Everyone my age and older has an assassination story. “Where were you? What were you doing, thinking, wearing, when you heard that John Kennedy had been shot?” That story. I was a child, so my assassination tale begins on the playground and ends in my parents’ living room. And because I was a child, my story is tangled up with memories of girl culture, 5th grade crushes, Catholic School-- all the other falls from innocence.
It was November. And in November, the game was freeze tag; sometimes called “statues.” We played in teams. If a member of the opposing team tagged you, you “froze” and stayed motionless in place, until a member from your team set you free. All the 4th, 5th and 6th grade girls played, and at the height of the game we spanned the entire courtyard. Running or frozen in place, we dominated all recess play. Every year, the boys tried to hold their ground; every year they retreated.
That particular November, they surrendered quickly. On the first day we played, Michael Sarotto picked up his team’s kick ball and whistled to the other captains. Pushing and shoving as they walked across the courtyard, they retreated to the lower level where they knew we would not go. The yard was ours.
Freeze tag had a complicated structure. There was a captain and a chief tagger and someone who led the rescue operation for every team. These positions shifted daily, determined at the start of every game by a counting ritual. “One potato, two potato, three potato, four; five potato, six potato, seven potato, more.” We counted down 5 times, as we streamed out into the yard. Five times. Then we knew what to do. Between All Saints and Thanksgiving, we played every day. Before and after school. At recess. At lunch. Saturday afternoons. And we learned exactly how to throw our voices for maximum effect in the wide open schoolyard. “One potato, two potato, three potato, four.” Just like the witches in Macbeth.
It was near the end of the season, the Friday before Thanksgiving break. The fog had rolled in early and clung to the purple iceplant hills surrounding the schoolyard. Damp, thick-grey and cold, it called for different play tactics. Different freeze tag strategies. And that’s what I was thinking about. Heresy, since I was in Church. The last school Mass before vacation, and Father was taking his time.
He had lit the censer and the sweet smell of frankincense filled the overheated chapel. “In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti,” he chanted, making the sign of the cross over his fidgety congregation. And then the Church doors swung open. I remember how welcome the blast of fresh air felt; how we knelt a little straighter at the promise of something new.
Sister Joanna, strode up the center aisle of the Church, moving so quickly that her rosary beads chattered at her side. She did not take Holy Water; she did not genuflect in front of the Tabernacle. We children started looking around, turning our heads to catch sight of our friends. Something was clearly wrong.
“Father!” Her voice was sharp. It was her schoolyard voice. The voice she used to break up fights and restore order. Not the deferential voice she habitually used when addressing a priest. “Father! President Kennedy has been shot.”
They say that time slows down when you’re in shock. For me, that came later—the suddenly slow-mo depression of time. At the moment I heard the news, everything seemed to speed up. I remember hearing someone gasp, hearing someone else bump against a pew. Father must have questioned Sister Joanna because I recall scattered phrases, all delivered in that crisp staccato tone. A mother had called. Yes, she had checked the news; Walter Cronkite, hospital. Jackie is okay. Johnson.
Handing the incense burner to an altar boy, Father knelt down in the Church aisle, and asked Sister for her rosary. “The Sorrowful Mysteries, children.” His voice twisted so with grief, we could barely understand him. “The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden.” On the left side of the Church, we girls fumbled for the prayer beads we always carried. Taught by Dominicans and Jesuits, we had learned mystical skepticism. We could say the rosary at a moment’s notice, but we weren’t always convinced it would work. On the right side of the Church, a group of 5th grade boys nervously cracked their knuckles as we worked our way through the prayer cycle. One Our Father, ten Hail Marys, one Glory be to the Father.
“The Second Sorrowful Mystery. The Scourging at the Pillar.” On through the Passion we prayed, until we reached the Crucifixion. This was the part of the Rosary we said at funerals and wakes. The most sadistic and brutal part of the liturgy, it was supposed to speak to us of redemption. But we kids understood it as pure horror; and that Friday we all hoped Father would continue, would move on to the Glorious Mysteries which begin with the Resurrection. He did not. He blessed us and let us go with the death of Christ.
“Is the President dead?” Vicky Stringer asked me as we left Church. “I don’t know,” I answered. Yvonne Fernandez was still praying the Rosary—whispering in Spanish—when Sister Ramona shooed us back to our classrooms. We were to get our coats and go out into the playground for lunch.
Nobody could have had a drearier picnic. Seated on the benches that framed the schoolyard, we shivered against the fog and watched the gulls swoop in. They were aggressive birds and we had learned to eat quickly and defensively, guarding our sandwiches as ferociously as wolf pups. But this particular Friday, we had no heart for the fight. One of the older boys threw a rock. The birds scattered and we clutched our unopened lunches until the first bell rang— The signal that we could get up and go play.
