Remembering

Today is the 40th anniversary of the shooting at Kent State.  In Dallas, someone broke into the Book Depository of JFK assassination fame and tried to steal a safe.  There are always moments that are bookmarks in history, and every day, it seems, there is plenty of competition for some event to be the next headline in our historical memory. I didn't post last week because I noticed that I've been writing about the difficulties of writing instead of sharing the brighter moments of writing: the moments when you get things right.  Getting it right is often a very personal yes, but when you receive feedback that something you wrote resonates a yes with others, then there is the reward.  So, here I will relay an excerpt of a piece that received a few yeses:  an excerpt from Mystique, published in the 2006 edition of Ten Spurs, of the Mayborn competition:

In September of 1963 I finally get to go to first grade.  I put on my new wool jumper, black and white oxfords and beret for the opening day of school.  The church is filled with uniformed boys and girls, nuns in yards of black organza and starched white wimples.  I am now initiated with my older brothers and sister into this long-awaited ritual.  Several priests assist Fr. Dunnigan at the communion rail for the hundreds of communicants.  We first graders kneel in place, back straight, singing the hymns, waiting for our turn next spring.  We are in touch with something here, something ancient and deep and true.  Communion of saints bridging the past to present to future; our souls, just for a moment, glimpse the ineffable.  Dominus vobiscum. Et cum Spiritu tuo.

Sister Mary Norbert stands in front of the seventy-five first graders under her care, a long, large Rosary with a crucifix bigger than my hand hanging from her waistband, her young face pinched in the white wimple.  The principal breaks in over the loudspeaker this grey afternoon before Thanksgiving, interrupting our lesson.  Her voice cracks.  Our President has been shot.

Sister steps out into the hallway to confer with the other teachers.  In stunned movement she returns and we all pull out our Rosaries and recite, the whole school, with the principal over the loudspeaker, five decades, praying for our President, for our country.  Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women…. This is something like those air raid shelter drills where half the class lines up in the hallway, half huddle under our desk, Rosary marking the time until the bell rings all clear.

But no, this is different.  This time something has actually happened and it isn’t a Russian bomb.  After the Rosary we pack our school bags and go home where Walter Cronkite in shades of grey moves into our living rooms and images that will repeat for the rest of our lives make their mark.  My mother is in the rocking chair with Gerry on her lap, watching history, making no comment.  I know not to question the silence.  She sends me out to play.  It is cold and grey in our backyard. The apple tree is barren and the brown leaves crunch under my feet.

Russia never dropped a bomb on our town of families parented by men and women who lived through the Depression and World War II.  Our parents had large families and moved to new housing developments all over Long Island, all over the country, with the promise of better days to come. After two decades of struggling and war the long awaited prosperity and job security were within reach.  All the young men who didn’t come back from the trenches are silently acknowledged, standing still in time in photo albums, dressed in uniform, all potential, all promise never to be realized.

You don’t dwell on such things and fathers don’t tell war stories around the kitchen table and mothers don’t ask too many questions about what their husbands saw and did in the mud of Europe and Asia.  Silence, strong masculine silence, is the code and all that they have seen and managed to survive is tucked away in a bureau drawer with their medals and photos and khaki caps that fold flat and are brought out for an occasional Veteran’s Day parade.  There is an understanding, an unstated contract of conduct that some things belong safely in the past and it would be bad form, vulgar, to bring them up.

But there is restlessness.  We need some fresh air.  Vatican II brings Hootenanny Masses, in English, where we really do sing Kumbaya and Blowin’ in the Wind as Fr. Dunnigan grimaces and Fr. Beliveau smiles.  The world rocks with student revolts and a fury barely contained.  The Kennedy and King assassinations play over and over until we feel like we are there, blood warm on our hands. Then, Kent State and the despair and grief of that young woman with the long dark hair, arms upraised in ancient keening why, why, why and we can nearly hear her through the grainy image on the front page of the Long Island Press.

Terrible arguments have moved into our family courtesy of my oldest brother and his soundtrack music of protest and anger.  Every issue is political, every conversation serious, unless he is mocking deeply held values of my parents and the church.  The Vietnam War body toll is the music we dine to, the portable television dragged to face the table as we eat our meat loaf and mashed potatoes.  These issues will not be reconciled with petitions and debates; they will break out in riots in the streets of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, and in our living room.