Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

Where 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.

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.

What Is My Work, You Ask?

What Is My Work, You Ask?

 

1962. My work is to stop laughing like a nervous little girl and start smiling like an unflappable young lady in the coffee shop on the Asbury Park boardwalk. To turn away from the seagulls fighting over dead fish on the beach and write “pancakes” and “bacon” on my notepad. To pay attention to the old telling the story of the 1934 wreck of the cruise ship SS Morro Castle on the beach. To save money for tickets to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the Asbury Park Convention Hall.

1967. My work is to read Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care and apply its 51hjigsfuol-_sx309_bo1204203200_commandments to week-old smiles, cries in the night, a nine-month old sprinter and a child who eats only chicken. My work is to stand my ground in the whirlwind advice from mothers, aunts and grandmothers. To learn to ride a baby on the back of my bicycle. To animate words as I point to clouds, trees and cars as if I’ve never seen these things before in my life.

1976. My work is to bypass the door to the secluded basement with its graveyard of empty vodka bottles. To surrender to my new single-motherness. To trust my untrustworthy father and move from a sandy Jersey Shore cottage to a downtown Chicago highrise. My work is to know this is the best plan for a nine-year-old boy’s future happiness.

1982. My work is to dress up in business clothes, act smarter than I am, eavesdrop on everyone’s conversations in a boiler room full of political operatives, ask stupid questions and digest enough information to schedule Nancy Stevenson in places that help win votes for her husband’s campaign for governor.

1990. My work is to be a motherless child. To lament the loss of my uterus and ovaries, and, my boyfriend. To escape to Paris and London with my twelve-year old niece. To atone for all my past sins.To feign self-confidence while running the Illinois Democratic Party.

1993. My work is to take Prozac on the way to Washington to join the management class of the Clinton Administration. To imagine I have power and to hide humiliation when I’m exposed. My work is to honor the ruling class. To recognize they are human. To protect myself from evil-doers and self-promoters. My work is to mourn the loss of naiveté.

2006. My work is to shield myself and others from Cook County Government officials who believe if you are happy at your job you’re not working hard enough. To cherish those I lead for what they are today and not for what they will be tomorrow. To protect them from those who refuse to know their names.

2017. My work is to record how far my shadow falls behind me. To tell the truth about myself and trust God with where the words go and what they do when they get there. My work is to proclaim the US Constitution guarantees me the freedom to assemble publicly and express myself openly without retribution. My work is to say I love America and when the saints go marching in, oh! how I want to be in that number.

Inspired by “An Address to My Fellow Faculty,” by A. Papatya Bucak, from brevitymag.com