Half a century ago an important person died around the same time as President Kennedy. This person was not Huxley or Lewis; it was my mother. And while in my mind their deaths are not related, their burials are.
It is odd–or perhaps telling–that I don’t remember hearing about Kennedy’s assassination or Oswalt’s shooting, but clearly remember watching the national funeral, especially seeing the casket in a horse-drawn carriage on its way to Arlington. I watched as much of it as I could, keeping a sharp eye on that coffin.
I don’t know the exact date my mother passed away, of heart disease in her late forties. She had been in the hospital for months and I had been shipped off to friends of the family. It was not a pleasant time. In addition to the sudden separation from my parents, I was suddenly in a new and, to me, hostile environment. The new kindergarten was unfriendly, the family’s son, previously my friend, was mean to me and the parents took his side in disputes. I was spanked often. Somehow, in the span of the week, nothing I did was right.
My father, working full-time and caring for two other children and a dying wife, would bring me home each weekend. I remember the joy of seeing him each Friday evening, and the terror of watching him leave after he dropped me off Sunday afternoon. Looking back, it was all very Dickensian.
And of course, I missed my mother. And when I was told she died, I cried quite a bit. Enough anyway that adults told me to grow up and stop crying. I was 5 at the time. Well, it was all very sad and like all childhood traumas I still deal with it.
At the wake, my mother’s body looked very old. Her hair was thin and gray, her features drawn. I remember someone explaining to me that the body in the coffin was not my mother, that my mother’s soul had risen and gone to Heaven (or maybe, because she was a Protestant, Limbo, a place I envisioned as being next to Heaven and just as nice only without God). During the wake and the funeral, I watched her coffin to catch a glimpse of her rising soul.
If memory serves, Kennedy’s funeral was the same day as my mother’s, and that I watched it on TV while we were getting dressed. Of course, I was watching for his soul.
There is another bit of trivia that links the two deaths in my mind. As adults, my sister once told me that my mother, days or hours from her own death, was cheered by Kennedy’s assassination. “Oh, she hated Kennedy,” my sister said. That answers one question and raises many more. It explains why, at the age of two, I was dressed as Fidel Castro for Halloween. Even then, I remember people finding it assuming, even though I understood him to be a valiant, cigar-smoking Tarzan.
The questions my mother’s Kennedy hatred raise have to do with her marriage. My father was Catholic, and it was agreed the children would be raised that way. Perhaps my mother’s dislike of the Catholic Kennedy was fueled in part by this arrangement. My mother didn’t go to Mass with the rest of the family, and I usually stayed home with her, watching Sky King and enjoying English muffins and Ovaltine.
For some reason, the picture of my dying mother taking grim joy in the murdering of a president makes me happy. Before hearing this anecdote, I always had a nice but vague memory of my mother, a benevolent but formless entity. The Kennedy thing fleshed her out a bit. Gave her some grit.
I’d give anything to know her reaction to Lewis’ passing.