The House on 39th Avenue
by Deborah Heller
Sunnyside was a small community situated midway between Long Island City and Forest Hills. In terms of family incomes, too, it was somewhere between the more working-class Long Island City and the more middle- and upper-middle-class Forest Hills. Our nearest stop on the IRT subway line, Bliss Street, was about fifteen minutes from Times Square and a fifteen-to-twenty-minute walk (longer on short child’s legs) from our home.
My parents were not isolated in Sunnyside. It was home to a whole enclave of mostly left-wing Jewish schoolteachers with children. What few non-schoolteachers there were among my parents’ friends were married to schoolteachers. The neighborhood was predominantly non-Jewish, but not overwhelmingly so. When I later attended the local junior high school, I met children from a wider diversity of homes: not only non-Jewish students but also Jewish students whose parents were neither left-wing nor schoolteachers.
We lived successively in two houses in Sunnyside. I don’t know the reason for our move, but because of the housing shortage, my parents were forced to buy the second house, on 39th Avenue near 49th Street, where I grew up. It was a quiet spot. My friends and I played hopscotch on the sidewalk and stickball in the street around the corner from my home. If any careless driver ventured up the one-way 49th Street in the wrong direction, we would gleefully chant in chorus, “One way! One Way!” In the fall, the grown-ups would rake together huge piles of fallen dry leaves in the street and then transform them into thrilling bonfires.
Our house was a small two-story brick structure, freestanding on one side and sharing a wall and a stoop with an identical structure on the other side. Our street, lined with London plane trees (from whose trunks I liked to pick off the flaking bark), was composed of similarly attached houses. One entered our house through a miniscule foyer that led to a small living room adjoining a small dining room, off which was a narrow kitchen. (It is hard to avoid the word small in describing the house.) Our kitchen was somewhat different from those in the other houses because a previous owner had built an eating area that blossomed out at the end to accommodate (barely) an oval table placed in front of windows overlooking the backyard. This eating area took space from our yard but also freed space in the dining room so it could accommodate my father’s desk, chair, and a daybed on which he would regularly lie down for a snooze after coming home from work and having his drink. Also in the dining room were dark mahogany bookcases with pull-down glass doors to shield the books from dust. Upstairs were three bedrooms and one bathroom. In front of the house was a small yard surrounded by a chest-high hedge that my father kept neatly clipped; within the hedge was a hydrangea bush whose flowers turned deep blue when in bloom. A coal-fired furnace heated the house, and on winter mornings my father would get up early to go to the basement and shovel coal into the flames behind the furnace door.
The backyard was surrounded by a somewhat higher hedge and, through a laneway, opened onto a large rectangular common area. For a short time during the war, we grew string beans in our backyard (a “liberty garden”), but my mother had essentially no interest in the yard or gardening. Nor did she ever quite adjust to the low eight-foot ceilings in the living and dining rooms, apparently so different from the more spacious Manhattan apartment my parents had left. My mother had had to buy bedroom furniture (chairs and a loveseat instead of a sofa) for the living room because no full-size living room furniture would fit. In what was probably an effort to make the living room look larger, she would periodically rearrange the furniture. During my graduate school years I was once in a house of similar design in a suburb of Boston. The general effect was that of a dollhouse.
Excerpted from The Goose Girl, the Rabbi and the New York Teachers: a Family Memoir (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013).
Deborah Heller is a retired professor of Humanities at York University, Toronto. She is co-editor of Jewish Presences in English Literature and the author of Literary Sisterhoods: Imagining Women Writers; Daughters and Mothers in Alice Munro's Later Stories; and The Goose Girl, The Rabbi and the New York Teachers: a Family Memoir.