By Lisa (Ariel) Pontell
I grew up on 44th Street, closer to Skillman than 39th Avenue, and was proud to have one of the few addresses with a 40 in it. 40-12 felt like a solid, grounded number. The 39 addresses seemed as if they just itching to be a 40; in reality, they just ran out of numbers. As the last court built in Sunnyside Gardens, Madison Court is a different design from those built earlier. The court itself extends less than halfway down the block, while the rest of the houses heading north have only small alleyways.
Since the houses had only postage stamp size backyards, the courts of Sunnyside provided the illusion of a personal grand garden for the houses surrounding it. Although we were never permitted to enter, the lush grass, thick shrubbery and towering sycamores became part of our personal landscape. One of our neighbors, Mike, lovingly tended the court, and made sure no children transgressed his domain.
When I was 9 years old, my personal relationship with the court became more intimate. Since rooms in Sunnyside houses were smaller than was the 1950s style, many families enlarged their living rooms by tearing down a dividing wall and giving up one bedroom. My parents took my old room, and then enclosed the back porch to create a new bedroom for me. The highlight of the new room was the “picture” window which opened to a wide view of Madison Court and framed my view of the world. My desk was in front of that window and I spent many dreamy hours there. It was soon to become even more important in my life.
Just after my 13th birthday, I slipped on ice and broke my hip. It seems so archaic now, but there was little orthopedic expertise at the time and I was forced to stay at home for 2 ½ years, walking with crutches, with minimal home schooling. There were no adaptations in school for handicapped students, and I was not able to take a subway or bus. The NYC Board of Education required that I stay at home. At first many friends came to visit, but there were soon longer stretches without a knock on the door. I was never abandoned by my dear friend next door, but soon he was busy with his classmates at Stuyvesant.
So I did everything at home, even Regents Exams, which I took in front of that picture window. That window onto Madison Court meant everything to me; I watched every subtle change in the seasons from the first buds to the “itchy balls” to the last falling leaf. My best memory is awaking to the silence of what I knew must be snowfall, and open the curtains to the glory of the dazzling white blanket on Madison Court. The court was my window to the natural world, and it sustained me during the confinement of my teenage years.
In my senior year I finally made it back to high school, made new friends and became active in political causes. There were times, though, that I missed the peace and solace of my daily connection with Madison Court.
Lisa Pontell is a retired teacher living in San Francisco and West Hollywood with her husband of 50 years, Jonathan.