This was the moment I had been looking forward to. The moment when we girls would stream into the courtyard, chanting “one potato, two potato, three potato, four.” But that afternoon, the schoolyard was quiet. A few of us got up from the benches and huddled together for warmth. Maria Sarotto had some Italian chocolate, so we nibbled squares of Perugina, the only lunch I remember eating that day. Some boys from the Honor Guard paced nervously around the flagpole, in case they were needed. It was a relief when the second bell rang and we could trudge back to our classrooms.
That particular year, my classroom teacher was Mrs. O’Rourke. One of the few lay teachers at Our Lady of Mercy School, she was popular with the students. She wore eyeliner and pointed high heeled shoes and smart, sheath dresses that just barely grazed the top of her knees. She was strict as hell. But she had been places and read things, and when she opened her purse we saw cigarettes and theater playbills inside.
studied the Constitutional Convention, she told us about The Enlightenment,
writing the arch-heretic Voltaire’s name on the blackboard in large, backward
sloping letters. In the Dominican-Jesuit rivalry that frequently split our
school, Mrs. O sided with the Jesuits. She was fundamentally a political
creature. Or perhaps just a renegade. In October, she had brought her portable tv
set from home so the class could watch Sandy Koufacs pitch the World Series. “Physical education,” she told us, with a wink
and a smile . If anyone could help
us make sense of that terrible day—could weave the events into a story that had
drama and reason-- it would be her.
She was leaning against her desk-- smoking, listening to the radio, and our arrival startled her. Tamping out her cigarette, she replaced the butt carefully in the red box still open on her desk. For a moment she didn’t say anything, just stood quietly. We always prayed when we came in from recess, and when she didn’t speak, we thought she was trying to find the right formula, the appropriate “help us through this assassination” prayer. Because in the few minutes that we had been in the classroom, we had heard just enough from the tinny school radio. President Kennedy was dead.
Several children began crying. Mrs. O closed her eyes a moment, and then finally spoke. We would not be having lessons that afternoon, she told us. She expected that we would be dismissed early. Until then, we would listen to the radio. We could say our prayers silently to ourselves. If we needed something to do, we could draw quietly, or read, or—write something.
Then she walked behind her desk and sat down. Turning her body away from us, she faced the windows and closed herself up like a fan. I think she poured some coffee out from her thermos, because the dark thick smell of it mingling with the cigarette smoke reminded me of home. Calmed me a little. Some girls took out their rosary beads and began silently praying. Cindy Sarubbi twisted her long thick hair into a braid, and frowning seriously began an oil pastel drawing of a strange, beautiful bird. Every time the radio announcer said that President Kennedy had died, she returned to the beak and sharpened it with quick, savage strokes, turning her bird of paradise into a predator. My friend Maria was crying.
I couldn’t pray or draw. And I certainly couldn’t write anything. Turning around in my desk, I looked out the classroom windows and tried to concentrate on the radio. But there were so many words that I didn’t understand. I glanced over at Mrs. O’Rourke. Long black ribbons of mascara snaked down her cheeks. She was looking out the windows toward the sea. I was sitting parallel to her, but I wasn’t looking at the ocean. I was looking in the opposite direction, watching the flagpole. The captains of the Honor Guard were standing there, talking. The Honor Guard were the boys who raised and lowered the flag every school day, brought it in when it rained, and folded it with great ceremony out on the Courtyard. They had a protocol for everything. I watched out the window as they finally put on their tricolor sashes, bowed their heads, crossed themselves and said a prayer; then they lowered the flag to half-mast. Even then I knew that Greg Santini, the senior captain, had made up that ceremony on the fly; because nobody teaches an 8th grade boy the proper flag ritual for a president’s murder. That’s when I began to cry.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that. I must have dozed a little, because the crackle of the classroom PA system startled me. Then Sister Joanna’s voice, tired and raspy, announced that school would be dismissed early. Mrs. O’Rourke stood up, and began erasing the blackboard. “No homework this weekend,” she said. Then looking directly at me, the one latch key child in the class, she asked if I had somewhere to go. “It’s my mother’s day off,” I told her quickly. That was a half-lie. My mother was often called to work on Fridays. But even if Mom weren’t home, I knew I’d be fine. On that most terrible of days, Maria’s family would gladly take me in; and I couldn’t bear to have Mrs. O’Rourke and possibly Sister Joanna fussing over me. I wanted to leave.
Usually we walked home in clusters of twos and threes. But this particular Friday a large group of us girls banded together, walked down the school stairs and through the empty cul-de-sac. As we turned onto the first real street leading away from the school, we saw worried mothers standing in their doorways. Cardigan sweaters draped over their shoulders, they were looking toward Our Lady of Mercy. Mrs. Sarubbi and Mrs. Perez were standing together. “Finally!” I heard Mrs. Sarubbi say. “What were those women thinking?” And then calling after me, as Cindy went inside—“J! if your mother’s not home, come back.”
