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A Small Decision, Carefully Considered

This article is more than 9 years old.

I was going to display it as a goof: one of those Happy Family Christmas cards that made its way to my mother’s mailbox in Granby, Mass., nearly 45 years ago and somehow — through multiple moves and multiple decades — wound up in my possession.

In it the family looks hale and handsome — a pretty woman in a sleeveless white dress with a helmet of blonde hair, a man in a dark suit with a fixed grin, and three children: a little boy in a red plaid onesie, a slightly older girl in a jumper made of the same fabric and a baby being held by the mom, his left hand in his father’s grip. They surround a coffee table festooned with a small pile of beautifully wrapped gifts.

Who knew on that day what their future held?

Who would guess that in the fullness of time the pretty mom would start a slow unraveling: alcohol, other imbalances. The marriage would end, and the man would spend years in his own unraveling: drink and dissolution, including an evening in which a young woman in his company would accidentally die and another evening, Easter weekend in 1991, when he would be out cavorting with the infant son and his cousin and all three men would be accused of covering up the cousin’s alleged rape of a woman he met at a bar?

Who among us doesn’t have at least two versions of our lives: what happened, and what we wished had happened?

The little girl with the pretty red ribbon in her hair would eventually get lung cancer and die at the age of 50 of a heart attack while exercising, her body weakened by the chemo. In the picture, the muscles in her young arms are pronounced: all her life she would love to run and to swim and you see evidence of an athlete in the making. At age 12 the boy in the onesie would lose his leg to cancer.

Why would our family get a holiday card from Ted Kennedy’s? My mother was an ardent member of the town Democratic Committee along with her brother, my uncle, Dermot Purcell Shea, who also served as the town moderator. The card was part of a mass mailing to loyal Dems, but we took it personally.

I recently read a memoir entitled “When We Were The Kennedys” by Monica Wood in which she captures the way Catholic families in the '60s readily and happily mixed themselves up with the Kennedys, who were just like us, only more so. Like me, Wood grew up in a fatherless family.

She writes about the choir practice at her school in Mexico, Maine, on the morning that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated:

We’re rehearsing for the season’s High Masses, Latin prayers like O Salutaris and Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria and varying arrangements of Tantum Ergo. Though Sister Louise tosses Pope John a few crumbs like “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” we remain among the last congregants in the country to succumb to the retooled protocols of Vatican II. It seems that every new thing in America comes late to our town: rock-and-roll, collective bargaining, vinyl siding, the English-language Mass.

But the news of the president reaches us fast, the same way it reaches everyone.”

After Kennedy’s death, the author’s mother’s status as a widow got an upgrade — as did my mother’s: see, this can happen to anyone, even the most powerful people in the land.

I decided against putting the card out with other holiday trinkets — amid the tinsel and the wooden Nutcracker soldiers. It seemed disrespectful.

I realize now why I don’t want to display the card of Ted Kennedy’s family. It is because I feel protective of them. I don’t want to hear any hate talk, any superior dismissing of Ted as a cad (or worse) or the children as spoiled brats or the mom as a pathetic addict.

In fact, there is another element to the fullness of time. The mom, Joan, has survived. She has had ups and downs — many painfully public — but she is still with us. Kara left two children who we can only hope will prosper. Edward Jr., the older son, works in private business, is married to a psychiatrist and has two children. He is reportedly mulling a run for U.S. Senate. Patrick resigned from Congress in 2010, a year after his father died, with plans to devote his life to educating the public about mental health and addiction issues. He recently married and had his first child in April.

Ted Kennedy eventually remarried a woman who appeared to give him the ballast he needed. In the Senate he fought for health care and education until a brain tumor took him from this stage to the next.

I decided against putting the card out with other holiday trinkets — amid the tinsel and the wooden Nutcracker soldiers.

It seemed disrespectful.

Ted is gone, Joan has had a hard life, Kara died much too young. Treating their overbearingly cheerful card as a cartoon seemed wrong. Who among us doesn’t have at least two versions of our lives: what happened, and what we wished had happened? And who among us doesn’t deserve that most elusive of human graces, the one we like to think exists in plenitude at this time of year: good will toward all.


This program aired on December 21, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.