Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 1963

On November 22, 1963, I was a freshman in high school, a week and change short of my 14th birthday.

This was a Catholic girls high school, in Massachusetts, largely populated by girls of Irish descent. (Of the 30 or so students in my freshman home room, there were three Maureens. The others were all named Kathleen. Or Patricia. Only kidding – but not by much. There were four Kathleens and two Patricias.)

As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of interest in, and affection for, “our” president and his family.

A few weeks before, on Halloween, two senior girls had come around to each of the classrooms, giving out candy and wearing Jack and Jackie masks.

So, yeah, this was Kennedy country.

At 2:15, the final bell of the week rang, and we all headed out to our lockers.

As we stood, a nun came hurtling down the corridor, holding a red transistor radio in front of her, crying out the the president had been killed.

It took a few moments to process this information, but by 2:30, I’m guessing that the majority of Notre Dame Academy girls were weeping.

Friday afternoon was rehearsal time for the freshman Glee Club, so those of us in Glee headed to the music room, where Sister Marita told us that “The President would want you to rehearse” for our upcoming Christmas concert. So we rehearsed.

I remember two of the songs from that year’s program:

O, Tannenbaum

Which we sang in German. My mother – the only German within fifty miles of Worcester – had written out a pronunciation guide, which I had brought in and read out so we’d get things right. I didn’t speak any German, but my mother had coached me well.

The other carol I recall from our concert/rehearsal was a bit more obscure:

’Twas in the moon of wintertime,
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wondering hunters heard the hymn:


Jesus your King is born,
Jesus is born,

Anyway, we bucked up and rehearsed. As the President would have wanted us to.

The only fellow student I ran into who was not beside herself with the Kennedy news was our class iconoclast, Genevieve – see what happens when you deviate from the standard approved list of names? – who told us that Kennedy’s assassination was a good thing, “because now there wouldn’t be a Kennedy-archy.”

Little did she know…

Anyway, we all told her that this was an awful thing to say, and that she should probably shut up.

(Fifty years later, I am stunned by her bravery.)

Getting home required a bus transfer “down city”, which was what downtown Worcester was called in those days.

The “Activities Bus” dumped the Main South and Leicester girls in front of a woman’s store (was it Ulian’s? Charles Kay?), where we waited for the 19 Cherry Valley bus to take us home. Some of the boys we knew – from St. John’s and Assumption – were at the bus stop with the afternoon paper, The Evening Gazette – or, as the paperboy who hawked papers on the corner of Elm Street would have it, the “Final Gee-ze-eh-ette”. There was no news beyond the screaming 90-point headline PRESIDENT DEAD.

Is it even worth mentioning that we were riveted to the TV all weekend?

We watched obsessively, while my parents worked around the continuous coverage, since this was their weekend they had scheduled to wallpaper the living room, replacing the green fern pattern with a more up to date and swanky textured white paper with gold streaks in it.

On Sunday, I was sitting there with my sister Kath and our mother when Oswald was shot. Either Kath or I – I’ve forgotten which of us – had just said, “Wouldn’t it be something if he got shot”.

Which he was. And it was something.

What was also something, at least to me, was the fact that, on Sunday morning, John Fitzgerald Kennedy did not arise from the dead, as I had been hoping against hope that he would.

After all, like Christ, the President had been killed on a Friday, so it was only naturally that – God having tested us with this terrible tragedy – he (or, as I now thought of him, He) would emerge again whole come Sunday morning. (I would say that this was the high point of my religiosity and fervor. Faith-wise, it was a rapid downhill from here.)

On Sunday night, we went out for a spin, my father having decided that enough was enough with the no-end-in-sight news coverage.

But there was no escape.

As we drove through down city, all of the store windows were draped with black bunting and displaying large photos of JFK.

I believe that we had Monday off from school so that we could all watch the funeral. Which we did. (It was broadcast in 100% black and white.)

It took a while for things to calm down, and for all us Maureens to get over Kennedy’s death. (The Beatles helped.)

Shortly after Kennedy was killed, a cloyingly sappy poem, Special Deliver from Heaven, began making the rounds. It was a letter sent by JFK to his family, and I, of course, memorized it, jealous that some other Catholic school girl had written this remarkable work, and not I.

What do I remember of it?

Little Patrick says to say Hi
I love you, I’m happy so please don’t cry…

You [John John] stood like a soldier , your salute was so brave
Thanks for the flag you put on my grave

It took a few years before we discovered that Jack Kennedy, once he got to the Great Beyond,  would have been too busy looking up Marilyn Monroe to write a note to his wife and kids. (Johnny, we hardly knew ye.)

Ah, well.

Fifty years!

Hard to believe it’s been that long…

Hard not to  forget exactly how shocked and saddened I was, how raw my grief, how bereft I felt. One of ours. And “they” killed him. Hard to forget how we gathered, that late afternoon (a mild one, almost Indian summer-ish), around the boy holding that Final Gee-ze-eh-ette, staring at the headline PRESIDENT DEAD, as if it were going to tell us something.

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