, in which he tore into Picasso, announcing that Michelangelo would have done a much better depiction of that violence!

 

          These are my memories….

Ann Wyrick, 2016