Every generation has a significant historical event that defines it. All members of the generation remember where they were and what they were doing when that event occurred. For my generation, the baby boomers, the Kennedy Assassination is one of those pivotal events; for the younger generation, it will probably be September 11th; for older generations, it may be Pearl Harbor.
The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in November will conjure up memories of that historical event for all of us over the age of forty. Do you remember where were you the day President Kennedy was shot? What were you doing? How did you hear about the assassination? What were your thoughts and fears? These personal stories add life to the dry scholarly accounts in history books. For our children and grandchildren, it brings an impersonal event into the personal. It gives it life and makes it more relatable to them.
On November 22, 1963 I was in school–seventh grade at St. Edwards Catholic School in Texarkana, Arkansas to be precise. President Kennedy’s picture was on the wall of each classroom along with a picture of Pope Paul VI. Pope Paul had taken over the papacy after the beloved Pope John the XXIII died in June of 1963. The meeting of the first Catholic president and the new Pope was an historic event. Kennedy met with Pope Paul just a few days after Paul’s coronation as Pope.
We considered President Kennedy our president. Catholics all over the country were so very proud to have a president who shared our faith. We revered and trusted him. As a young person, I found him so much more relatable than his predecessor, President Eisenhower. He was young, handsome and had a young family and a beautiful wife.
November 22nd was a sunny crisp fall day. I remember looking outside the classroom window and seeing the sun shining down on the baseball field that served as our playground. I don’t remember what subject we were studying, but I do remember one of the other nuns interrupting our class and whispering something to our teacher. The room was uncharacteristically quiet as they conferred. It was as if we recognized that something very serious had happened. The expression on Sister Bertran Grace’s face changed to one of disbelief as she stared intently into the face of the other nun. She instinctively made the sign of the cross just before their conversation ended.
After the other nun left, Sister Bertran Grace very solemnly announced that the president had been shot. She directed us to get down on our knees and begin praying the rosary. Several of the girls in the class began crying. Sister shushed them and told them to concentrate on our prayers. President Kennedy was very seriously injured and would need all our prayers to avoid death. This was most likely the most reverent rosary any of us had ever prayed. Our young hearts were desperately urging our God to intervene and save our president.
Before we had completed our rosary the principal entered the room and whispered again to Sister Bertran Grace. Tears began to stream down her unlined face as she announced to us that President Kennedy was dead.
How could that be? We had prayed so hard. Why had God taken him? Who had done this there were so many questions.
During the days after the assassination there seemed to be very few answers. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested by the Dallas Police Department and then subsequently shot by Jack Ruby. I remember feeling like the ground under my feet was giving way. The world seemed to be out of control. My day-to-day reality was shaken to the core.
I watched the funeral procession on our black and white television set–mesmerized by the event and it’s pageantry. At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was living history. My world was changing drastically before my eyes. I was wrapped up in what it meant for me. Would people blame Texas (my home state) and all Texans? Would people hate Dallas as the city that killed the president? Was he killed because he was Catholic? As different as my world was from his and his children’s lives, I identified with them because we had that one commonality.
Personal reactions to these historic events make them more real especially to our children and grandchildren. They make them real. It’s no longer just an event they read about in the history books and memorized the date and pertinent facts. It’s a part of their personal history. A story from their grandmother or grandfather.
I urge you to look back at the historic events you have lived through and record your personal experience. Often we discount those memories thinking of them as a collective memory–but they aren’t a collective memory for those generations that come after us. They are simply facts in a book taken for granted. Don’t take for granted your precious memories. Record them for yourself and your family.
As a start, please consider sharing your stories here. It could be the start of something wonderful for you and your family to cherish for years to come.