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John F. Kennedy, sitting beside his wife, in the minutes before he was killed. (Associated Press)
John F. Kennedy, sitting beside his wife, in the minutes before he was killed. (Associated Press)

Memories of JFK: The first time I saw my mother cry Add to ...

It was 50 years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, that U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. His death still evokes strong memories and his legacy remains strong.

It was four days before my seventh birthday and six days before Thanksgiving. I was in Sister Ann Joseph’s class in second grade at Queen of Peace Elementary School in North Arlington, N.J. The PA said something had happened to the president.

They wheeled the big television set to the front of the classroom, something that happened very infrequently at our school. Afterward, they sent us home early. We lived on the ground floor of a cramped house; my parents rented out the second floor. My mother was waiting. It was the first time I’d seen her cry.

My father came home from the eyeglass factory where he worked. He was sad, but also angry. He had three idols, three people who captured the idealism of his generation: Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and John Kennedy.

My parents, my brother, who was 4, and I all huddled around our black-and-white TV in the living room. We changed the channels on the dial, cycling between the major news reports – Cronkite, and Huntley and Brinkley, and the others.

I remember it as if it were yesterday. Not just because he was the president, but also because he reminded of my dad. They had the same hair, the same dapper style of dress. They were veterans of the same war.

I can see the TV coverage in my mind’s eye, evolving as the days progressed: watching Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby, hearing a police detective shout, “Jack, you son of a bitch!”

The funeral was on Monday. We watched it all. My mother kept saying how Jackie was so composed for her kids. I remember John Jr., who was my brother’s age, and Caroline, who was mine, walking behind that casket.

We were off school for the entire week, running up to my birthday and Thanksgiving. I think that year I got a Lone Ranger outfit or a James Bond suitcase gun kit. We had a turkey on Thanksgiving.

But something had changed. America felt different even to a newly minted 7-year-old. Something had jarred our world. It is hard for me to explain how someone that age could have felt it, but I did. Lou Reed captured the feeling in his song, The Day John Kennedy Died, and he was 21 when JFK died.

My parents didn’t have a lot of books, but they bought one about the Kennedy years. It had a white cover and was filled with Life magazine photos of the president at work and with his family. I looked and looked at that book. Later I went to the library and read more on Kennedy, especially his own book about his experiences aboard PT-109, the torpedo patrol boat he commanded during the war.

If my father and I identified with the president, my mother never forgot the woman he left behind. She would repeat as we were growing up, whenever tragedy struck, how she wanted to be like Jackie, how remembering Jackie gave her strength.

One day, decades later, we were getting ready for the funeral for my mother’s sister, Lonnie, who lived across the street from us in North Arlington.

By then battling Alzheimer’s disease, my mother had taken too many blows, seen too much death: her oldest sister in her early 30s, her four other sisters from breast cancer, my dad to lung cancer. I wondered if it might be more than she could bear.

As we were about to leave that little New Jersey house for the service, I asked: “Mom, are you okay with all of this?”

She responded, “Oh yes, honey. I’ll just do what Jackie did.”

Richard Florida is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

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