Yesterday, November 22nd, I thought about my father and John F. Kennedy. I suppose that requires an explanation.
November 22nd is the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, of course. But it’s also my father’s birthday, the first since his death in May.
Kennedy was killed on my father’s 39th birthday. That year, our family lived only 150 miles west of Dallas in a small city called Abilene. Abilene sits on the prairie where the wind blows and the sun scorches the hard earth. That same West Texas wind features prominently in a novel and early film called (what else?) The Wind, in which a woman new to the area loses her mind and is driven to violence because of the wind.
I don’t know whether only hard and tough people come to an unforgiving landscape like that — or whether it simply makes them hard and tough if they’re going to survive and not lose their marbles. You can parse it any way you like, but there’s a flintiness and austerity to the people who live there. They worship a wrathful Old Testament God who doesn’t allow music in the churches (Church of Christ) or dancing outside of them (Southern Baptist).
Time for a religious joke! Why don’t Baptists screw standing up? Because somebody might think they were dancing! (This joke is considered hilarious when told in a whisper and behind closed doors in non-Baptist households.)
Anyway, my family was Methodist. That meant we could drink, theoretically, and sing hymns accompanied by a church organ and dance. We also just got sprinkled when we were baptized; full-body dunking was considered a little declasse and a big waste of hairspray.
My father worked for an oil company as an accountant. He never talked about his job. Did he like it? I don’t know. Nobody ever thought to ask.
Every month, his paycheck barely paid for the mortgage on our small ranch-style house, with the spindly trees staked down so they wouldn’t bend or snap in the wind. Pennies were pinched till they screamed so my sister and I could have braces and music lessons. With straight teeth and an ability to read music and appreciate finer things, I think, we could consider ourselves middle-class. Without them, we would have been something less — a family just scraping by, people who couldn’t hope for much.
The truth was, my father was a disappointment to my mother. He was poor and half-Indian, and she had married him against her parents’ wishes. His eventual professional and financial success would show my grandparents they had been wrong about him, though. Except that never happened. My father was dogged, hardworking, responsible, devoted to my mother. But he lacked the initiative and drive that would have made him more successful in the workplace. I don’t know whether Mother ever accepted that about him. She always yearned for more.
All of this — the disappointments, the sacrifices, the harsh wind and sun, the piano lessons that never really took — is where John F. Kennedy came in. Like many famous people, he played a role in the lives of millions of people he never met. He was handsome, charismatic, and eloquent — and he inspired many. Not my father. How shall I put it? My father loathed the Kennedys.
Then, it was something I never questioned — it simply was. Looking back from a distance of 47 years, it seems clearer to me. To my father, the Kennedys must have represented everything he never had and would never attain. They were elegant, rich and privileged, Ivy League-educated. Equally important, they were liberals, which, to my father, meant they wanted to give away the few gains he’d made in life. If you were fervently patriotic, as my father was, the very existence of the Kennedys signaled that a supposedly class-free country had its privileged members.
Forty-seven years later, and there’s little mention of the Kennedy assassination when November 22nd comes around. Once, we all stopped to remember where we were when we heard the news; today, that day belongs more to history books and faltering memories.
I think of all that and of my father’s recent death. My father left a very few people behind to grieve and miss him. He slipped away in the middle of a night, years after he’d forgotten who he hated and who he loved. Time passes and almost everything is forgotten — the common man, the president, the king. But I think of my father and his anger and what must have been his sense of great failure.
It’s something I can’t think about too much, though. It reminds me of something I prefer not to know — of how brief and insignificant our lives and sorrows and dreams really are. What endures? Not much. Just the West Texas wind.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read a post about the day I couldn’t understand anything