Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

FeaturedWhere Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

On the afternoon of November 23, 1963, I walked through my empty high school cafeteria to pick up the receiver hanging from the pay phone in the corner. As I said hello, I noticed the cooks in the back of the kitchen huddled around a radio. My mother, Agnes, was on the line.

“Are you all right?”

When I was fourteen-years old, I had immersed myself in the 1960 presidential race. Agnes hardly listened to me when I talked to her about it (what adult listens to a fourteen-year-old) but when it came time to vote, she asked me what to do. She didn’t want to vote for a Catholic. Now she had to report that my hero, President John F. Kennedy, had been shot. She was visiting a friend and suggested I catch the bus from Williamsburg to Washington to join them. I was under no one’s legal custody but my father had given the boarding school nuns orders prohibiting me from seeing my mother. I frantically called my father and asked if he’d sign off on letting me go to her. He said no.

I slinked over to sit with the downtrodden cooks listening for any morsel of hope. There was none. We lamented together—me and the Black kitchen workers in southern Virginia, slave descendants, whose hope for civil rights laid in the Kennedy White House. My sorrow could never touch the depth of theirs. They comforted me, as if my heritage had also been clouded by the despair of violence. They made me theirs. I was in the company of saints.th-8

The nuns had us boarding students go to chapel throughout the weekend then allowed us to fill our other hours watching TV. The next week I visited my father for Thanksgiving. While he and I were sifting through the magazine rack in People’s Drug Store at DuPont Circle, the store radio blurted out President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that Florida’s Cape Canaveral would now be known as Cape Kennedy (ten years later Floridians changed it back). 

“Hear that? Never forget where you were when you heard that,” he said.

Washington sputtered that weekend in the aftermath of the assassination—no one moved except the crowds advancing to JFK’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. 

At eighteen and without a driver’s license I capitalized on my father’s somber distraction to hone my driving skills with his car, visiting school friends who were home for the holiday. Everyone was glued to their TVs, trying to settle their own emotions. So I, having red-lighted my feelings, spent time alone learning to navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the notoriously confusing Pierre L’Enfant circles, Key Bridge, Pennsylvania Avenue and the cobbled streets of Georgetown. I stayed in the Northwest part of the city sensing something sinister about Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast Washington.

I cruised by the home I’d occupied with my parents and two sisters a dozen years before, wondering what happened to our family. I had no idea what alcoholism was nor did I realize I was living in the consequences of that untreated disease.

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

We stood in the street in front of my mother’s house five blocks from the Atlantic Ocean for what Walter Cronkite called the Eclipse of the Century. My 3-year old son Joe hippity hopped atop a bouncy ball clinging to the red rubber handle between his legs. Stacy, my 13-year old sister huddled on the frosty curb with her friend Billy. They had those cardboard gizmos with pinholes. I thought they got them at school but Stacy said Billy made them in his garage.

My mother never got chummy with her neighbors. A group of them came out from under the trees lining our sidewalks for an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. At one end of the house across the street, a construction tarp hung from the roof to the ground hiding a big hole. The mangled house was under repair after my mother pushed the wrong button on her 1959 Chrysler push-button transmission, slammed on the gas instead of the brakes, shot straight out of the driveway, jumped the curb and punched the house in its face. Unharmed, she passed out but not from the impact.

Billy reminded us earlier in the week that we needed a filter to look at the sun or we’d go blind.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you just have to look through the dappled sunlight under the trees,” my mother said. It was March. We didn’t tell her there were no dappling leaves.

The eclipse moved along the east coast from Florida to Maine. In her 1972 song You’re so Vain, Carly Simon memorialized the once-in-a-lifetime 1970 total eclipse of the sun. Cronkite and others reported that we wouldn’t see another eclipse like this until 2017, an absolutely unimaginable future time.

As the umbra started to move into position for the brief period it would black out all sunlight, my mother appeared on the darkening street carrying a can of Budweiser. Our long-haired white male cat, Mae West trailed along. He abruptly mounted a passing 308px-Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR.jpgtomcat prompting my mother to kick the cats and scream, “You queers! Cut it out!”

