Work and Play was housed in a beautiful old brownstone, just a few short blocks from the Museum of Natural History and half-a-block from the greatest playground ever - Central Park. On those rock mountains, children’s bodies adventured and their imaginations were unleashed. My mother, teacher extraordinaire and administrator, was the heart and soul of this progressive Manhattan nursery school. Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I’d venture with her on the subways from Queens to help out on any day I could get off from the routine demands of my own school’s relative boredom. En route, we’d sit on stools at the counter in her favorite coffee shop for the requisite buttered roll. I believe that this essential meal fortified us for the delicious chaos of noisy exuberant children, whose booboos and crises I learned to comfort, with a shared knowing smile over their heads to my mentor.
Her large body sprawled authoritatively on a chair designed for a small child. She got them singing and moving their energetic little bodies to old Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs like, “Put Your Finger in the Air” and “HaHa Thisaway” and “Car Car” and “I’m Gonna Mail Myself to You”. She read stories in such a way that you couldn’t help but be glued. I learned much about child development (the world-shaking distinctions between three’s and four’s), group dynamics, fairness, big-heartedness and the endless benefits of a generous lap. Her insistence that the dress-up corner be filled with treasures such as nightgowns, colorful hats and sparkly necklaces fit neatly together with the stacks of wooden blocks and puppets. I inhaled a trust and dedication to the playful creative spirit of children that for a long time I had no words for.
Many years later, after a circuitous route that led me past a leftover teenage rebellious stance that proclaimed, ”I never want to do what my mother did”, I found myself immersed in the field of early education, of day care. Twenty-six years ago, I made an ever larger leap of faith to birth PlayReflections, “playshops” for the kid in everyone, and understood that I’d come full circle. By dedicating my life to playing with people who used to be kids I honor how much I learned at my mother’s side.
I walked through the gates, weary from the flight. LaGuardia Airport, always crowded, always a combo platter blast of NYC’s familiarity and impersonal nature. Though not quite fully on the earth yet, I looked around for my ride, my father, who’d promised to meet my plane. Amidst the throngs of business-suit clad greeters holding signs for their out-of-town clients, silently imploring, “Please feel recognized/welcomed/professionally respected” - with the implicit assumption that those arriving were important.
I couldn’t contain the grin that filled my face as I saw him, standing still in the crowd, with a mischievous grin of his own, a yellow post-it stuck to his forehead with “Bassis” scrawled on it. As I write these words, I am still awed by his many outrageous acts of public creative silliness, and I pray that his spirit feels the depth of the impact his courage to play continues to have on me.
"I Smiled at Her"
Jeanne's Intro: I realized tonight that the stories I’ve been writing lately, the ones that just pour out, my true stories that have touched me and stayed with me so distinctly are following a lineage. My father wrote stories. When he was six years old, second youngest of seven, his mother died and the Great Depression hit. Unable to care for so many children, his father did what was was common at the time, put his children in an orphanage. My father lived at the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphanage Asylum, (B.H.O.A.) affectionately referred to as “the home” until 1939. Much of my extended family growing up were the home boys and girls and their families. As editor for many years of The B.H.O.A. Bulletin, my father wrote many stories about life in “the home”, of the camaraderie of children during hard times. His stories were often laced with much humor, with finding the good and childlike innocence in a world so incomprehensibly strange. Once, he wrote a story about me, very different from his home boy stories, and printed it in The Bulletin. With deep respect and gratitude for his love, I share this with you now. ~ Jeanne Bassis
by Jerry Bassis (Jeanne's Dad) - 8/9/1967
The Family was back from vacation two days and the realities of urban life presented itself as they watched the 7:00 P.M. News. The scenes from Newark and Plainfield resembled a battlefield. While a commentator was attempting to explain it all, their daughter Jeanne, 12 1/2, walked into the room. “Daddy”, she spoke up after a few minutes, “remember when we stopped in the rest area on the way home Sunday?” “Yes”, he nodded absentmindedly. “Did you notice there was a whole busload of Negro children there?” “Uh...Uh,” he answered, only half-listening. “Well, when I went into the bathroom, this girl about my age was standing there...and she looked at me...so cold...” Startled, he felt a pang of sorrow at the picture of children caught in the crosscurrents of racial strife inheriting the suspicions and hostilities of their elders.
“Did anything happen?”, his casual tone masking the anxious glance that he and his wife exchanged. “Nothing,” Jeanne said. “I just sort of smiled at her.” “What did she do?” he asked. Jeanne answered rather softly, “She smiled back."