MY WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE
By Barbara Cullen Lawrence
Last month, I received notice that my elementary school, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Forest Hills, was having a reunion. I graduated in January 1954, with an eight grade education and a love/hate relationship with the whole experience.
Four years ago, I had the time of my life at a reunion for members of the Community House. It was so much fun to see the friends from my teens, some of whom I hadn’t seen in forty years. I was not able to be present physically at the OLQM reunion so I’ve decided to take my own walk down memory lane.
I lived at 71-50 Austin Street, which was about a five-minute walk from Our Lady Queen of Martyrs. The school is an imposing structure of gray stone and is located at the corner of Austin Street and Ascan Avenue. There were two graduating classes each year one in February and another in June. Traditionally, the February classes were small. Mine had sixteen kids. The June classes were much larger, often over sixty kids.
I went home for lunch every day. In those days, there were no lunch programs. You either brought your lunch, went home for lunch or, if you were really brave, told the nuns that you were going home for lunch but then snuck over to the Pizza Prince for a slice or Sutton Hall for a burger and fries. It was strictly tabooed by the administration but many of the older kids did it anyway.
Eating out was only one of a million ways a student could get into trouble. As I recall, my biggest problem was that my mouth was constantly running and whenever I was reprimanded and I would put on a face, which my Italian Grandmother called a “funga”. It was a pout that reminded her of a mushroom. At any rate, it would infuriate the nuns and made me a permanent fixture on their list of troublemakers.
The saintly nuns did their best to get my behavior under control. But when I slipped, I was made to walk in the boy’s line and/or sit on the boy’s side of the room. This punishment was the ultimate humiliation because all of the other children were instructed to ignore me. Banishment to the cloakroom was another common punishment. The worst of all, of course, was being sent to the Mother Superior’s office. She was the most imposing figure in all of Barbara Cullen history. Mother Wensenslaus was easily six feet tall and looked like a mountain to a small child. “You again, Miss Cullen”? Out would come the ruler and I would take a couple of whacks, “palms-up”.
We all wore uniforms. I never really minded this because I believe that it bonded us together. The girls wore navy blue pleated jumpers over a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar and a clip-on navy bow. The boys wore navy slacks, white shirts and clip-on blue ties.
Our nuns were from the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. They wore large starched collars and from each neck swung a large crucifix. Huge black rosaries dropped from waists and their long navy and black habits covered them from head to toe. I remember that I used to wonder how long it took them to get all those clothes on and if they were in fact bald underneath those headdresses.
We started and ended each day by marching in perfect lines past Mother Wenseslaus while she clapped in cadence to the music of John Phillip Sousa. We were instructed to look at the head of the person in front of us and to keep our hands at our sides. When we got to class, we marched to our seats and stood quietly while morning prayers and the pledge of allegiance were recited. Our desks were in straight lines facing the Sister Mary Something or Other’s desks. The nuns truly had eyes in the back of their heads and could spot a transgressor in a heartbeat. Justice, nun style, was swift.
Most of the girls in my class were model students. The boys were typical boys. Although they were always in trouble, I know that they were just squirrelly kids.
I remember every single child that was in my class except for the name of one little boy. I think his name was Guy, but I’m not sure. He was very frail looking and had a shock of hair that stood straight up. He was a good student but terribly shy and he kept to himself most of the time. We had two students whose fathers were Ambassadors to the United Nations. Nancy Fernandez was from Venezuela and Rose Marie Lopez from the Phillipines. I remember my parents were very impressed by this and that they thought it was a very big deal. Another celebrity student was Jean Herlihy whose father was Ed Herlihy, a famous radio personality. I remember that her family was very good friends with Perry Como and this was a very big deal to me.
The rest of us were just regular neighborhood kids.
Johnny Janosko and Billy Wallace were cousins. They were always cutting up. I thought they were so funny. Many of my visits to the cloakroom were a direct result of these two entertainers.
Mary Alice Hettler was the most popular kid in the class. She was the nuns’ favorite, not to mention the favorite of all the other kids in the class. She had to all: smart, cute, funny and everybody’s good friend.
Janet Guiffrita was definitely the most sensual. She was the first to grow boobs and wore them with pride, much to the chagrin of the good sisters.
Patricia Dawson was white as a sheet. She was so pale that her beins were stark blue against her skin. She was attractive, blonde and very thin and probably grew up to be a model or something.
Tommy Clark was the smartest of the boys. He also had a wonderfully dry sense of humor. Later, in high school, his brother Kenny and I became close friends.