Joe stopped bouncing and looked toward the shadowy sky. Stacy bolted toward him. “Cover your eyes!”

I gawked at my mother, already relishing the laughs I’d get acting out this scene to my friends. They loved her. One of the neighbors hurried over to my mother, “Stop kicking the cats!” The others, distracted by the commotion on our portion of the boulevard neglected to look up. The dark cloaked us but we missed gazing at the Eclipse of the Century.

Billy, unfazed by the street theater, peered at the solar system event through his homemade cardboard pinhole filter for the entire three minutes the moon passed in front of the sun, his Eclipse of the Century. He lived to tell the tale for another five years before a drunken driver took his life.

Anonymous Prayers

Father Long asks to meet on the wrap-around porch of the 19th century worn-out resort hotel in Spring Lake, NJ. I just left my husband and live at my mother’s house with my two-year-old boy. Assuming he wants to force feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I hang an emblematic roach clip on an anti-establishment leather string around my 22-year old neck to compound my defiant hippie ensemble. He talks about my marijuana use.

Give it up for your mother’s sake.

Are you talkin’ to her about givin’ up drinking for my sake?

He once had a job as the disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys school. Realizing I’m no match for him, I make a fast exit scrambling out of the painted-wood rocking chair as I hear over my shoulder.

I’ll pray for you.

My mother’s cousin, Jesuit Arthur Long Jr. spends a few weeks every year near Sea Girt where I live during my spiritually-sick adolescence and young adulthood. This summer his vacation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is interrupted by my mother’s cry for help—help for me, her addict. Her lips never part for the word pray nor do her thoughts ever enter the prayer realm. How drunk must she have been to ask for help from her cousin, a soldier of God?

I wonder if Father gets dispatched to other wayward children sprung from his very wayward relatives. 

A few years later I make it to Alcoholics Anonymous and after six months sober I’m the speaker at a large meeting in Montclair, one of Manhattan’s bedroom communities. I talk about my inability to stop drinking, stop smoking pot, stop consuming illicit drugs, until I get to AA. I’m happy to be sober and tear up at gratitude for my father who brought me into the Fellowship. My father sobered up five years before me in Town’s Hospital Manhattan and started his sustained abstinence in meetings on the Upper East side during the time I was dying, way out there in some other dimension. We hadn’t seen each other for five years before he arrived at the public mental institution I overdosed into at 24 years old. He suggested I go to the AA meeting on the grounds.

After my six-months-sober talk at the Montclair meeting, a petite pearly lady stands back from a line of well-wishers before approaching me.

I pray for you everyday.

What? Do I know you?

I go to meetings in New York with your father. We helped him when he went to see you unknownin the hospital, told him what to say, to just share his story, what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now, and suggest you go to meetings—like we do with any
other alcoholic. A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time.

And here I am.

Thank You Alcoholic Writers

After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.

Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.

Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that 51MsewjwbIL._AC_US218_ 2
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”

Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.

I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay.  “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”

We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.

 

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

My mother woke me very early one morning on my fourth or fifth birthday. Men were waiting downstairs to wallpaper and paint. This was my birthday present—new wallpaper. I had to quickly dress and stay out of my room until they were finished at the end of the day.

“C’mon, we’ll get your sisters and go visit Joanne!”

It may have been that day or another that my mother took my two sisters and I to see her youngest sister, Joanne, who was in the Maryland countryside about an hour from our home in Washington. Joanne was 10 years younger than my mother so she would have been about 20. She attended Georgetown Visitation high school and junior college with the Smith girls who lived at an 18th century Maryland estate, Mt. Airy. During her school breaks Joanne stayed with the Smiths and in mid-June they would have been lounging around the pool with their cigarettes and tanning lotion.

We all got our hair washed and were set out in the sunshine to dry while my mother, Joanne and the Smith girls painted their nails, gossiped and laughed over beer in the estate’s coach house.

My mother directed me to sit in an oversized lounge chair near the shade of a mighty Southern Magnolia.

“Lay down there, Regan,” she said, “Don’t get up until your hair is dry.”

