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Jacqueline Kennedy has been in the news lately since her daughter released 8 hours of taped interviews she did 4 months after JFK was assassinated. As a consequence, there have been a lot of photos and film of her everywhere, and though I was a very young child when she was in the white house, her image is as familiar to me as my own. For my son, Chuck, who is 16, she was just a name, so seeing pictures of both of them is kind of new.
“She was an unbelievably elegant and stunning woman,” he commented.
He's right – she was. There has been no other first lady in the age of photography who can compare to Jackie Kennedy. She was beautiful in a truly unique and unusual way, classy, elegant, and a true lady. Even though I was just a little kid, I can remember feeling proud that she was in the White House.
Watching all the news reports and film of the Kennedys prompted Chuck to as me questions about them and that time in history. Thinking about it made me realize how powerful an experience it was for a kid and how clearly I remember how it was and how I felt. Only something truly traumatic can result in that kind of total recall. One thing that stands out in my mind is how completely the experience changed my perception of adults. The truth of the matter is that kids really don't pay all that much attention to adults outside of their traditional role as authority figures, providers, and protectors. From the average kid's point of view, adults, particularly parents, can be sometimes amusing, more often embarrassing, and frequently annoying no matter how much you may like or love them. They are not people in the same sense that your peers are people and you unless they do something outrageous, they don't really register in your life the same way. I can clearly remember how confusing and frightening it was during the days after JFK was assassinated to watch all the adults around you unraveling like a ball of yarn. We were in school that day and when we came in from recess all the teachers were crying. Teachers don't cry. It was totally unnerving. We were all quiet and subdued, speaking in whispers among ourselves, speculating on what monumental thing could make our teachers cry. They got us all together and told us that our President had been shot and was dead. I can remember to this day the face of the teacher who told us. She was young and pretty and her eyes were all red and filled with tears. I remember thinking to myself that her mascara had run and made dark splotches under her eyes. To say we were in shock is an understatement. We were totally confused. This was something so outside our realm of experience and even imagination that we were unable to process it at all and when you can't process something knowing how to react to it is impossible. Teachers, who in those days were viewed with considerably more respect than they are now, were crying. When I got home my mother was crying. In the days that followed adults in stores and offices and on TV were crying. Our world, the world of young children, was drowned in the tears and sorrow of the adults around us and it was changed forever.
I explained this to Chuck, who is from the generation of school shootings, 9/11, and stories of people randomly shooting innocent people as a method of dealing with their problems and disappointments and realized that in his world, violence is a far more familiar player in the game. In retrospect, the Kennedy assassination seems like the beginning of all that, the first domino in the line to fall. Chuck has never experienced the kind of innocence we enjoyed as children and innocence is an almost impossible thing to imagine from a distant perspective. I told him that the important thing to understand was that things were never the same after that and that as a people, we lost something on that day that we have never regained. My most vivid memory is sitting on the floor watching the President's funeral on TV with my brothers and my parents. The funeral cortège was passing by Jackie Kennedy who wore a black veil and had her little kids by the hands. Even as a child I recognized the impact of that vision on my mind. I heard a noise and looked up at my father. He was crying. My father, the man of admirable restraint who came from a time when simple manners prevented any public display of powerful emotion, was sobbing at the sight of such tragedy, pain, and courage in one small woman. It was the one and only time we ever saw him cry.
Chuck asked me if the assassination was part of the reason for the great social rebellion of youth that followed during the 60's and 70's. I told him that it probably was. We didn't want to walk in the footsteps of a generation that robbed us of our innocence. He commented that it didn't seem to last long, which is true. I told him that we are young and then we are not and we often become what we swore we never would.
“Grown up?” he asked?
“No,” I said. “Afraid.”
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