Gram and I had an annual ritual, one we enacted every summer from the time I was 4 or 5 to the time I was 10 or 11. It rarely varied, though sometimes my younger brother would join us. On what was usually a fine, bright blue day in July or August, we would set out from my grandmother’s home in Hyannis, Mass., and undertake “the grand tour,” as she called it, a drive through next-door Hyannisport.
Proceeding at parade-pace in her two-door, bright orange Buick Skylark, Gram would point out the various sites frequented by “The President”: the compound, the country club, the post office. Almost 15 years after his death, Gram’s unqualified reference to “The President”—with a capital T and a capital P—was always understood to mean John F. Kennedy.
We would then pick up the pace a bit and head across the way to the Kennedy Memorial, a modest fountain and flag on a hill overlooking Barnstable Harbor. There I would walk round the fountain, reading aloud each of the words inscribed in its base: “It is my firm belief that this nation should sail and not lie still in the harbor.” At this point, Gram invariably shed a tear and then we’d make our way to the local Friendly’s for a grilled cheese and Coke, or, in Gram’s case, a Sanka with half a Saccharin tablet.
Throughout the meal, I would pepper her with questions: Had she ever seen The President? No, but she frequently saw other members of the The Family—likewise always capitalized—at Mass at nearby Saint Francis Xavier Church, where Gram was a parishioner. Did any of them still live at the compound? Mrs. Rose Kennedy and a few others; but it’s not the same, Gram would say.
During one of these lunches, once I was old enough to understand, I asked Gram where she was when The President died. “In the hospital,” she said. “I’d gone in for an operation. My dear friend Mrs. Sullivan was visiting me when we heard the news. Mr. Cronkite made the announcement and then Mrs. Sullivan said, in a nasty tone, ‘Well, I guess that’s the end of the Kennedy dynasty.’ I never spoke to her again.” A long silence followed. “That was a terrible day,” Gram added.
Indeed it was. I don’t know from my own experience, of course; The President died nine years before I was born. But I know it was a terrible day. Over the years, when I’ve asked those who are old enough where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, they all answer in the same way. First, they sigh and then briefly look away at the ceiling or the floor. It’s almost as if they are looking outside of themselves to find the answer, as if the memory of that terrible day belongs to someone else. I’ve seen that before. It’s one way people relate to traumatic events: they keep their distance.
Fifty years have now passed. That’s quite a distance. And yet we still live with the memory of those events in Dallas, even if it’s only a memory of other peoples’ memories. As painful as it is, it’s worth revisiting that terrible day, if only in order to better understand, not what happened in Dallas, but what happened to us. Perhaps we were lied to, perhaps we weren’t; the debate still rages.
What concerns us more, I suggest, what has affected us more than any actual or potential lie, is the myth, the myth of who he was, of who we were; the very tale Gram retold every summer. “For the great enemy of the truth,” The President himself once said, “is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”