by Joanna (Mehrer) Kapner
I was born in Manhattan in 1942; the building, known then as the French Hospital is now a condominium. In 1944, when I was about 2 years old, we moved to 40-10 44th Street in Sunnyside. My brother Bob was born in March of that year.
My earliest Sunnyside memory, from sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1944, is a mental image of a woman in white, sitting on a sofa holding a baby (my brother) as my parents and I were leaving the house. We were departing to spend a week in New Hampshire, where my father’s sister and brother-in-law had a summer home. I learned much later that I had been playing the not unusual role of the first born child who suddenly finds herself displaced by the arrival of a sibling. Leaving my new brother behind allowed me to become the center of attention for a brief time. Evidently the technique worked, although it must have been a strain for my parents to come up with the funds, because after that Bob and I got along reasonably well.
Bernice and Sidney Penner, also Sunnyside residents, were among my parents’ close friends. Sidney wrote headlines for the NY Post, and Bernice was an artist who worked in paint and clay. She taught ceramics classes in her basement. Many of us learned there how to throw clay on a wheel, shaping it into bowls or figures which she baked in her kiln. My mother also learned about clay from Bernice; I still have a small ashtray that she made. The Penners had two children, Julie, who was the older, and Philip, who was my age. I had an early “crush” on Philip, but once we both started kindergarten he made it clear that he no longer had time for girls!
Bernice, Sid and Julie Penner
Bernice and Philip modelling clay
Sunnyside was a wonderful place to be a child. I remember coming home from school, changing from school clothes into play clothes and going out into the street to play. There was very little traffic (few people owned cars then) and the paved street provided a wonderfully smooth surface for games such as hopscotch and stickball as well as for roller skating. In winter we made snowmen in our front yards. In summer, we bought ice cream pops from the Good Humor man who came on his bicycle, with the freezer in front. There was rival ice cream man, Eskimo Pie, but when he came to our block we all went into hiding because someone had started a rumor that he was the boogieman (whatever that meant) and we were afraid of him. I assume he was able to sell his wares on other Sunnyside blocks.
Janet Lewis and Joanna shovel after the "Big Snow" in 1947
Joanna's turn at potsy while brother Bobby looks on
The Sunnyside homes, brick row houses, enclosed interior courtyards maintained for the use of all residents, with paths, benches and planted areas. One of my close Sunnyside friends was a bright redhead named Victoria (Vicky) Woskoff. Vicky had a vivid imagination, making up all kinds of stories and adventures that the two of us acted out in our courtyard; she led and I followed.
The local public school was so crowded that we had split sessions; some of us went to class in the mornings and others attended during the afternoon. In the aftermath of World War II, in addition to a housing shortage there were now many more children than the school system was built to accommodate even with large classes. But at least our school was within walking distance, something I took for granted then but came to appreciate later on.
Many of the Sunnyside houses, including ours, had several cement steps (a “stoop”) leading from the sidewalk to the front door. When Halloween came, the children in the neighborhood all dressed up to go in search of treats. My mother was not keen on our wandering too far from home, but she was too clever to impose too many rules. Instead, she would set out enormous bowls of candy and popcorn on the top landing of the stoop; the result was that all of our friends simply came to our stoop and there was no pressing need to go anywhere else. The stoop was also a good backstop for bouncing a pink rubber ball, known to us as a “spaldeen”.
Joanna with her doll carriage on the stoop
We didn’t have a TV set in those days, but I remember going after school to visit the Friedlanders, on the corner of 43rd Street and Skillman Avenue, to watch Howdy Doody. I had another friend, Maxine Vogel who lived at the opposite end of the block. We shared the exact same birthday (month, day and year) but she was disabled, as we say today, wore braces on her legs and rode a bus to a special school. She developed a brain tumor which resulted in blindness and finally took her life at the age of 14. I visited her a few times at home where she showed me how she could tell time using her Braille watch. At one of those visits, Maxine gave me a colorful plaid silky scarf which of course she could not see. I still have the scarf, although the fabric was thin and has since worn through at the creases so I cannot wear it. Shortly before Maxine died her mother took me to see her in the hospital. I realized afterwards that of course the nursing staff must have helped arrange the visit because in those days the visiting age was 16, and I, who was always small for my age, must have looked about 10 or 11 years old at the time.
Some of the two-story Sunnyside houses were lived in by a single owner (the Penners owned theirs and the Friedlanders did too.) We, however, were living in the upstairs apartment, and the family who owned the house lived downstairs. In 1952 the owners decided that they wanted the whole house, so we had to leave. We moved farther out in Queens, to a new cooperative housing project called Mitchell Gardens.
Sunnyside is now landmarked so its brick houses are protected from massive change. I went out there one day last fall, just to look around and to walk from my former home to the local public school. It was a weekday, and there was very little activity on the streets. I hope to pay another visit in late spring, when the trees will be leafy and the grass green once more.
Joanna and Philip
Joanna (Mehrer) Kapner is a Reed College alum, retired former pension actuary and grandmother who now does volunteer work related to her synagogue.