On November 22, 2013, 50 long years will have passed since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Historians have likened JFK’s “reign” to the only thing close to a royal monarchy that America had ever experienced. We had, for a few short years, a handsome young King and a beautiful, graceful young Queen.
Just like a fairy tale, the days of Camelot rushed in on a magic carpet but disintegrated with a few fast bullets that awful day in Dallas. As unwitting, unwilling and heartbroken bystanders, we, as a nation, had to bear witness to our Queen returning home to the White House in blood-stained clothes, our fallen King beside her in a casket.
Like most people you probably remember where you were and what you were doing on that horrible Friday just a week before Thanksgiving in 1963. If you were a kid then, you likely remember your parents, and other adults around you, upset and mourning. You, too, like most of the kids who were sent home early from school that day, felt the terrible pall that fell across our country. A pall that continued to blacken throughout that gray, rainy weakened as the terrible black drama continued to escalate.
Like me, you may have been sitting with your parents in your living room watching on live, black and white television news out of Dallas, as Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing JFK, was shot in the stomach by another man, Jack Ruby. The intense, unreal aura of it all added to the feeling that the rudder of our nation’s ship had not only broken but we were being pulled farther and farther out to sea in bad winds and the roughest waters our country had ever experienced.
At JFK’s funeral, we watched our brave Queen and her 2 beautiful young children say their final, heart wrenching goodbyes to husband, father, and our never more King. We watched a black scarf-draped Jackie light the eternal flame on JFK’s grave and were right there, as a nation, mourning with her. And in the days following, even long after this grand lady and her little ones left the White House, we continued to watch our former Queen gracefully try to forge a new life for herself as a commoner.
It wasn’t easy for her, but with her admirable style and grace she, again, managed to pull off a difficult task. We watched her raise Caroline and John Jr., and watched them become successful adults in their own right. We, as a nation, really never let go of “Jackie and the kids.” We didn’t want to give up our “royal family” – the last icons of hope for real change many of us felt our country had. Even though the public scrutiny was often hard for Jackie to bear, continuing our interest in her was our way of telling her we still loved her and missed her grand presence behind her great husband at the helm of our country.
Then one day, in early 1994 we learned that our former Queen had been stricken with lymphoma. She bravely underwent treatment for it, but she wouldn’t beat it. One more tragedy for a remarkable lady to bear! It didn’t seem fair after suffering all that she had already – the loss of an infant just 1-month before the brutal killing of her husband right in front of her.
In May 1994, I was teaching in Italy. I was cooking dinner in my apartment in downtown Florence and turned on the small television in my kitchen to watch RAI news. There it was… the news none of us who grew up experiencing the days of Camelot ever wanted to hear…our former Queen, our magnificent Jackie, too, had died. Frozen at the sink, I put down what I was doing and made my way to a chair to sit and listen. Pictures of Jackie as First Lady flashed across the screen and all those old memories of my own childhood and living through that terrible day in Dallas so many years ago flooded back. I forgot about making dinner.
Instead, I went for a walk across the Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge) in downtown Florence and sat down on a bench next to a homeless man trying to give his dog water from a Perrier bottle. I sat looking out over the Arno River thinking about how much the world, and my life, had changed since November 22, 1963 and feeling sad that I was in a foreign country. I would rather have been home in America watching the news’ tributes to Jackie on CNN.
The homeless man didn’t speak English and my Italian was just passable. But, I understood him to say, though, that I looked like I had just lost a friend. I told him I was an American and our country had just lost our Jackie. Even with the language barrier – he knew the name Jackie Kennedy as well as I did. His face conveyed what millions of people around the world were feeling right then – shock and sadness at the loss of an amazing lady who tirelessly served her country. Understanding only a few words or so, the man relayed to me that he admired the Kennedy family as champions of Civil Rights and creating programs for kids to get a better education and poor people to get out of poverty.
This November 22, 2013, all of you Boomers who lived through that day in Dallas, please do remember and honor our great, former President, and too-soon-gone “King”, JFK. But, please also remember our beautiful lost Queen of Camelot – Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. There was no one like her, or ever will be again.