Sunday, May 31, 2020

“BROOKLYN, BY HEART” by Wendy Lee Klenetsky - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist



Wendy Lee Klenetsky


The date: April 20, 1951. That was my first day on Earth, and the day I began my Brooklyn odyssey. 

            Now, since I can't remember my first three years of life, I'll start with what I do remember  clearly: My life in Brooklyn; age four,1955, at nursery school. THE NEIGHBORHOOD
PLAYHOUSE NURSERY SCHOOL, East 7th Street and Avenue R or S to be exact. This wonderful place was a great introduction to friends, school, and sweet teachers. As it was the
'50's, and television was new and "all the rage", I got hooked on watching TV.  My fondest memory of playtime at NEIGHBORHOOD  PLAYHOUSE was going outside on their pebble-strewn yard. On one particular day, being the "TV baby" I was (and actually still am), I found their big green wooden blocks, put two blocks together (one across on the bottom and one standing up next to it) to make a chair, and one block a little ways away from the chair standing up. This block served as the television, and together they made a chair for me to sit in and face (watch) the television.  

I know what you're thinking:  My, how clever was that child, to create a setting of her living room?" Yes, I guess I was kind of clever; my teacher said so to my parents.  They were so proud of me!  I can still see it in my mind's eye, and it makes me smile.

            Then, I was 5 years old in 1956, and started kindergarten at P.S. 99;  a kindergarten through 8th grade school, located on East 10th Street between Avenues  K and L. What a wonderful school! That school was the "fountain of fond memories " for me. For example: My kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Koslowski. One fun thing we did in her class, during our "arts and crafts time", was to glue cotton balls onto a pre-outlined picture. There were pictures of animals, people, and objects found around the house and town. My particular picture was that of a kitty cat. I loved sticking the cotton balls onto its frame, and then feel the softness  and fluffiness of the  picture. It felt wonderful

            Then, the most important thing that happened to me during that kindergarten  year happened:  It was right before Christmas/Chanukah vacation. Mrs. Koslowski was teaching us holiday songs.  Just as she was teaching us "OH CHRISTMAS TREE", she stopped, turned to  the class, and asked the question:"When we sing, OH CHRISTMAS TREE, OH CHRISTMAS TREE, your colors are unchanging", what does unchanging mean?"  All the other kids in my class looked at each other  quizzically, but I raised my hand straight up. She asked, "Wendy, do you know what unchanging means?"  "I think so", I answered. "unchanging means not changing". "That's right, Wendy", Mrs. Koslowski responded. "What a smart little girl you are!" See why I said it was the most important thing that  happened during kindergarten?
             Something I found funny had to do with the schoolyards at P.S. 99. When I was in the lower grades, and lived near the Avenue K yard, the classes I was in had to line up on the Avenue L yard. And so naturally, when in the older grades, my family moved to East 10th Street between Avenue L and M the classes had to line up in the yard  nearer Avenue K. I just thought that was funny..

            In third grade, my class took a trip to the Brooklyn Aquarium in Coney Island. That very morning, a whale had been captured off the Brighton Beach coast, and brought to the Aquarium to get well. Since this was a news event, a television news crew was there, and GABE PRESSMAN was delivering  this news. My class gathered around the pool where the whale was swimming, and Mr. Pressman was reporting this special news. On camera, he spoke to my class and then he turned to me. "Do you have a name for the whale?" he asked me. I immediately said "WINNIE!".  He smiled and repeated "WINNIE", and said  "From today on, this whale will be called "WINNIE". Can you imagine how thrilled a little 8+1/2-year-old third grader would be after, while on television, having the name she chose become the whale's name from then on? It was (as the kids say today) awesome!

            Then I was 12 and in the sixth grade and in my home economics class. We girls were divided up into pairs, and were given a baking assignment: make muffins for the class.. Sounded a little difficult for us novice bakers. My partner Gail said  "Nothing to it".

        When I read 'one cup of oil' from the recipe instructions, she grabbed a bottle and poured it into the muffin tins. Within a few minutes, the home HomeEc room was filled with a disgusting smelly smoke. The teacher ran over to our oven, put on oven mitts and threw open the  oven door.  "What did you girls put into those muffin tins?", she asked while  chocking. I said, "Gail just poured a cup of that oil over there." "Which bottle", she yelled. "That one there",  I told her.  The teacher went over to the indicated bottle, and in a loud, half-laughing voice said "That bottle holds vinegar.  You two just created Vinegar Muffins!" To this day, I'm 1/2 embarrassed and 1/2 hysterical when I remember that home economics episode.