One by one, my friends peeled away, reabsorbed into the close muffled world of suburban childhood. After Yvonne’s house, Maria and I walked quietly together. We lived next door to each other, about two miles from the school. As we cut across the Protestant neighborhood, the streets seemed strangely silent. The public school children were already home, and no mothers stood in the doorways calling anxiously to their kids and to one another. Then I heard the sound of Michael Sarotto’s bicycle. I knew it was his, because he’d stuck a playing card in his back wheel, so his bike made a funny clicking noise, like the wheels of chance at the Church bazaar. Maria and I slowed down, but didn’t turn around. Just let him pull up beside us. Michael was Maria’s twin brother, and usually he would have ridden past with a rude comment or a thump on the shoulder. But that particular day, he coasted to a stop, and walked with us in that easy, loose-jointed, shuffling way he had. Pulling us back into the Catholic quarter where we lived.
As we turned the final corner leading to our street, we heard our fathers’ trucks. The roaring sound of standard transmissions pulling big equipment. The sudden cut-out as someone’s dad shifted up or shifted down. Our fathers were Italian-American, Hispanic, and Irish-American men who worked two, sometimes three jobs so their families could live in the suburbs and their children could go to Catholic School. They never took a sick day; in fact, they were rarely home. They left early for work and came home late. We kids saw them at dinner sometimes, on Saturday nights and Sundays. Occasionally on Friday nights. Never in the middle of a weekday. Not even on Christmas Eve or Good Friday. But now all the men were coming home, in one long mournful procession. And the entire neighborhood seemed to rumble under the sound of so many trucks. I stopped walking. I must have looked worried, because Michael gently punched my arm.
My dad’s car was in the driveway, and the kitchen was brightly lit. Both my parents were home. Michael swung his right leg back over his bicycle bar. “I’m serving Mass tomorrow,” he told me. “Ask your mom if you can go to Church.” Then he was gone. Maria nudged me and smiled. “J and Michael sitting in a tree,” she chanted. Then she veered off to her own house.
In the kitchen, my mom was at the stove, heating tomato soup and making coffee. Her face was startlingly pale and there were dark smudges around her large green cat’s eyes. Everything about her sagged, the way it did when she’d worked a double shift.
Taking my soggy lunch bag, she smoothed my hair back from my face and kissed me. “Did you eat anything at all?” she asked me.
“A little chocolate.”
“I’ll fix you a mug of soup,” she said. “It’ll make you feel better. Go wash your hands and change your clothes.” I went into the living room first, to kiss my dad. Hunched forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, he was watching the news. When I came in, he leaned back and opened an arm for a hug. “Hi Baby,” he said, pulling me close. “The public school kids were home an hour ago. What kept you?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” I breathed in the smell of him—aftershave and cigarette smoke and a dark pungent smell
that I associated with work.
“I don’t think they knew what to do.”
That was verging on disrespecting a grown-up and I knew it. But he didn’t yell. Just pulled back a
little, and looked at me. “None of us
know what to do, Honey. Go take your
coat off, then come sit with me.”
Tossing my book bag and coat on the bed, I kicked off my shoes. Then I lay back across the chenille bedspread and looked at the star chart my mother had finally allowed me to tack up on the ceiling. When I think of that afternoon now, I’m reminded of the scene in Vertigo where Madeleine stands in front of a redwood tree. “Here I was born and there I died.” Maria and I had stumbled on the film while watching TV one rainy afternoon. We immediately recognized it as contraband and turned the volume down as far as we possibly could, scooting up much too close to the TV set into the zone our mothers said would hurt our eyes. The end scene—Judy’s death and a nun ringing the Church bell—haunted us for weeks. “You let him change you, didn’t you?” we would whisper to one another, barely understanding what Scotty meant, but getting the shuddery jealous tone of it all right.
My pet turtle began thumping his head against the terrarium. I usually gave him a treat when I came home from school. A lettuce leaf or a little raw hamburger my mother had saved from the previous night’s dinner. I didn’t want to go back to the kitchen—so I just gave him a little commercial pet food and stroked his leather-hard head. “When we eat dinner,” I whispered, “I’ll bring you something good then.” Carefully replacing the screen covering his terrarium, I went back into the living room.
Mom had brought out a tray with coffee, crackers and mugs of steaming hot tomato soup. Some ginger ale for me. As though I had stomach flu. I sat cross-legged on the floor by my dad’s chair. I remember he turned his lounger and wrapping his legs around my body, scooted me across the hardwood floor, so that I rested right in front of him, nestled cross-legged between his knees. My mother scolded me for not changing out of my school uniform, but there was no heart in it, and I knew I could just stay put. She handed my dad a cup of coffee and some soup. And then reminding me to be careful, set my snack down on the floor. Balancing the tray like the experienced waitress she was, she walked over to the couch and stretched out her legs.
I know that later that evening there must have been dinner. I would have put on my pajamas and gone to bed. And the next morning there would have been breakfast. Perhaps I met Michael at Church. But between that afternoon and the Monday of John Kennedy’s funeral, I remember very few details. Just that image—Dad in his chair, me sitting cross-legged, sipping soup at his feet. Mom stretched out on the sofa. All of us frozen in place, watching TV. Waiting, it seemed, for someone from our team to come set us free.