I remembered it like yesterday. On Nov. 22, 1963, I was sitting in my ninth grade physical science class. Mrs. Pharr was lecturing about some boring topic. Instead of taking the required notes from her lecture, I was writing a love note in response to the one who had just been passed to me.
The principal’s voice rang out over the intercom: “President John F. Kennedy has been shot! I repeat, President John F. Kennedy has been shot!” There was a silence for a minute. Then cries and moans could be heard all up and down the hall. The rest had been a blur.
I don’t remember my walk home, nor speaking to the lady who stood on her porch watching the yellow buses drive by, nor Dash, my neighbor’s big fluffy dog running up to lick my leg, nor my grandmother standing at the back door as I entered our house.
I do remember those hot tears that had run down my face. I remember wiping them with the back of my hand. “Is it true, Mama? Did he really get shot?” I’d asked Mama. “Yes, baby, that’s what the news people are saying. It’s on the TV now. You hungry?” Mama had told me this in a cracked and broken voice. “Little bit,” I’d answered, still in a daze. I’d drifted into the living room where the Dallas, Texas, scene was playing.
Mama joined me, holding a saucer of cookies and a glass of milk. Usually we couldn’t eat in the living room, but this afternoon, an exception was made. The rule was broken.
Sister came home. Her eyes were red. I could tell she’d been crying. Sammie, her boyfriend, carried her books. They came into the living room. “Mama” she cried, “it’s awful! What’s the country gonna do? It’s just awful!” She took a cookie, so did Sammie.
Mother came home, her eyes red, her makeup caked with tried tears. “He’s dead.” Is all Mother could say as she put her satchel down. “He’s dead” she said again and again. “He surely was a good president. A good one.”
We pulled up to Sammie’s house. He said his goodbyes to all of us, got out, and Mama and Mother grew quiet for a bit. Then, Mother broke the silence. “How did you girls find out?” “They made an announcement,” Sister answered. “Over the loud speaker’ I quipped. Over the course of the days to follow, there was little else on the TV. The cartoons were on, and the soaps, but that was it. When we were home, we sat glued to the news station, watching history being made.
I remember Mrs. Kennedy so well, her pill-box hat, her suit; pink in color (I’d viewed the scene on my friend’s color TV set), streaked with her dying husband’s blood. Her, in a panic, trying to flee from the limousine. On the day of his funeral, her holding each child by the hand, and little John-John saluting his father, saying a final goodbye to him. How could a child that young know how to make such an endearing and heartfelt gesture, telling his daddy goodbye, that one last time? One that was forever be remembered and cherished by the whole world.
I remember the majestic, horse-drawn wagon that carried the president’s lifeless body; the people who gathered around to bid him farewell, the eternal flame there to mark his grave.
My friend’s birthday was Nov. 25, but this year I didn’t feel much like celebrating. Neither did she, and it was her birthday. So the two of us just sat around with party hats on and looking at our blowouts at her kitchen table. We ate birthday cake and drank Coke, with little conversation taking place. I watched her open presents, coming from her parents, brother, aunts in New Jersey, and me. I figured if either of us brought up the subject, we’d both get sad; she did, and yes, we both got sad, really sad.
“He was a good president, wasn’t he, Doris?” she sobbed. “Oh, yes, Anna Lee. I don’t know what the country’s gonna do! I still can’t believe he’s dead.” Tears streaked both our faces, despite the festive purpose of this occasion. After all, it was her birthday. She was thirteen, finally a teenager.
This was also during the Thanksgiving holiday, and though Mama and Mother would cook a wonderful dinner for that special day, a bleak demeanor settled over our home. The days passed. We watched television, passed conversation, talked to Daddy in Detroit, went to church on Sunday, and went about life with little zeal. Other years with Christmas as close as it was, Sister and I would have been regular chatter boxes, looking through catalogs, and making our wish lists. We’d look forward to getting most things on our lists, just not everything there.
Monday came without fanfare. Mother left for her teaching job in York, Mama walked to the house that she cleaned, several blocks from us, and Sister and I walked to Emmett Scott, where she was a junior, and I was a freshman. It was a brisk, clear day, with the promise of winter in the air. Sister and I walked together to Emmett Scott High, said our farewells, separated, and went to stand with our individual group of friends in different parts of the campus. The drum of human voices rose in the air.
Suddenly, in my mind, it was as if the late, great one’s voice was calling to us from his new home: “Please, my dear children, don’t be sad for me. Be happy, I am. I’m in a new home with a new father. I did what I could for the country. Now it’s your turn. So, let me caution you to always obey your parents and teachers, obey the rules. Study hard, get your education, have good clean fun. Be wholesome and polite. Respect yourself and others. Love God and your country. Have yourselves a great day! Let the times you experience all be great. I know I will continue the tradition up in Heaven.”
What a treasured legacy President John F. Kennedy left. To this day, I’m still hanging on to those remarkable, final words, that advised us how to live pure, true, future lives, words called down from his new home, several days after he left.
Doris Ezell-Schmitz of Rock Hill is a retired educator.