Toward the end of her memoir, Times to Remember, published in 1974, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, an octogenarian, reflects on the family’s grief at the time of President Kenney’s death in 1963. It would be neither the first tragedy nor the last in the family. Years earlier, her oldest son, Joe, Jr., and a younger daughter, Kathleen had predeceased Jack at different times and in different circumstances—but both in plane crashes. In 1968, the assassination of son, Robert.
“We in the family reacted to our common grief in our own ways,” writes Mrs. Kennedy. “But we could all be reasonably steady because of the faith, hope, and love we shared. And because we knew quite well what Jack would want from us. He would want courage, he would want as many smiles as we could manage, and he would want his death to be an affirmation of life” (382).
The Day Everything Changed. The Week America Lost Its Innocence.
Thursday, November 21st
On that Thursday, November 21st, John Jr., tearfully watched his parents board Air Force One en route to several political events in Texas, but not before they promised that, on their return the following Monday, they would celebrate his third birthday . . . .
Friday, November 22nd
Friday began as a beautiful clear, crisp autumn day at Hyannis Port. Mrs. Kennedy attended Mass as she did each morning. It was the feast of St. Cecilia. After breakfast, she and her husband went for a ride in the station wagon. Later, she played some golf. After lunch, both took a nap. Then, the news.
Mrs. Kennedy recalls: “I had trained myself through the years not to become too visibly upset at bad news, even very bad news, because I had a strong notion that if I broke down, everybody else in the household would. I spent much time in our front yard or on our beach, and walked and walked and walked, and prayed and prayed and prayed, and wondered why it had happened to Jack. He had everything to live for: a lovely and talented wife, a perfect partner for him, and two beautiful children whom he adored. He had made such a glorious success of his life and of his presidency, and at last, for the first time since early childhood, he had become really healthy.
Everything—the culmination of all his efforts, abilities, dedication to good and to the future—lay boundlessly before him. Everything was gone. And I wondered why. . . . “It’s not fair! . . . It’s not fair! . . . It’s just not fair! . . . I walked on the beach and I thought, “Why?” (377, 379). Why indeed, this epic tragedy?
Lyndon Johnson phoned Mrs. Kennedy after being sworn in as President. The plane was returning to Washington with the body of her son. She recalls: “When I picked up the receiver and said, “Hello,” I heard his voice full of recognizable anguish, saying, ‘Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God there was something I could do.’” After speaking with Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy “went back to the yard and the beach. My reaction to grief takes in part the form of nervous activity. I have to keep moving, walking, pulling away at things, praying to myself while I move, and making up my mind that I am not going to be defeated by tragedy because there are the living still to work for, while mourning for the dead” (380).
Music for the Fallen President
Meanwhile, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Erich Leinsdorf, beloved conductor of the symphony orchestra there, was about to conduct a relaxing Friday afternoon concert for a full audience. Radio station, WGBH, carried it live.
Backstage there was panic because the announcement of the President’s death had arrived. Hurriedly, a new piece of music, with all its orchestral parts, was brought out to be distributed to the perplexed instrumentalists.
After conducting the first piece by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mr. Leinsdorf turned to the audience: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a press report over the wireless. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it—that the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination. We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.” (James Inverne, “Listen to This Chilling Audio as Boston Symphony Learns President Kennedy Is Dead”). Beethoven had dedicated the slow movement of the “Eroica” to the memory of a war hero.
Stunned, the orchestra composed itself. Stunned, the audience burst out into tears in utter disbelief. At the mention of a funeral march, they gasped. Leinsdorf raised his arms and began conducting the music in a slower tempo than was typically called for—those fifteen minutes of Beethoven’s poignant, piercing, penetrating music.
It was well known that President Kennedy thoroughly enjoyed Judy Garland’s performances. She had campaigned for him in Europe; she occasionally sang at the White House at special events. The President had recently told her: “We have changed our dinner [time] at the White House so we can watch your show.” Sometimes, he would call and ask her to sing the first part of “Over the Rainbow”—over the phone.
Deeply saddened by the President’s death, Ms. Garland closed her December pre-recorded program with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” At first, CBS thought it out of character and too political for the variety show, but it did go on. A producer of the program later remarked: “[It was] one of the great performances of all time. If you didn’t cry, you were dead.” This show is available on DVD, “Judy Garland: the Concert Years.”