Alan deJardin was another smarty. His hair was red and he had lots of freckles and a big smile. You had to wonder if Buffalo Bob was far behind when he entered a room. My friend Elaine Mateo was in love with him. Later, when I started dating my future husband, Jack Lawrence, we often ran into Alan at West Point. They were both cadets and one year apart at the academy.
Kurt Rae was a Community House friend. He was one of the very few Community House folks that were at OLQM. Most of the Community House kids were not Catholic. My friend Joannie DiMarinis was in love with him.
Joseph Rini was a very nice kid. He had an older cousin, also named Joseph Rini who wasn’t so nice. Poor Joe the younger took a lot of flack because of that, I ran into Joe and his family many years later on the Mt. Washington, a paddle boat that sailed around Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire, It was a nice coincidence. He was the only member of my class who I have seen as an adult.
Kathleen Ward was an extremely bright girl. I liked her and would often go to her house after school. She had an older brother named Sonny who was always in big trouble. It seemed odd that they were brother and sister, one so good and the other so bad.
Joan Van Patten was probably my best friend while we were at OLQM. She lived at the Leslie Apts. In the Forest Hills Garden, which I thought was very ritzy. Her mother was a single parent and a career gal. Joan had a nanny, Claire, and a cocker spaniel named Buffy. I was always jealous of the fact that she lived in an apartment and was still allowed to have a dog.
Jeffrey Ogilvy was a sweet boy. His father died while were at OLQM and I remember how devastated we all were. At the time I couldn’t imagine how sad it would be to lose a parent at such a young age. Now I know that it is a tragedy at any age.
Then there was Carmen Sasso. The only thing I can remember about her is that she had a head of hair that rivaled a lion’s mane.
Barbara Lavolsi was the most diminutive girl. She always made me feel like a whale. I was five feet six inches by the time I was twelve.
While were were students at OLQM, we had three rights of passage: First Holy Communion, which involved First Confession. Then there was Confirmation and finally Eighth Grade Graduation. Every year the school put on a play that included the entire student body. That was the highlight of the year for me. We got to wear store bought costumes and put on makeup. My father always came to see the play and took me for ice cream afterwards. After the ice cream came the real treat. He bought me a half a pound of pistachio nuts and I didn’t have to share them with anyone.
Every Saturday afternoon, we were required to go to confession. “Bless me father for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. I accuse myself of___” and the blank was filled with the sins of a child. There was one priest that everyone avoided like a carrier of the plague. His name was Father White. He always yelled at us for our transgressions and gave a lot of penance. There was also a Chinese priest. The line for his confessional backed-up and wrapped around the church, twice. He didn’t understand English all that well and his standard penance was three Our Father’s and three Hail Mary’s. I remember thinking that this was more than reasonable.
Monsignor McLaughlin was the pastor of the church. It was quite an honor to have him visit the classroom. Everyone would stand in his presence until instructed to do otherwise. He hated it when boys wore suspenders and he would provide fits of laughter by snapping those suspenders hard against their chests. He also loved giving the sisters a hard time, which of course we loved as well.
These are my recollections of the children and some of the religious authority figures. I don’t remember any of the nuns by name or personal anecdote. God has mercifully wiped some things clean from my memory.
I loved my OLQM education. To this day I can memorize a passage from any text. Because of the Baltimore Catechism I know that “God made me to know Him, to love Him and serve Him in this world so that I could be with Him forever in heaven”. I can still diagram a sentence. I read books for pleasure and even though I’m left-handed, I write like a righty. By the time I reached the eighth grade, I had learned how to act like a lady, knew all the Latin responses in the Mass and knew what Gregorian Chant was long before it was pop culture. After having served for twenty-three years in education, I am still amazed that one nun could control over sixty children in one classroom, without the help of parent volunteers or teacher’s aides. Back then, the standard for ADHD was a trip to the Mother Superior’s office and visit with the ruler, palms-up. Parents didn’t threaten to sue the school if their kid had to write, “I will not talk in class” five hundred times.
My friend, Elaine Matteo Treweek called me prior to the reunion to see if I would be attending. We spent over an hour playintg do you remember this and that. It was terrific to hear how excited she was over the prospect of seeing friends.
Another childhood friend, Joan DiMarinis McManus, called to tell me that on the spur of the moment she decided to go to the reunion. She had the time of her life seeing friends that she hadn’t seen in over forty years. She was amazed that everyone looked so good. But then, old friends always look wonderful!