In the morning hours before the assassination in Texas, my mother and her sister met on Main Street, Flushing for coffee. The women went over their Thanksgiving plans while my little cousin, Lonnie slept in his stroller. (Lonnie would grow up to be a married father of two little boys who, along with 2605 other souls, was murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11.)
But on that fall day, while my cousin dreamed his baby-dreams and the sisters planned their holiday, the coffee shop’s radio music abruptly halted. A somber announcer cleared his throat before telling his listeners that President Kennedy was shot in Texas. My aunt and mother left their holiday to-do list along with the remnants of their shared apple Danish to hurry back home for their children. I was still on the train.
In the time before cell phones, my fellow subway riders and I were blissfully heading home for the weekend. It was six days before our national feast day. I’m sure our collective musings were mostly on family and food. It would be long after the new year before we would enjoy routine thoughts again.
My building’s lobby was reassuringly empty, but as I stepped off the elevator at my floor, I found myself face to face with our neighbor. “They shot the president!” She announced like a self-appointed town-crier. “The president of what? The building?” I asked. “The United States!” She shouted over her shoulder as the elevator doors closed behind her.
My mother’s expression was as somber as the evening Grandma Leslie died, yet there was more to read in her eyes. Like other dreadful memories, the next moments are played back in slow motion. I can see our kitchen wall phone receiver dangling above the floor like a miniature amusement park ride, while my mother spoke only three words to me. “Do you know?” she asked before heading back to her phone call.
“When are you coming home?” She spoke into the receiver. It was more a plea to my father than question. It is not comparable to today’s tragedies. Now, we want our loved one’s home to be sure they’re all right. Then, we needed our fathers with us to feel we were all right.
On Sunday, we gathered at Aunt Evie’s and Uncle Benson’s for dinner. Aunt Sandy and her current boyfriend brought Grandma and Step-Grandpa Moe. There were so many food packages from Grandma that the men made a relay race from the car to fetch them all. The women were cramped into the kitchen; unwrapping and prepping. The men, who usually began our Sunday rituals with cigarettes and scotch on the rocks at the living room couch, had brought chairs to the kitchen table for their discussions. When Uncle Bert, Aunt Evelyn and their three sons arrived with dessert, the little kitchen was filled with 17 of us. Uncle Bert, headed downstairs to the basement TV. “I’m going to catch the news.” He said to no one in particular. The political conversations went on without him.
Through the din of more than a dozen voices talking about Kennedy and Johnson, we heard Uncle Bert’s shouts. “They shot him. They shot him!” His words rang out as he raced back up the stairs. No one understood his alarm. “Well, we knew that.” Uncle Benson shook his head at his brother-in-law.
“No! Oswald! They just shot Oswald!” Seventeen pairs of feet; from baby Lonnie’s Striderites to Grandma’s bunion friendly earth shoes, ran down the narrow basement stairs to watch the reenactment of Oswald’s murder on the TV perched on a rickety metal stand next to Aunt Evie’s washing machine. There are only six survivors of that basement viewing alive today, but I’m sure those of us still standing can see Oswald’s mouth become O-shaped as Ruby shot his gut.
This year, I listened as newscasters predicted a low viewership for the Pence and Kaine veep debate. Perhaps it’s because many immigrants don’t share our national schema or that 2 generations that lived through the time of Kennedy’s assassination are gone or that baby-boomers have filed away their memories of those days in November. I don’t know why there was no interest in the men who could run our country at any given time.
I have no meaningful judgments nor overviews of the events of 1963. I write this only to share two days when we weren’t desensitized to killing, from the prospective of one family who lived not far from Main Street in Flushing, New York fifty-three years ago.