Saturday, November 23rd
The state funeral was being planned in Washington, but Rose Kennedy had her own preparations to make: “I went to the morning devotions at the beautiful little church, St. Francis Xavier’s in Hyannis—where all four sons had served as altar boys—and stayed on for the first Mass of the day, to which Ted and Eunice came. I had called the pastor the night before and asked him to say this Mass for Jack. It was one of the first things I had thought to do” (380). After Mass, Ted and Eunice told their father, a stroke victim, what had happened to his son.
Monday, November 25: President Kennedy’s Funeral
Rose traveled to Washington while her husband remained at home with an old friend, Father John Cavanaugh, the former president of Notre Dame University, watching the ceremonies on television.
What was Mrs. Kennedy’s role on that day? “I did not walk with the others in the procession from the White House to the Cathedral because I felt queasy, quite unwell that morning. Nor did I take Communion at the Cathedral because I had already been to an early Mass and had received [Communion] then. I was at the graveside in Arlington, of course, for the final ceremonies. Afterward, with the others, I went to the White House to help express our family’s appreciation to the numerous head of state, other dignitaries, and many friends who had traveled from far places to pay respects . . . .” (381).
Like the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, President Kennedy’s had pomp and majesty. It was John Jr.’s third birthday.
A Daughter’s Tribute to Her Mother
If “the mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom,” [then] our mother is the finest teacher we ever had,” recalls Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the third Kennedy daughter. “She did everything nine times for the five girls and four boys in our family, and she made our home a school-room that far surpassed any formal classroom in the exciting quest for knowledge. She kept maps around the house to quiz us about geography. With her intriguing games and questions, she was forever stretching our minds, teaching us to care for others, taking us on picnics an day trips to swimming holes and historical sites alike, bringing us into conversations at the dinner table, transforming the daily headlines into new and stimulating adventures in understanding. She loved to read aloud to us, and some of our happiest memories are of her enchanting bedside stories. She was a marvelous piano player, and we loved to gather around her in the living room to sing while she played” (Foreword).
“The Anchor of the Family, Our Rock”
“She was also the quiet at the center of the storm, the anchor of the family, and the safe harbor where little ones could tow their capsized boats and set their sails again. For each of us, she has been the rock and foundation of our lives. She has shaped our dreams and goals, supported our public and private causes, and encouraged us in our service to others in return for the many blessings we have had. All her life, Mother has been a shining example of the love and faith that have always sustained her and that continue to sustain her” (Foreword).
The training Mrs. Kennedy instilled in her children and her unquestioning strong belief made an impression that lasted. Despite some doubts about his faith, President Kennedy held on to his mother’s religious training. “One night when Dad was visiting the White House,” recalls Eunice, “it was late and he started into Jack’s bedroom to mention something he had just thought of. Then he stopped short and left without being noticed—because there was the President kneeling by his bed, saying his prayers” (144).
A Touch of Humor
One of many examples that reveal how active Mrs. Kennedy was in her son’s presidency concerns the following anecdote:
In 1961, Rose Kennedy had met Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev during a meeting in Vienna. Photographs had been taken, and Mrs. Kennedy wanted the Premier and President Kennedy to sign them. The Premier was first to sign and returned the photographs to Mrs. Kennedy who sent them on to her son with a note about her plan. She received the following letter from him:
“Dear Mother: If you are going to contact the heads of state, it might be a good idea to consult me or the State Department first, as your gesture might lead to international complications. Love, Jack”
Quipped Mother Rose:
“Dear Jack: I am so glad you warned me about contacting the heads of state, as I was just about to write to Castro. Love, Mother” (348)
A Life Well-lived
If there is one theme that threads its way throughout Mrs. Kennedy’s life, it is her Catholic faith. At the end of her book, she writes: “If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence, and leave me but one gift, I would ask for faith—for with faith in Him, in His goodness, mercy, love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and still be happy—trustful, leaving all to His inscrutable providence. When I start my day with a prayer of consecration to Him, with complete trust and confidence, I am perfectly relaxed and happy regardless of what accident of fate befalls me because I know it is part of His divine plan and He will take care of me and my dear ones” (444).
A Biblical Tribute to Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy:
“A perfect wife—who can find her? She is far beyond the price of pearls.
She is clothed in strength and dignity, she can laugh at the days to come.
When she opens her mouth, she does so wisely, on her tongue is kindly instruction.
Many women have done admirable things but you, [Mrs. Kennedy] surpass them all.”
(Book of Proverbs 31: selected verses)
“Miles to go before I sleep” . . . .
President Kennedy loved poetry, and “Ulysses,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, was a favorite. Some of those verses, heroic and inspiring, made their way into his speeches:
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”
. . .
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts;
Made weak by time, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.