On November 22, 1963, I was just less than 3 weeks old. At the time, my parents and I lived in an apartment above a garage owned by father’s oldest sister and her husband on the northern edge of downtown Dallas. Through the small bathroom window, my mother caught a glimpse of President Kennedy’s motorcade, as it raced towards Parkland Hospital. She had no idea at that moment what tragedy had just unfolded.
That siren; that God-awful siren! It came from down the hall, and I had no idea why. I had just turned on the TV to watch my show, “As the World Turns.” My older sister got me hooked on it while I was on “maternity leave.” Actually, in those days, there was no such thing. Women just had to quit work and hope they had a job later, if they wanted it. That’s fine, I’d told myself. At that moment, with my new baby boy, I didn’t care about going back to a desk to argue insurance claims.
I’d almost died having him. I wasn’t supposed to have him. The doctors told me I just couldn’t have a baby. But, my husband and I didn’t listen. We turned our hopes to a higher authority. I was almost 31, when he was born; so old to be a new mother back then. I cuddled him close, as he quietly nursed; a diaper over his head.
It had been so hot – since summer! Advice to future mothers: don’t get pregnant until summer passes. Just a thought. I had to sleep sitting up; otherwise, I’d choke to death. We had a floor fan blowing all night to keep me cool. My husband wore pajamas to bed that summer; the fan would make the room so cold for him.
But, why were those sirens so loud? So many of them. I scooted towards the bathroom window and looked to my right. Through the trees in the back yard and the neighbors’ back yards I saw a flash of red lights and black cars. Just a blur; a long streak of red and black. For a second, I thought I also saw a flash of pink. But, I think now it was just my imagination.
I knew President and Mrs. Kennedy were in town. It would have been nice to go downtown to see them, but I couldn’t with the baby. And, my husband had to go to work.
I went back into the front room, and the show had already started. “Nancy” (Helen Wagner) was speaking to her father. I don’t remember what they were talking about. Then, without warning – in one of those moments that sears into your mind – Walter Cronkite interrupted the show.
And, said President Kennedy had been shot.
But, he was just here!
The motorcade – that flash of red and black. That’s what it was.
But, it was just there!
I’d just seen it.
I rushed back to the bathroom window. I could see more traffic on Harry Hines. I went back into the front room.
Walter Cronkite looked as if he was about to cry. How do you announced something like that to millions of people and not break down?
I suddenly became terrified. I had to call my husband. Still cradling the baby, I dialed the phone from the bedroom.
The assistant manager – the owner’s brother-in-law – answered.
“I just saw on the news,” I told him. “President Kennedy’s been shot!”
He was silent for a second. “Is this a joke?”
“No!” Why would he even ask that? We didn’t joke about those things back then.
“Cathy, turn on the radio!” he said.
I looked at my baby, still nursing, oblivious to the world around him. Is this the world he would inherit? Where the president of the United States gets shot in broad daylight?
My husband came home early. His boss had closed down the shop. He was happy to see me and the baby. But, he was as shocked as me – and angry. “What’s wrong?”
“Some dumb son-of-a-bitch at work said he was glad Kennedy had been shot!”
Who would be happy about that?
That whole weekend – that entire, awful weekend – all we saw on TV was about Kennedy. None of us could believe it. My husband’s family gathered at his parents’ home to watch the funeral. The black horse that wouldn’t cooperate; the long procession; the masses of people. When John-John saluted his father, we all just about lost it. This wasn’t really happening, was it? I couldn’t say it out loud. This couldn’t be happening – right?
Then, amidst the sadness and completely out of nowhere, one of my husband’s sisters-in-law asked, “Why are the flags only halfway up the poles?”
We all thought for a second or so and then, just looked at her. Here she was, a hair dresser at an upscale salon, earning thousands of dollars every month when most people in those days only got by on a couple of hundred dollars, and she asks that.
My husband, sitting next to me, said, “Because they ran out of string.”
And, if I say we all felt guilty when we laughed, I’m not lying. We literally burst out laughing. Only my husband could say something like that and get away with it. He then picked up a box of tissue and began offering some to everybody.
If I think about it now, it really hurts. How could that happen? Here! Why did that happen? That baby I held is now a half-century old, and the world is a much more violent place.
I close my eyes and think for a moment.
And can hear those sirens.
And see that flash of red and black.
And Nancy’s face.
And Walter Cronkite’s twisted mouth.
All from that tiny window.
My mother and I on December 1, 1963.