            Then came November 22,1963..
            I was in seventh grade and sitting in Mrs. Nable's math class. In those days, the desks  were nailed to the floor, so you couldn't turn them around and talk to you classmates. Mrs. Nable was a few minute late for class. Therefore, my friends and I continued talking and joking around. The boy in front of me,named Ira, told a hilarious joke, but I had to hold back my laughter  since Mrs. Nable had just walked in. A minute after that, there was an emergency message by the school's principal, Mrs. Nelson. She said, in a tearful voice, "President Kennedy was shot while riding in his limousine in Dallas, Texas today. He died  at 1:00pm!"
            At that very second, I could not hold back the laughter any more, and burst out in hysterics!!  Mrs. Nable and my entire math class stared at me with anger, hatred and daggers in their eyes. If looks could kill... that was (obviously) the worst day in P.S. 99.
            Every year on 'the anniversary', radio and TV announcers will inevitably say "I'm sure that those who were alive then, will never forget where they were when they heard the news."  I haven't forgotten that day, ever.

            A happier thing having to do with P.S.99:
            It was always fun and special to go to our movie house, "THE MIDWOOD THEATER". Those
who ran the theater came up with a great way to get kids to want to go to their movies: Every Friday, P.S. 99 teachers handed out colored cards with the name of the theater. Everybody got a different colored card.  When school ended, we kids would go the MIDWOOD THEATER and look at the admission window. A colored card was hanging there. If your card was the same color as the card in the window, you saw the movie for free!!  That was such fun!

            We eighth grade girls had to make our own graduation dresses!  I couldn't sew a stitch, but I was blessed with a grandfather who was a tailor, and so he made my "dotted Swiss" gown. It was beautiful!
            Graduation was held inside "THE KENT THEATER" on Coney Island Avenue.  Eighth  grade
classes lined up outside and on the side of "THE KENT", waiting to march into the theater. It started drizzling while we were outside, but stopped by the time we got inside. A lovely ceremony!
            From 1965-1969 I attended MIDWOOD HIGH SCHOOL. 

            The freshman year was held in "THE ANNEX"; a school in Kensington on 18th Avenue. It was
one of my favorite  school years.  I had always like writing poetry, and had a fantastic English teacher:
MICHAEL COLORITO.  After he'd read only ONE of my poems, he told me to write one every day and recite it to the class.  From then on, before I read my poem, he introduced me as "THE POET LAURATE OF THE CLASS". He made me feel so special and well as proud of my writings.  I loved him.

            MIDWOOD always held a "SING": a song/dance/play parody of the school by each  grade, with a "commissioner"  in charge of each grade. In my Senior year, the teacher in charge of  "SING" was in a rut: Nobody had volunteered to be the FRESHMAN SING COMMISSIONER.  I stepped in.
             It was hard work being the commissioner, but I had a ball! The teacher in charge thanked me by giving me a poetry book by Emily Dickinson, and wrote a lovely message on the cover page. That was a great experience!

            I might as well tell you where I and my girlfriends "hung out". It was called  "MIDWOOD FIELD", and was on East 16th Street and Avenue M. We'd go there to watch guys race around the track with their t-shirts off, or played handball that way, too.  There would always be some guy who'd talk to you and/or walk you home.  Nice memories..

            Those are my Brooklyn memories; memories I know by heart. But they don't end with my MIDWOOD graduation..

            I lived in Brooklyn while I was going to BERNARD M.BARUCH COLLEGE (NYC),\and it was in my senior year of college that I met and married a wonderful Brooklyn guy: Sheldon Klenetsky. We married on St. Patrick's Day, March 17th, 1974: 43 years ago! We then moved to "The Garden State", and were blessed with two fabulous  girls Both girls got married 11 weeks apart in 2013. 

             My younger daughter, a fine singer and composer, lives with her husband, in Morristown, New Jersey, where she works for the county as their web designer. She and her guy live with our 2 "grandcats".

            My older daughter, works as a special education teacher in Manhattan and  lives with her husband, in Brooklyn, in a lovely apartment on Ocean Parkway. I'll be back in Brooklyn every time we go to visit them.  She will now be making her own Brooklyn memories, and I pray that they'll be as happy as mine.

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