It being the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s death, we’re bombarded with retrospectives of various kinds. I’ve been tuning in to many of them. I don’t know why I’m drawn back so intensely. Perhaps I’m reaching for a time I lived through, unbelievably half a century ago already, and to a 13-year-old Me.
Last evening, for example, I watched “Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy.” The assassination happened Friday and by Monday some 45,000 letters had arrived to Mrs. Kennedy at the White House. Over the next two months, the number reached 800,000. Among them was a letter from me. Handwritten. In green ink as I recall.
When I mentioned the letter to H. yesterday he remarked, “You were compassionate, even then.” Well, that was a very nice thing of him to say, and it blessed me, but in fact, I’ve always felt slightly embarrassed about my letter. As an adult, I mean. Because of how naïve it was, even at 13. Here it comes… I actually invited Jacqueline Kennedy and her children to visit us in order to recuperate! I suppose I thought, since the lovely Kennedy family was “given” to the public via the media — to Canadians as well — that I knew them. I was one of eight children and our family was energetic and wonderful too, surely our home would be the perfect place for her to grieve. Can you imagine? A box of a house that had one bathroom for a family of ten in a small village in the back hills of Alberta? Right, let’s go there!
Anyway, I later learned that Mrs Kennedy didn’t – couldn’t – read all those letters. And I’m sure, and am relieved, that mine was not among those passed on to her by the secretaries who handled them. But she did read some of them and she was grateful for the outpouring of sympathy their sheer volume represented. One day, unexpectedly, I received an elegant black-bordered printed white card in the mail, saying formally that Jacqueline Kennedy appreciated and thanked for the thoughts.
As for who killed the president, I’ve never been interested in delving into conspiracy theories, though it was impossible not to be aware of them over the years. And of course, sometimes I wondered too, was this bigger than Lee Harvey Oswald’s three shots from a Texas Book Depository window? One show this week, “The Lost Bullet,” again, and compellingly, settled the matter for me. One commentator suggested we would prefer it was bigger than the randomness of a lone gunman, and I think he’s right. It’s almost as if we need something more complex, sinister, secret, to be an enemy worthy — if death it has to be — for JFK and his role and ideals and for what he had become to us in our imaginations. Oswald seems pathetic, too tawdry to be the agent of death for such a noble foe. (As if death itself isn’t steep and significant enough.)
If you hold to other views about the whodunit, you may count me as naïve on that score perhaps as the 13-year-old me was about how Mrs. Kennedy might like to be comforted. At any rate, this week, the tragedy, the sadness has been running on Repeat. I hadn’t realized how charmingly humorous JFK was. I review the astonishing wonder and optimism the space exploits embodied, and simultaneous fears for the future because of the Cold War and Cuba. I review the profound inbreaking of the civil rights movement. Tears rise, again, at the riderless horse and the sound of drums in the funeral cortege. Over and over, blood explodes at the president’s head. It still seems unbelievable, and so heartbreakingly unfair.