Our sixth-grade classroom smelled of stale peanut butter and scrapped fruit wafting from the lunch pails inside our desks—those we’d crouched under in drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Word problems and diagrammed sentences sprawled across the blackboards flanking the front and side of the room, and sunlight spilled through the casement windows running along the outside wall—the sun in Philadelphia, the same one we were about to see pouring down on Dallas.
From the moment Mother Superior, for the first time ever, wheeled a portable television into a classroom at St. Kevin’s Elementary—and as we sat spellbound, watching the frenzied CBS news team and listening to its conflicting reports—we sensed we were being marked by an event of historic import, one we’d never forget.
I was struggling to comprehend the meaning of an instant: how the President could have gone from sitting upright, smiling, and waving to the crowd to slouching like a sack of grain; mortally wounded, for all we knew. Then Walter Cronkite appeared, his voice tripping before it fell to an octave he could barely maintain, “President Kennedy died at one o’clock Central Standard Time—some thirty-eight minutes ago,” he said, in between taking off his glasses and putting them back on. It was 2:38 in Philadelphia.
Sister Maria Virginia invited us in a whisper to join her in prayer. We recited one of the Sorrowful Mysteries before concluding with a prayer for the dead, asking that perpetual light shine upon the President’s soul. In the cavernous silence that followed, the clock ticked as though its sworn duty was to carry on, counting the approximate twelve hundred seconds until the bell would ring, when we’d be released to the plummeting leaves and marvel at how the world looked the same despite the fact it had radically changed.
My two best friends were wiping their eyes with the backs of their hands. Other girls and a few boys followed suit, underscoring the silence with a chorus of sniffling. I wanted to cry too but couldn’t.
I felt self-conscious, sensing these crying students possessed something, a conduit between their bodies and minds I somehow lacked—an aptitude not unlike good coordination that couldn’t be had via knowledge or practice. They trusted themselves as organisms whereas I did not. And I envied them for that.
We were all children, however, forced to mourn a man we’d held dear who’d been gunned down virtually before our eyes. Over the next three days, we witnessed his flag-draped coffin as he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. We all but joined the columns of black marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and practically attended his funeral. Our invincibility had been breached, and somewhere in our bones we realized we’d taken, in concert with his giant leap, one small step toward our own inevitable meeting with death.
Even before November 22, everyone in my sixth-grade class had taken a shine to JFK. We’d seen him on the news, romping on the South Lawn with Caroline and John-John; sparring in the East Room, good-naturedly, with the press. He was astonishingly young as presidents went—seven years younger than both my parents—and passionate, as we were becoming. Amused as we were by his Boston accent, we felt safe in the authority and confidence he exuded and excited about his goal to put an astronaut on the moon.
We also embraced the idea that Kennedy had suddenly become a hero. What we failed to realize, on account of his considerable earthly stature, is that death, especially in that he’d been assassinated, endowed him with an otherworldly wisdom and rendered him innocent in a cosmic sort of way, crowning him with a halo and placing him, eternally, beyond our reach. By dying, Kennedy rose to the nth degree, became larger than life, bigger than a rock star.
No wonder, eventually, I’d fall for him completely.
* * *
Little did I know the clock was ticking faster than it seemed; that, in less than two years, my mother would die and I’d feel annihilated. Like the losses Kennedy had suffered, it would haunt me for the rest of my life. Though she rarely spoke of it, my mother’s father had deserted her family when she was six; she didn’t see him again until in her thirties, long before I came along. It helped explain the low-level depression that kept her at an emotional remove and which seemed to be worsening now that I, the youngest of her seven children, was growing up. Often tired and feeling discouraged, it’s possible she was already sick.
A small, diffident woman with dark, wavy hair, sage-green eyes, and a luminous smile, she came to life at the chance to dress up for a party. Otherwise, my mom spent her days keeping our modest suburban house, with its frayed slipcovers and make-do furnishings, orderly and clean, while dreaming of having beautiful things.
Every afternoon since I’d started school, she listened attentively as I reported in great detail the events of my day. When I approached her, upset about a lackluster test score or tiff with a friend, she doled out her customary comfort and advice, rounding it off with a brisk hug or some pats on the shoulder. When it came to talking, she was more likely to answer conventional questions: “Mom, can I go ice skating tonight?” or tell me what I needed to do: “Patsy, clear your books from the table,” than initiate or participate in real conversation: sharing her thoughts and feelings on anything from the mystical to the mundane, while listening to and encouraging mine.
