Part One of this post can be found at History Is Elementary, here.
Mother often told us about the Kennedy assassination and how the four day coverage of that event actually helped her turn a corner. After that time things weren’t better but her ability to cope was better. Sister Dear and I now realize through Mother’s recollection of the whole time period she had actually lost an entire year. In her mind Nanny’s death and JFK’s assassination were simply a few days apart instead of one year and a few days. We have memories of Thanksgiving being a sad time. 1962 was the last Thanksgiving where we travelled to a grandparent’s home. Mother cooked from that point on, but it was always a little sad with a morose pall over the whole day. Mother cooked, and Mother grieved every Thanksgiving.
Having been born in May, 1962 I am a Kennedy baby, a child born during the fading Age of Camelot and at the tail end of the Baby Boom Generation. Once I was old enough to hear Mother tell her stories (she had a million of them) I was destined to entertwine the borrowed memories of Sister Dear and Mother regarding Nanny and President Kennedy’s tragic death, but even Mother it would appear, had borrowed memories because she had lost a year… a year between her own mother’s death on November 24, 1962 and Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
While my mother grieved over the loss of her mother many of the events involving space exploration, civil rights, and the Cold War during the last three hundred and sixty-five days of Kennedy’s presidency would shape later events and the course of our country for over the next thirty years.
Following my mother’s tragic Thanksgiving on December 24, 1962 over one thousand Bay of Pigs prisoners were finally exchanged after two years of negotiations for medical supplies and baby food. The struggle for Civil Rights slapped Americans in the face when early in January Alabama governor, George Wallace promised, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” I continued to do things an eight month old baby does, Sister Dear went to school and played, and our Mother….she grieved.
In February, 1963 travel, financial and commericial transactions were made illegal by U.S. citizens to Cuba by President Kennedy. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered states to provide free counsel for defendants who could not afford an attorney in March. I jolted Mother into reality for a bit by falling out of my crib. The metal part of my hair barrette gouged deep into my scalp. Daddy came to the rescue and made it better. Sister Dear went to school and played with the kids next door, and our Mother…she grieved.
In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham with others for “parading without a permit” and wrote his Letter From a Birmingham Jail while incarcerated. In May, 1963, the Civil Rights issue heated up even further when Sheriff "Bull" Conner of Birmingham used fire hoses and attack dogs on demonstrators. The images splashed across television screens doing more for the support of civil rights than any speech or endorsement. I celebrated my first birthday with an extremely short haircut (no more barrettes, please), Sister Dear began her summer vacation, and our mother…she grieved.
On June 11, 1963 Kennedy gave two important speeches. In one he stated all citizens should have “the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.” He spoke of promises that will one day become the Civil Rights Act. The second speech occurred at the Berlin Wall where he spoke of the failure of communism and stated, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In July, NASA launched Syncom, the world’s first geostationary satellite. I run after and annoy Sister Dear while she runs after her dog Jingles who ran after Sister Dear's new Hula Hoop, and our mother…she grieved.
In August, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. while in , JFK announced changes in policy and personnel were needed with the South Vietnamese government. Tragically in September, the Sixteenth Street Church was bombed in Birmingham killing four sweet little girls. Sister Dear and I are barely aware the nightly news is on as we play around the coffee table before Dad tells us, “Shhhhhhhh…..”, and our mother…she grieved.
In October, JFK signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and in early November President Diem of South Vietnam was overthrown and murdered. The next year the Gulf of Tonkin incident would play out. I spent my days playing in front of the television with a yellow plastic baby bed and doll I had gotten for my birthday while Sister Dear went to school and mother…she grieved.
The first Thanksgiving without Nanny came and went followed by the anniversary of her death. On the afternoon of November 24, 1963 my mother was watching her “programs” as she did for every day of my life. As the World Turns was on during that time of the day when Walter Cronkite’s voice interrupted the live broadcast to state,
“Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting. More details just arrived...these details about the same as previously, President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called 'Oh no!', the motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News, President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS News for further details."
A few minutes later Mr. Cronkite, now on camera was handed a piece of paper from the Associated Press wire machine, put on his glasses, looked it over for a moment, took off his glasses, and told the viewing audience:
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time---2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
After the announcement, Cronkite paused briefly, put his glasses back on and swallowed hard, apparently trying to maintain his composure. Still, there was noticeable emotion and a quaver in his voice as he intoned the next sentence, "Vice President Johnson has left the hospital..."
Mother was no longer alone in her grief. She grieved with Jackie and Rose and the rest of the Kennedy clan. An entire nation grieved. Our television, like many across the nation, remained on for four days straight as the nation’s networks instituted twenty-four hour coverage for the first time ever.
I never knew my grandmother. I never experienced an America while Kennedy was president. I quilted a memory of both them together through my mother’s grief. I cannot think of one without the other since they are so meshed together. Thanksgiving does not come and go without a remembrance of Nanny and the loss of President Kennedy.
Adlai Stevenson, U.N. Ambassador at the time, said it best regarding the effect of the Kennedy assassination, “All of us will bear the grief of his death until the day of ours…”
So, I’ll end this piece as I began part one……
Is it possible to love someone through another’s memory? To love and admire someone you never met, someone you will never be able to meet, someone who at the moment of their passing caused an incredible upheaval of grief and gouged an enormous chasm of longing for things that can never be, someone who a large number of people still speak of with reverence, awe, and thankfulness?
I believe it is possible.
I know it is possible.
I know it because I participate in this kind of love and admiration everyday for two vastly different Americans who left this Earth almost a year to the day from one another. My admiration for these two inviduals stems from my mother who shared her memories of them with me during my formative years where they became entertwined and linked indelibly in the murkiness where actual memory and grafted memories blend.
Dora Estelle Hill Blanton and John Fitzgerald Kennedy....two vastly different Americans....both worthy to be remembered!