Every American knows that horrible date. For me, sitting in Mrs. Purvis’s 2nd grade classroom in a building built in the 1880s, the news was baffling. I don’t recall many of the details of that afternoon, except for the stunned and saddened adults, those people who were counted on to understand everything, now didn’t seem understand at all.
My life consisted of learning cursive, wondering why girls couldn’t wear pants to school on cold days, riding my bicycle, dealing with my little sister, adoring my older brother and playing with my friends. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of the President as a person, rather than just the idea of the office, if he hadn’t had little kids. Their pictures were always on the news and in LIFE magazine. Those kids made him real. A dad. And suddenly he was dead.
I think we never truly empathize with others until something makes them understandable and relatable in our own personal world. A dad was dead. That I could comprehend. That I could imagine. What if my dad went to work one day and never came home? I think in some small way, that day, that dawning understanding of others’ loss contributed to my ability to create believable fictional characters. That was the first time I crawled under another person’s skin…Caroline Kennedy. A girl whose daddy won’t come home.
The television, normally off during the daytime hours in our house, stayed on. My mother made me sit and watch it all. The Sunday procession from the White House to the Capitol, Caroline and her mother kneeling beside that flag draped casket, Monday’s long slow procession from the Capitol to the cathedral and then again after the service to Arlington cemetery. Whenever I got restless, she reminded me, this was history being played out right in front of me. History she hoped would never be repeated. It was important I watch the entire thing.
The thing that struck me was the silence. How could a street filled with chest-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder people be so quiet? Nothing but drum beats and horse hooves. The other thing, of course, was the image of two children whose lives would never be the same.