She also tended to say things in passing, such as, a few times lately, “I miss my mother” or “When you graduate from eighth grade, I’m going to buy you a beautiful dress.” Weeks later, when I broached the subject, she remembered the dress and, after a brief exchange, added offhandedly, “If I’m still here then.” The very idea she’d entertain such a notion, let alone mention it, cut me to the core and led me to question the state of her mind.
It was plain to me her older children had been letting her down: some dropping out of school, others eloping or marrying because they had to. All year long she’d been reading my brother’s novels for English class and writing his papers because she knew he wouldn’t bother. Though she lacked the sense of self vital to disciplining her children, she’d also been deprived of my father’s support—he’d left the child-rearing entirely to her. Nevertheless, she was determined my brother would graduate from high school.
Through the dreamy eyes of a preadolescent girl, naturally taken with the sort of man her mother would like, there were hosts of things to admire about Kennedy—or Jack, as we thought of him—now that, since he died, we were getting to know him better. He’d been handsome in a romantic and windblown, all-American way, hailing from a large, prominent Bostonian family: athletic, privileged, wealthy, and political. He’d graduated from Harvard and become a war hero, allegedly having authored a book about it. Finally, after marrying the exotic Jacqueline Bouvier, he served in Congress and the Senate before being elected President by the narrowest of margins.
But the main source of my attraction was the connection I felt I had with him. I, too, came from a large, albeit uneducated, Irish and Catholic family. And while we weren’t political, athletic, wealthy, or prestigious, I knew my parents had voted for Kennedy. I’d even flaunted his campaign pin on the front of my uniform. Though what had sold them on him, other than a sense he’d look out for their best interest, I could only speculate. I took their good judgment for granted, as they were just beginning to slide from their pedestals—new idols, like JFK, waiting in the wings to take their place.
Kennedy was the youngest American President in the way I was the last-born of five brothers and a sister, all significantly older than I. But unlike Jack when he was my age, my parents were approaching the end of their long and arduous child-raising years, the specter of their unlived lives and traumatic childhoods closing in on them. My father was drinking more than usual; my mother, quietly smoldering.
I suppose because I was a girly-girl (my sister had been a tomboy) as well as the last child she’d ever have, my mother seemed to enjoy my company, provided I tuned into her emotional state, dulling myself to my own, lapsing into a kind of trance. During a rare burst of spontaneity after cuddling with her on the sofa to watch one of her soap operas, I asked, “Mom, what was I like when I was little?” She sat up and sighed before sweeping back her hand and saying, “Oh, I don’t really remember, hon,” then bustled off to the kitchen to get dinner started. I was stung, of course, and ashamed I’d lacked the staying power to stick in her memory.
A head-in-the-clouds type child, brooding over the prospect of paling, perennially, in comparison to my siblings—still beatific visions, according to me—I was caught between the advantages and burdens of being my mother’s baby. She was holding out for me to be the one to make her proud. Though how I’d do so remained an enigma, especially in light of her clinging to me as if I’d also be the heroine who’d save her from loneliness, aging, and death.
On account of my inferior status, coupled with the fact I felt unseen, unheard, and generally deprived of the quality of attention I needed to grow up, my longing to be recognized had been gaining momentum. And I was bored that summer of 1964—months after Kennedy died—having only a year earlier renounced my Barbie doll and not yet given to reading books.
I’d just turned twelve and, while my father worked at home during the week, my mother and I often spent the time without him alone at our shore house. Though I hadn’t yet met many kids there my age, I felt less inclined to accompany her to the beach each day, instead savoring the afternoons by myself in our musty, barebones bungalow, salt air rattling the blinds, sunlight slanting through the picture window, while I listened to the radio and read magazines. After I’d devoured everything in sight about the Fabulous Four and memorized all their songs, I began wandering the aisles of the five-and-dime across the street. It was there one day I noticed the former President’s sympathetic and fatherly face staring out at me from the covers and pages of countless magazines.
As I studied these photographs of JFK and his family and immersed myself in stories written about him, some by people who’d known him personally, I didn’t fully understand my infatuation. His glamorous yet troubled and afflicted life seemed to have tapped a vein of anguish in me. Accounts of his family’s legacy of loss, his transcending physical illness and pain, along with his touted courage and obvious charisma, inspired me, giving me hope that I somehow could be transformed into a person of vision and grace who moved others in extraordinary ways.
