November 22, 1963. I was 5 ½ years old.
I was just a little girl, busy with baby dolls and a miniature tea set on that Friday afternoon; that is until my grandfather clicked on a small black and white TV. Hard of hearing, he turned up the volume and inched close to the flickering screen. My grandmother soon joined him. Both were speechless, their gazes completely locked on Walter Cronkite. And somehow I knew without being shushed that this was not a time for a child to interrupt or ask questions.
It’s interesting (amazing, really) how memories are marked and mapped in our brains and consciousness…how they capture and integrate sounds and images with perceptions; and then box them up so tightly and secure. My memory of November 22, 1963 is vivid–all the way down to the lace curtains that hung in the window behind the black and white Motorola, the repeating voice of Walter Cronkite, the permeating smell of my grandparents’ kerosene heater, and the Thumbelina baby doll I clutched for an entire afternoon and night. Perhaps moreover, is the first memory of how sorrow appeared on both familiar and unfamiliar faces at the same time in the frame of my vision; an introductory perception of a universal expression…the brief phrases of soft, quiet words in slow tempo bound by loss and tragedy.
The power of memory is fierce.
Maybe the mind and memory of a 5½ year-old child isn’t significant in the world’s collective remembrance of November 22, 1963; but for me, the memory is heavily weighted. President Kennedy was shot and killed in a big city 1,000 miles away; but, it might as well have taken place in my own small world on the narrow road passing by my grandparents’ rural farmhouse. The power of memory still associates and encapsulates my memories of Kool-Aid tea parties and rocking baby dolls to sleep with shock and confusion: an unforgettable and unshakable introduction to the adult world.
In deeper retrospect, that specific day in 1963 turned out to be somewhat of a turning point in the history of my life and childhood. I think it was, perhaps, a very premature beginning of the end of innocence on some level and the first definite prompt to pay a little more attention to the world of grown-ups in order to eventually become one myself.
What I memorized on November 22, 1963 was, and still is, irrevocable.
During the past few weeks, numerous media specials and programs about the death of John F. Kennedy have pulled me a little closer to the Motorola. I’ve watched and listened just as intensely as my grandparents did back in 1963. The conspiracy theories and controversies along with all the trappings of Hollywood-style journalism haven’t been the attraction as I have tuned in to the JFK programs. Instead, I am drawn by the opportunity for my recollection of that afternoon to fall in line with the stories of others and to find a place in the history of our country. Or maybe it is a means of acknowledging that the memory of a 5½ year-old was and still is, indeed, profound.
My most intimate childhood memory box of JFK and his death in 1963 is now wrapped in academics and history lessons that have accumulated over the decades. In 1963, what I knew of President Kennedy was that he was a man with an important name and a pretty wife, and the daddy of a little daughter and son. But fifty years of paying closer attention and growing up has brought about a bit of wisdom and understanding as well as a lot of appreciation for history, humanity, and heroic vision. I expect it’s the same for a lot of other folks, too; others who were youngsters at the time and experienced a similar premature coming-of-age on the day those shots rang out in Dallas.
And I think most of us, if not all, have no immunity or control over that kind of memory when we consider our country’s timeline of challenges and progress; and especially during the times as a nation we have yearned for a model of inspiration and encouragement.
I was too young in 1963 to grasp more than the black and white images of confusion and the solemn expressions of grief; but in the years that have followed and as a full-grown American, I have come to recognize and appreciate the noble capstone of Kennedy’s inextinguishable legacy:
“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Now 55 years old, I am still self-shushed when I recall the death of JFK and its inescapable imprint within my memory; or maybe my quiet thoughts are just paying tribute in some small and child-like way to the great man resting beneath the Eternal Flame.