Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Telling Caroline

Picture courtesy of the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, Boston

In honor of this week's 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas of President John F. Kennedy, here is my essay about the time I saw him in the flesh a mere four months before he died. The essay was published in American Heritage Magazine in July 2006 under the title "That Smile." 

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, the Kennedys were a vivid presence in our household. My father had “Profiles of Courage” on the bookshelf by his special chair, and Jackie Kennedy’s outfits were featured in all my mother’s fashion magazines. Even I - a first-grader - had a Jackie and Caroline paper doll set that I played with all the time. I was fascinated by Caroline because we were almost exactly the same age - she was born a mere five days before me in late 1957.

In August 1963, my family went on vacation to Cape Cod. On the first Sunday of the vacation, my father took a detour from the route we usually took to the beach and pulled into a little parking lot just off a two-lane rural road. Another family was already parked there, and I couldn’t understand why. It seemed an unlikely place to stop. There was nothing to see but the hedge bordering the road, and nothing to hear but the faint sound of waves in the distance.

I was bored. I didn’t understand why we weren’t hightailing it straight to the beach on that fine summer morning instead of stewing in a hot car. Be patient, my father said, something exciting is going to happen, but that was hard to believe. My mother was sitting sideways in the passenger seat, using the flip-down visor mirror to put on her lipstick. My little brother dozed in his car seat. My dad was chatting with the father of the other family, leaning against the side of their car. I tried counting birds flying overhead but hardly any went by. I got out of the car and drifted around the make-shift parking lot, a mere patch of gravel carved out of a field. I began to run round the lot in ever-decreasing circles to see how dizzy I could make myself, round and round. Suddenly I realized I could hear the gathering growl of what sounded like motorbikes in the distance. Intrigued, I glanced up, still running, and caught the toe of my sneaker on something and pitched forward heavily onto the gravel. 

I can distinctly remember the sharp pain in my knees and my howl of shock and outrage. At that exact second, my father shouted, “He’s coming!” and my mother hooked me under the armpits and swung me like a sack to the verge of the road. Along the narrow country lane came two motorcycle outriders and then a long black limo and to my astonishment I saw at the limo's window the unmistakable face of the President of the United States.

When John F. Kennedy caught sight of me, a tearful five-year-old with bloody knees, he said something to his driver and the long, low car slowed to a crawl. The President turned back to the window and smiled and waved - at me. “Wave, wave,” my mother urged me, her own hands still trapped under my armpits, and I did, mesmerized by the President’s dazzling sympathetic smile. At the same time, I could feel trickles of blood oozing down my legs into the elastic of my knee-socks. As the car passed us, we all piled into the road, still waving. The President turned around to look out of the limo’s back window and kept right on waving and smiling and waving and smiling until a bend in the road took him out of our sight.

Forty years later I call still feel the shock of being caught in the spotlight of that famous gaze. For days afterwards, with crisscrossed Band-Aids like a badge of honor on each knee, I basked in the glory of that moment.

What I did not know till later was that the Kennedys’ newborn son Patrick had died only two days earlier. Kennedy had been to Holy Mass alone that morning as Jackie was still in the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, recovering from her ordeal. Later that day, the President took Caroline to the hospital to visit her mother for the first time since the baby’s birth and death. In the press the next day, Caroline was pictured clutching a bunch of daisies and pressing her lips to the back of her daddy’s hand. 

Three months later, I came home from school one afternoon and found my father sitting in front of the television set in tears. I had seen his car in the garage and come running in, full of joy to have him home from work so early, but he had gotten up from his chair and gone into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He hadn’t even said hello. My mother hastened to reassure me that he wasn’t mad at me, he was just upset because something very bad had happened to President Kennedy. It took a few minutes before I fully understood that the President was dead, but when it did, my first terrible thought was that someone, somehow was going to have to break the news to Caroline.  


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It was a very good year

My mother smoking a cigar, 1959

I’ve just spent two weeks delicately dismantling the artefacts that make up a life. After a rapid deterioration in her physical health earlier this year, my mother moved into a residential care home in southern England in August and her flat must now be sold to pay the fees. So I went home (yes, I guess I still think of Britain as “home”) to help my brother sort through my mum’s possessions and make the difficult decisions about what to keep and what has to go.

My mother has moved several times since she and my father left the home in Scotland where I grew up and they subsequently divorced, but in every place she’s managed to reconfigure her belongings to create a beautiful and harmonious living space. She’d been in this particular flat only eight years and yet in every corner I found objects that held echoes of her life and mine. A bookcase built by my father for their first apartment together, a soapstone seal bought at an Eskimo fair in Canada, chairs from Scottish antique shops that my mother restored, a seahorse wall hanging from the island of Crete...

My particular concern was to make sure I had rescued and preserved all the old photographs and files full of important letters and papers - her archive. There is nowhere for these things to be stored at the care home or in my brother’s house so I am having them shipped across the ocean to join my father’s archive and that of my in-laws in our basement in Maryland.

In going through the files to make sure I hadn’t missed anything that ought to be kept, it was brought home to me that my mother hasn’t just been a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother. She’s also a much-exhibited artist with several prizes to her name. And despite not having been in paid employment since before I was born, she was a professional woman. When we lived in Scotland in the 1970s, she was one of the pioneer members of The Children’s Panel, a non-judgmental tribunal dealing with young people who have broken the law or are in care. At each hearing, three community volunteers, in consultation with social workers and the families themselves, come to a decision that is in the best interests of the child. And after moving south to England, she became closely involved in the work of HACRO, the Hertfordshire Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

These are the parts of her life – the ones I didn’t pay much attention to in my own teenage and young adult years – that I have come to appreciate now, elbow-deep in the dust of box files that haven’t been opened in decades. The dust that accumulates on everybody’s archive in the end.

My mother’s life may be moving into the last act, but it isn’t over yet. Though her body is debilitated and diminished by osteoporosis, she is still as sharp as ever mentally and has a continued curiosity about the many people who now take care of her. They are men and women from all corners of the globe - Nepal, Albania, Fiji, India, Sicily, the Philippines. She knows about their children, their troubles and preoccupations. They sit on the edge of her bed and tell her their stories. So while I am rediscovering the story of her life, she is learning theirs. And so it goes on...

“But now the days grow short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year.”

It was a Very Good Year by Ervin Drake (click here for the lovely version by the Kingston Trio).