For as long as I could recall, my yearning for a deep connection with someone—my mother in particular but also my father—had been frustrated. And though I couldn’t have put it into words, we were, all of us in my family, like islands: close in physical proximity yet more or less isolated emotionally.
As in most families, ours was an intergenerational problem. We’d been forced early on to either disown or repress our unwanted feelings—aggressive ones especially—because they felt dangerous, threatening the equilibrium of everyone in the household, including ourselves. No one had learned, in the context of a loving relationship, that outsize feelings, when acknowledged, can be tamed.
Since the word “intimacy” didn’t exist in our emotional vocabulary, closeness (or, more aptly, togetherness) was reserved for Sundays and holidays when everyone would come for dinner, or weekends at the beach when our cottage might be filled with in-laws, grandchildren, cousins, and friends. The rest of the time paled in comparison—family togetherness a board game reserved for special occasions, otherwise packed in its box and stored in the closet.
My father, a busy landlord who also ran a beverage store, was typically delighted to see me. Though, other than the ten minutes or so he took to assess and comment on my good report cards, he put little effort into finding out what I’d been up to. Sometimes, while reading the paper, he’d wink at me from across the room, which I was convinced spoke volumes about his love for me.
The rare times he was relaxed, he’d tell stories of his childhood: the scalding death of his toddler brother when all five kids were racing round the wood stove; his aunt’s right arm, severed in a woolen mill; walking to school with cardboard in his shoes; or living with his siblings for a year in an orphanage.
He also liked to recite poems, his favorite about a drunk named Tom who, at the bar, “fell asleep with a troubled brain and dreamt he rode on the hell-bound train.” Although we spent little time together, I felt awake and alive in my father’s presence and longed to become the apple of his eye. I relished his playful teasing, how he accepted me without reserve, and lapped up every scrap that fell from his table.
What I’d needed from him all along, but now more than ever, was to invite me to identify more with him than with my mother: to lure me from the snare of her desperation. Yet he’d become awkward with me now that I was getting older. Furthermore, he took pride in having “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” quitting school at age twelve to work in a mill, eventually surpassing both his parents and siblings. There seemed little room at the top for anyone else.
The fondness for poetry I shared with him was another thing I had in common with JFK. At the time my favorite poems were Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song,” Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” and one called “The Faeries” by William Allingham. All spoke to my yearning for a connection I couldn’t name: a swift-flying arrow the bow’s sight couldn’t follow, a tree fairer than a poem that prayed to God and communed with nature, or a queen an old king might finally get to dine with. That JFK quoted poets like Robert Frost, who recited “Stopping by Woods” at his inauguration, hadn’t been lost on me. Despite his predilection for simple declarative sentences, Kennedy possessed the gift of words.
That summer, reading about JFK, the events of his death still clear in my mind, my longing for connection was temporarily fulfilled. His story, largely one of losses that weighed on him and affected him deeply (mostly because they hadn’t been mourned), allowed me vicarious access to the hidden grief of both my parents. Reveling in the details of his brother Joe’s death, that of his sister Kathleen three-and-a-half years later, his sister Rosemary’s mental retardation, plus the loss of his newborn son, Patrick, four months prior to the assassination, I empathized with Kennedy and identified with him as someone I knew and, in some ways, could be like.
After Kennedy’s brother Joe died, it was up to second-born Jack to pick up the torch and become the first Catholic President, a job he seemed to want but which must have exacted some measure of guilt. This pressure to assume an older sibling’s place, replete with its accompanying excitement and fear, was something to which I could easily relate.
While I wasn’t one of the top students in my class, there were certain goods I could be counted on to deliver. One was reading aloud seamlessly, which I’d been doing since first grade, having developed something of a disdain for any student who stuttered and stammered. Another was reciting poetry as well as whatever else the Sisters of St. Joseph deemed worthy of memorization: the Seven Deadly Sins, the Preamble, the Nineteen Simple Prepositions, as well as the answer to every last question in the Baltimore Catechism. What I loved most, however, was giving oral talks, when I stood alone in front of the class and recited something I’d written myself.
In fifth grade I’d won the “Best Creative Sentence” competition, and although I don’t recall a single word, mine, no doubt was long and flowing, replete with images of the natural world. In sixth grade—the year Kennedy died—I’d been invited more often to read my compositions aloud. Being seen and heard for my love of language never failed to make me stand tall.
