Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Family's Encounter with the Kennedys

My father was raised in a poor, working class, Irish Catholic family (actually, they were one step away from starving class - my grandfather's store failed during the Great Depression), in a hardscrabble Scranton neighborhood called Bone Hill. When he was accepted into the Naval Academy, my father became the first member of his family to attend college, and eventually moved away from the old neighborhood to start his own family.

We idolized the Kennedys. My parents spawned a similarly large (nine children) family, and we played sports together, sang around the piano together, and covered our heads with lacy tiaras as we lined up at Mass every Sunday, just like the Kennedys. Every evening we crowded around the dining room table under the peaceful gaze of a romanticized, Victorian portrait of the infant Jesus, which hung on the wall behind my mother's place. At my father's end of the table there still hangs a copy of a painting of the late Pope John XXIII, with Jack and Bobby Kennedy on either side of him. The three are walking away from us, into a sunlit place where presumably, they will no longer know pain or grief.

I was 14 years old, just finishing my freshman year of high school, in the summer of 1968. Though my idealism was rocked by the back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I remained an enthusiastic supporter of civil rights and champion of the underdog. After all, I was a first grader when President Kennedy was inaugurated. When he told us that he was passing the torch to "a new generation of Americans," it was clear that he meant he was passing it to me.

My father was devastated by Bobby Kennedy's death. He had been working for the county Democratic Committee, making calls to solicit donations for the Kennedy campaign and passing out literature to friends, colleagues, and fellow Little League parents. And so, after Bobby died, my father decided that we would go to Hyannisport for our summer vacation. That meant that on Sunday, our second day on the Cape, we all dressed up and headed to Mass at Our Lady of Victory Church, where the Kennedys worshiped. It was just one month after the death of Robert F. Kennedy.

As if my father had conjured her, Rose Kennedy was there. She was dignified in her still fresh grief, her face shielded by a black mantilla. But she spotted our family, eight (at the time) little kids all lined up in one of the pews, and it must have reminded her of her own. She approached us after the service and offered Memorial Cards, with Bobby Kennedy's picture on one side and a prayer on the back. My father shyly asked if she would take a picture with us, to which she gracefully assented.

My father idealized the Kennedys without ever recognizing that they were part of the privileged, patrician class, far removed from our existence as a large, suburban family doing our best to make ends meet. He refused to listen to any criticism of the Kennedys, and dismissed as lies any talk of their abuses of power, arrogance (and let's not even mention the President's philandering). As a "sophisticated" college student and young adult, I thought he was ridiculously naive in his unerring support of and identification with the Kennedys.

Looking back this week, I have to say that I think Dad had it right. Although Teddy Kennedy had every privilege in the world (and often took advantage of that fact), he nearly blew it all with a series of public and potentially crushing missteps. Still, he persisted on, righting himself and continuing to use his position to try to make a difference for the poor and minority citizens who counted on him to champion their cause. Frankly, I find it easier to relate to this flawed but compassionate man than it is to look up to a perfect hero immortalized in marble. I'll never be that, and Ted Kennedy surely knew he never would be, either.

Warrior, statesman, father, husband......and friend to many, even those who never knew him. As the NY Times wrote this morning, when Ted Kennedy is reunited with his big brothers in heaven, he's going to tell them "I carried the torch......I carried it all the way."

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful story and I think you should submit it to the Times or other appropriate places for consideration. Of course, I agree with your opinion about Teddy; we can all identify with a flawed-hero who conquers his flaws and succeeds despite all that.