For My Father

Since today is the anniversary of the JFK assassination, I am sharing an excerpt from my essay Mystique, which was published in Ten Spurs, Literary Journal of the Mayborn Conference Standing in the living room on a bright crisp Saturday in October 1960, my father asks me if I would like to come with him to get neighbors to vote.  Eagerly, I say yes and my mother buttons up my sweater and brushes back my hair.  Dad and I go about Rosedale ringing doorbells.  We climb the brick stoops of the houses around St. Clare's.  Dad has an impressive list of all the registered voters in the area, or maybe he just has the registered Democrats. The list would be virtually the same for our neighborhood on the outskirts of Queens where nearly everyone is a member of St. Clare's Roman Catholic Church, and if they aren’t, they belong to Beth Israel on the other side of Sunrise Highway. Oh, there are a few Protestants, someone has to go to St. Peter’s Episcopal near the Long Island Rail Road station.  Maybe they are on the Republican voter list.

So Dad rings the bell and someone answers the door, saying something pleasant to the little kid in corduroys who has come to help.  Dad always has a friendly line while conveying the importance of getting out to vote on Election Day.  Hello, Joe, I’m here with my young friend Juli-kazool to ask you and Evelyn to vote on Tuesday November 8.  As you know we are supporting the Kennedy-Johnson ticket and every vote counts. I turn three the day before John Kennedy is elected President of the United States.  He is one of us; Irish, Catholic and his daughter and I were born the same month of the same year.

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.

Sr. 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. Sr. Mary Norbert 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.

...there is restlessness.  We need some fresh air.  Vatican II brought Hootenanny Masses, in English, where we really did sing Kumbaya and Blowin’ in the Wind as Fr. Dunnigan grimaced and Fr. Beliveau smiled.  The world rocked with student revolts and a fury barely contained.  The Kennedy and King assassinations played over and over until we felt like we were there, blood warm on our hands.  Kent State and the despair and grief of that young woman with the wild 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.