What I wanted most, however, and what Kennedy definitely had, was personality. To my way of thinking, although personality wasn’t enough, it was crucial to making a good impression and ultimately being remembered in the world. The major obstacle was that I was shy. Yet after listening to love songs all summer and reading about JFK, my mind and heart were opening up. And I wanted to belong in a way I couldn’t as a daughter who felt like an only child in a sea of siblings.
Come September, I entered seventh grade with a renewed enthusiasm, sensing life would be different this year. I was elected co-leader of my Girl Scout Patrol and asked to give my oral talk when the superintendent came to visit. I struck up conversations with the young mothers in my neighborhood, who, after remarking how mature I was, asked me to babysit.
I’d also grown rather talkative and begun to develop a sense of humor, which explains my becoming friends with the popular girls and falling in love with a boy who playfully dubbed me Chatty Patty. And though school proved harder and my math grade suffered in the final marking period, this would all change by the end of the summer, when I’d begin eighth grade without my mother.
Perhaps, even before the assassination, I’d been losing her in increments to the tumor growing in her brain to the size of a grapefruit. My approaching adolescence, coupled with her illness and my father’s drinking, may have only widened the gap I turned to Kennedy to fill.
In late July 1965, after she’d been complaining about headaches, my mother passed out one night after dinner. During the ensuing four weeks, she was hospitalized twice, misdiagnosed with meningitis-encephalitis, and in the end, for want of brain imaging techniques unavailable in the sixties, exhaustion.
Due to pain medication and the pressure the tumor was exerting on her brain, she waxed in and out of lucidity. Even when clear-thinking, she could rarely sit or stand, her head drooping like that of a languishing tulip or a world leader slain by a sniper. As expected, my father took over, most days sending me off to the pool, where I kept my magical thinking afloat—my mother couldn’t possibly die.
She stole away early on a Sunday morning with everything I believed she’d eventually give me: her undivided time, attention, and interest, along with her vitality, her secrets, and, of course, her stories, leaving me holding the dry husk of our potential relationship without having the decency to wait for me and say “Good-bye.” I wrestled, to no avail, with the meaning of never and the black magic that could render a person here one moment but gone the next.
I hated her for leaving me so foolish in hope, alone with so unsteady a gait and a father who—for the next four-and-a-half years before he, too, died—would hardly know what to do with me. But as much as I hated her, I loved her more and felt guilty for how I’d been granted my wish to be free. Rent by feelings that spewed words from my lips, repeated like chants as I roamed the house looking for her or frenetically rocked: “Mom… Don’t go… Don’t leave me… Please don’t leave me…,” I was unable to mourn, so I stowed her away like a game in its box while pining, unconsciously, for her return.
Eighth grade was starting, and I had to tick on. So I dealt with my feelings much as I’d always done, only now absolutely: by disavowing them, by putting others’ wants and needs ahead of my own, and by swaddling myself with renowned people’s words and stories and songs. To escape the tomb of darkness within me, I clung to the outer world for order and light, taking to learning as a parrot does to the human voice, committing to memory my notebooks and texts, which sometimes landed me at the top of my class. After being initially withdrawn, little by little I regained the personality I’d begun to develop at age twelve, eventually getting elected to leadership roles. This, along with my academic standing, allowed me to grow in limited ways.
But when released to the greater world, I’d feel out of my element. My consuming need for certainty, along with my compulsion for keeping everything in place to feel intact, didn’t work in the land where chaos lurked: the real, live, workaday world only a reasonably integrated mind can handle—one that can take the bits and pieces of traumatic experience and string them into a meaningful narrative. It would be a long time before I’d hollow out a space for resuming my development, the evolution of my woman self, and the nurturing and flourishing of my creativity.
In the meantime I looked to heroes like JFK, hoping for my courage to eventually find me, as his had found him, and poetry had “arrived in search of” Neruda. Like the helpers who appear in every fairy tale, these identifications would come to my aid. Like Jack, I was armed with a strong mind and a love of words, the secret knowledge of mind-bending loss, and an abiding desire to transform myself. I’d always been adept at using what I had.
I was first, was I not? Or no; I was last, I suppose; except that I wasn’t. If I could work that out, I might be able to accomplish anything. One day even “choose to go to the moon.” I was thirteen, after all, and could dream if I wanted, in the absence of a mother who’d know when to stop me.