Fifty years ago, I was in third grade. I had no idea that I would remember that one day so well all these decades later. The following story, which I’ve broken into two parts so that it’s not too long, is about the Kennedy assassination from my 8-year-old self’s viewpoint without much adult reflection.
The weather was warm for November in Michigan, maybe sixty degrees. The end of the day bell rang early. That was unusual, but we were used to doing what the teachers told us to do. Valerie* and I walked to the bus loading area in front of the school with our jackets over our arms.
Her brother rushed over to us with a transistor radio pressed to his ear. His excitement radiated from his body like heat waves. “Wait til you hear what happened!”
Valerie looked at her brother sideways, as if she didn’t trust him. “What?”
He seemed about to burst open with the words. “The president’s been shot!”
Valerie and I looked at each other. “Nuh uh,” she said. “Bob, you’re such a fibber.” I was speechless at his whopper.
Bob insisted, “No, really, I heard it on my radio. President Kennedy’s been shot.” Bob climbed on the bus, telling one kid after another that the president had been shot.
Valerie and I rode home at the back of the bus, while Bob spread the lie through the front. “Why doesn’t he shut up?” Valerie frowned at the back of his head.
“I don’t know. He’s your brother. “
“Yeah. I’m lucky,” Valerie said, but she didn’t mean lucky.
“If I lied like that, I’d get my mouth washed out with soap,” I said.
As I walked into the house, I heard a weird noise as if the tiny people called The Borrowers were having a party in the wall. Eyeing the coat closet door, I took a deep breath and pulled it open.
Mom stood inside the closet, with my knit hat crooked on her head. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and she was sniffling and rubbing at her eyes with mittens on her hands. I’m sure my eyes were goggling out of my head like Daffy Duck at finding a crying mother in the coat closet.
Pulling off the mittens, Mom stepped outside the closet. She didn’t say how she ended up wearing the stuff she was sorting, and I didn’t ask her.
“Something very important happened today. I want to talk to you.”
I dropped my belongings down on the armchair, then followed her as she walked into the kitchen. “I was cleaning the closet out and listening to music on the radio. They interrupted the song and the announcer said that three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade.” It was typical of my mother to tell me a story in her own sweet time. I didn’t explain that I had already heard about President Kennedy. My knees started to wobble.
We sat at the kitchen table listening to the radio. The man’s voice said Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit was blood-soaked with the president’s own blood. He said a bullet had entered the president’s head. It sounded like in The Manchurian Candidate, the movie I was supposed to sleep through at the drive-in. I hadn’t slept. Now I remembered the big hole in the middle of the man’s forehead.
Mom said, “We could be watching the television,” and she walked into the living room and turned on our set. She adjusted the rabbit ears when she saw Walter Cronkite’s face zigzagging. “The President is dead.” The President is dead, I thought.
The President was dead.
Mom answered the phone on the kitchen wall. “Jean, yes, I’m watching television. Did you see her? . . . So elegant. . . . All that blood and confusion. . . . She has a lot of class. And those poor little children.” Mom talked and cried and emitted little giggles every so often. She pulled on the phone cord and wrapped it around her hand. She didn’t sit down, but sort of paced, tied to the phone by its leash.
By the time the Kalamazoo Gazette was thrown onto our front porch, Dad had come home from work. Both my parents acted bewildered, as if they were robots from a science fiction movie. Mom made pancakes for dinner.
*The names Valerie and Bob have been changed.
33 responses to “Mom and Kennedy, Part I”
I can’t watch the Zapruder film without flinching — started to watch the CBS documentary the other night and couldn’t continue — I was a toddler when it happened, and I still remember the immense grief of that day.
It is stunning that you were affected so much as a toddler, but honestly, if a child doesn’t really know what’s going on they will still feel a tremendous “difference” in that day. And my mother’s crying was such a shock to me. A President seemed so far out of our lives until that happened.
An excellent start – can’t wait to hear the rest!
Hah, thanks, Mareymercy. The rest is coming on Friday. I decided to post it right on the anniversary. So check back then :).
I was so in the story I forgot we were talking 50 years ago, Luanne! Looking forward to the rest.
Ah, Shel, that is such a nice thing to say! Check back Friday for the rest as I plan to post it on the anniversary itself!