The old-growth evergreen burst with sturdy white flowers that looked like folded linen, sweet-smelling like the Smith girls. This is the first time I remember birds flying in and out of tree branches. The sun fell through the breeze into the dark fleshy leaves and lulled me into a meditative reverie that I can easily reconstruct whenever I’m under a summer tree or feel the whiff of magnolias or their cousin gardenias drift past me.

At the close of day we returned home and I ran upstairs to my new room. Everything was covered in red roses—the walls, the ceiling, the bedspread and pillows. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever received and indeed, the only one I can remember as a child.

My sisters and I were born one after another in the Naval Academy Hospital in Annapolis where we lived in the years immediately following World War II. After myth father left the Navy, we moved to a red brick colonial on Fox Hall Road in Washington and my father started his first job as a labor lawyer for John L. Lewis, founder of the United Mine Workers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout, moralistic Mormon and my father, in the early stage of his alcoholism had battling temperaments. 
By the time I was in the first grade, the job, the house and the rose-filled room had all gone south.

My father picked up work in law firms and corporations throughout the Midwest, and my family started moving around the country with him.

Don’t You Know? We Don’t Drink Gin in the Winter!

We don’t drink gin in the winter, she said when I came home drunk. As if I knew this. As if there was a difference in what I drank when I was just fooling around with my friends, just having fun, just looking at Jim and just trying to feel something I read about in the book in the drugstore.

The northeast winter had its grey, bone-chill beer, scotch and wine. But why no gin? When I said this later he said you’re so white.

And it took a lot of gin in the winter for me to finally get it.

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Journey to Paradise

JFK was still alive the September I drove with my father in his white Cadillac Eldorado down the pike from our temporary home in Washington, DC to boarding school in Williamsburg, Virginia. My head overflowed with questions. Will they have a television? What will I do after school? How will I wash my clothes? I dared not ask my father for fear he’d mock my questioning of such mundane matters. In his silence I could hear him say, “They’re nuns. They take care of people. Stop worrying.” I wasn’t worrying, just wondering. In spoken language between us, different words seemed to have the same meaning—wonder and worry, driving and speeding, drinking and drunk.

Unfamiliar signs became our talking points.

“Look there’s Fredericksburg. Did something historic happen there?”

He told me it’s a Civil War town. 10,000 slaves ran away from the plantations there and joined the Union Army.

Slaves? I had never been in a place where slaves had lived. Monticello. Is that Jefferson’s home?

I’m not sure how much I knew of Civil War history or American history as I was entering my junior year in high school, but clearly the road signs along the highways in Virginia had awakened some schooling. Petersburg and Appomattox. My premature view of life misinformed me that places I read about in history books, like these, no longer existed.

Until then, I had lived my whole life at sea level—the flatlands at northeastern Illinois’ Lake Michigan and the New Jersey seashore. The Virginia road climbed up and down between wavelengths of blue and green, tree-lined hills with wide verdant medians. My mother used to call me a nature-lover. I guess she was right. The scenery captivated me, as if we were driving through the Garden of Eden. I imagined Paradise at the end of our journey.

“What’s the Blue Ridge Parkway?”

My father loved to drive and he’d already been on Skyline Drive, the main road through Shenandoah National Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our route to Williamsburg didn’t bring us near there. Thirty years later, remembering my father’s description of the misty Blue Ridge Mountains and the hills rolling down to the Shanandoah River, I drove there myself.

At Richmond we turned southeast toward the Norfolk Naval Base, Hampton Roads and Williamsburg. I was leaving no one behind. My mother, sisters, cousins and friends lived in another place, another time with their wild summers and grey winters. A vagabond life brought me to live at Walsingham Academy run by the Sisters of Mercy, the school that housed girls from mothers who didn’t mother and fathers who didn’t father—girls who had ulcers and girls who dyed their hair.

We turned onto Jamestown Road toward my new assignment. Fear tightened my grip on reality. Had he told the Mother Superior I had mononucleosis? Got drunk? Swore? Didn’t believe in God? Had an ectopic pregnancy? Did he even know I was tired all the time, and lost? I feared and I hoped they’d care for my soul.