Fifty years ago this week, when I was nine, we watched grownups crawl over President Kennedy in his big, open convertible. Their scramble, in black and white, made it hard to see exactly what was going on. A TV had been rolled into our classroom on a tall-shelved dolly and all the fourth-graders sat together on the floor, our heads tilted back, our eyes straying to the ashen-faced teachers for clues about the meaning of the shooting. How were we supposed to feel? Like most people I knew, I loved JFK because he seemed like a nice, handsome leader and he had a beautiful wife and kids about our ages. I had thought we were like them: a big, Catholic family.
The death of an important man and the possibility of innocent excitement were the opposite poles of my early life and their order suggested that the darkest times can be followed by lighter ones.
We weren't though. Several weeks before the assassination, my mother had sent us to live in an orphanage, while she tried to get back on her feet. That uneasiness — wondering how we were supposed to feel — had already become familiar at the Home, but things usually made complete sense to me at school.
On the assassination day, we were sent home at an odd, early hour, to find our housemother, “Ma” Davis, uncharacteristically quiet and immobile, sitting in front of the TV in the living room, which we were only allowed to enter once a week. No one seemed to know what to do.
But I had an idea. I went to my bed, the cot next to the front wall in the little kids’ dormitory room, and knelt down with my elbows on the scratchy blanket. I put my prayer hands together and said my Blessings out loud, beginning with my family as I always did, but adding Jackie just after Mommy, because now they were both widows, and Caroline and JohnJohn right after my brothers. Soon, the other little girls who shared my room came and knelt down, too. I said the Blessings again for them. Then I began the Our Father, which I always liked because our father art in Heaven, too. Eventually, even some of the older girls joined us, awkwardly circling the foot of my bed.
I was terribly sad, because the president was a great man and we had lost him. But I wasn’t surprised. I already knew nice daddies could die.
I also knew prayers. I knew how to kneel and say them at night, adding a Hail Mary for each night we had been away from Mom (51 nights by November 22). I knew about the benefit of praying so long into the night that I fell asleep before I had a chance to cry.
The following Monday we didn’t have school, because it was a National Day of Mourning. We were allowed to watch part of the funeral procession, including little JohnJohn’s salute and Jackie’s graceful black veil. Everybody cried.
A couple of months later, in February of 1964, we were again allowed to watch TV at a special time. The much-heralded Beatles were to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. I don’t know why Ma decided to let us watch, but we crowded onto the floor, again craning our necks to see the screen around the bigger girls who’d grabbed the spots closest to the television. Ed Sullivan didn’t seem to know what to make of the “youngsters from Liverpool.” He acted like they were kind of a joke. Our housemother tsked about their nonsense name and long hair, and said their singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” was ridiculous.
The sunniness in their smiles and their love songs poured directly into my darkening spirit.
They weren’t ridiculous at all. They smiled while they played and, when they shook their shaggy heads, the lucky girls in the audience screamed. We didn’t scream; we held our collective breath. We watched with complete focus. Later we picked our favorites and argued about which one was cutest. (I picked Paul, because he was the cutest.) The sunniness in their smiles and their love songs poured directly into my darkening spirit. They became for me, as for millions of others, a model for joy and lightness, as well as a model for a kind of boy I could relate to, one who felt so strongly about holding hands. Loving boys and music became the constants in my youth, the common path my other interests followed, the engine that kept me moving forward.
Rock and roll became the best antidote to despair and loneliness.
These two events, the assassination of JFK and the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, broadcast their way into our cottage from the larger world and bracketed the range of loss and love I was capable of understanding. The death of an important man and the possibility of innocent excitement were the opposite poles of my early life and their order suggested that the darkest times can be followed by lighter ones.
In the decades since, I’ve known deeper pain and joy, as well as more nuanced satisfaction and frustration. But nothing has spoken more clearly to my awareness of risk and gain than those bookended moments witnessed by so many, almost 50 years ago.
This program aired on November 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.