Great story, Luanne! I’ll look forward to the next installment. By the way, you look too young to have been in the 3rd grade when that happened. 🙂
Jill, you are such a sweetie. I just had professional shots taken for the first time in many years. What a frightening experience! Apparently a lot of wrinkles crept onto my face between the time I put on my makeup and the pictures were taken!
I’m sure they turned out great. I bet it was a frightening experience. I hate having my picture taken when it’s just a family member…I run the other way when the cameras come out. 🙂
I remember it too. I was six. Looking forward to the next installment.
Thanks, Elyse. I don’t know how anyone who was a kid of at least six couldn’t remember that day!
Such a sad story, such an unexpected event, so freshly told.
Yes, the story is so sad, and my viewpoint of the day is so framed by my mother’s response.
I was in kindergarten, and my memory doesn’t provide such lucid detail. I do remember staring in wonder at the half-mast flag in the front of the school. Having never seen such a sight before it rendered a tilted numbness that something very, very wrong had happened to cause such a thing. Yes, something had.
That one still image in your mind is a compelling reminder of how poignant those very brief memories can be.
Wow, I got goosebumps reading this. I was born well after JFK’s assassination and the entire event still astounds me. Can’t wait to read the rest of this!
Caitlin, ooh, I’m glad you got goosebumps :). It was a completely astounding event. Good word. I can hardly believe it really happened.
Yes, I’m going to be looking out for the rest of the story too. It’s a subject that fascinates me, because everyone remembers how they first heard it,
I was pregnant and my husband came home and said we must switch on the radio, Kennedy’s been shot. And I pooh- poohed and said, De Gaulle was shot a few weeks ago, but he’s alright.
Then they interrupted the Archers – a serial which is StIll running on radio – to say that he was dead.
I couldn’t believe it. We were heartbroken too.
How awful to have that happen while you were pregnant. I actually either have never heard that about De Gaulle or have forgotten it, because of course in 3rd grade I didn’t yet know anything that was actually going on in the world. I heard a few things about Civil Rights in the U.S., but that was the only exception.
Reblogged this on BEGUILING HOLLYWOOD and commented:
A brief excerpt:
“We sat at the kitchen table listening to the radio. The man’s voice said Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit was blood-soaked with the president’s own blood. He said a bullet had entered the president’s head. It sounded like in The Manchurian Candidate, the movie I was supposed to sleep through at the drive-in. I hadn’t slept. Now I remembered the big hole in the middle of the man’s forehead.”
Thank you Vickie for reblogging this and Luanne for such a finely told moment of our history.
PS. Luanne, we share a bit of history too perhaps. Although I moved around a lot as a child, I loved dearly our home in Mason, MI. My Sister went to U of M and then moved back to Ann Arbor after many years in NYC. My Mom joined her there after my Dad’s passing and I love it when I visit.
Heather, thank you so much for stopping by! Yes, we were almost neighbors ;). I live in Phoenix now and sometimes miss Michigan very very much!
Thanks so much for the reblog, Vickie!
I remember the atmosphere, the shock and gloom of that day too. I was probably in the equivalent of 3rd grade. We were far, far away from the event, living in Fiji, but yet, we felt the impact, the significance.
It amazes me to hear how much the event affected people all around the world! Thank you for letting me know how it was in Fiji! By the way, I love the name Gallivanta.
Thank you! It seems to go well with my life. I remember being even more upset when Robert Kennedy was killed; I was older by then, of course, but it seemed incredible that something like that could happen again.
I was glad you wrote about this, sharing your feelings and also, I liked that human touch of doubting the radio and the fact JFK was shot. It was a sad time, I remembered it on a post not too long ago, it is coming up tomorrow. November 22nd! I wrote also, wonder how Jackie handled John John’s #3 birthday only three short days after his Daddy died?
I can’t imagine what that was like for her to have her little son’s 3rd birthday right after her husband was killed. Of course, I didn’t realize that his bday was the day of the funeral at the time.
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The way you write the kid interactions so puts me there! These stories are so well done!
Thanks, Renee. Your enjoyment means a lot to me!
I’ve been reliving my own experience on that day of disbelief and horror. For each of us that can recall, those memories seem slowly to resurface during the week before the anniversary of the event. It defined my generation and those close to it. Your recount is heartfelt and stirring.
It really did define it. Our country became more political and the air more charged with it all. And so many of us baby boomers grew up during that period of the assassinatoins: John, MLK Jr., Bobby.