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
Really lovely and full of truth.
I’ve read and re-read this post and am so moved. And, sad. I connect strongly with your words. Who in the end remembers us when we’re gone? What indeed endures when we die? And then…I jump to the great imponderable: the “meaning of life”. Sigh.
Oh Ruth, you have such talent with your words to hit on the sore knuckle of life and death and make your readers STOP and ponder things they may not want to ponder. Powerful.
Life is hard, all too short, and damn sad much of the time. And yet….there aren’t many of us who wouldn’t want a chance to do it all again.
All the best to you this Thanksgiving Week. Your Mom and Dad would be so proud of YOU. They brought you into the world and you’ve done so much, so very much.
I’ll stop because I’m getting soppy. Your writing does that to me.
I love the way you tie up the end with a bow. Very evocative post.
You are a wonderful writer. I didn’t want that to end, though it ended beautifully.
A part of growing old, evidently, is noticing that primary events within our lives become so much less primary with the passage of decades. The Kennedy Assassination, for example. Years ago I couldn’t have believed that a time would come when November 22 would pass so un-newsworthy. Still, on each November 22, I take a book, Four Days, from the shelf and relive the events of the week of November 22.
Thanks for mentioning The Wind. The film, made in 1928, and one of the last of the silent era, is one of my favorite films starring Lillian Gish. In 1970, Miss Gish was the recipient of the only fan letter I have ever written, and an occasional correspondence sprang from it. Miss Gish was a posy of violets with iron stems.
You write so well… But I am sorry to find you sounding so bleak. November 22 is St Cecelia’s day — the patron saint of music. I suppose there is music even in your west Texas wind, though in some moods you only hear it like the tide, bringing the eternal note of sadness in.
What a moving essay, filled with the kind of detail that anchors emotions in the day to day world. My ex-husband’s family was from Abilene, and I’ve spent a great deal of time there. Your descriptions are spot-on. My husband’s grandfather delivered vegetables while his grandmother taught piano and ballet in the living room of their small ranch house in Abilene, and her pursuit of “culture” for herself and her daughters in the midst of a hardscrabble existence left quite an impression on me.
I share your need to search for meaning in such a hard world, Ruth. I’m pretty sure that, in the end, it’s not about the places you’ve been but about the people you’ve loved.
Wow. As your friend, fan, and a West Texan, I hear the wind throughout your words in this post.
Rarely does a day go by that I don’t think of my father (and for more reasons than the fact that I still have his antique dachshund, who he insisted I euthanize and bury with him. Sorry, Pop).
My father also never achieved what the woman he adored expected of and hoped for him (and herself). But I as I have come to understand that love is, itself, the primary purpose of life, I have also come to the conclusion that his love for her WAS his success in life. For the outside observer, including my brother and me, it seemed unappreciated and not reciprocated, at least to the same degree. But the goal is to love, not be loved, and I remain awed and humbled by his success.
This piece of writing and the emotions touched will also endure.
Beautiful, Ruth. I could not understand, at the beginning of your story just how your father and Kennedy would be written about in the same story . Now I do. Very moving writing. And so sad on so many fronts.
I’m sorry your dad was a disappointment to your mom. As someone from a broken home, I know how hard it is to be the child of parents who don’t get along. This is an amazing, and very touching, story. Hugs to you.
Beautiful. And I’m sure that there is so much to think about, that everyone will take away different things. I thought about the contrast of religions.
When I was in High School I left the Church of Christ in our small town because the preacher said dancing was a sin. Prior to then music and even dancing were okay with this congregation. I went to the Methodist Church–love the “waste of hair spray” line–although I’d already been dunked. That would have been a motivation, all right, back when women bought Aqua Net by the carton.
Thanks for a lovely post.
I go back and forth between wanting to be aware of mortality and wanted to pretend that we all live forward. The pro is of this awareness is that you don’t waste your life. The con is that you are aware of it. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
Lots of connections. Poignant.
Just beautiful. It’s funny how different events become connected like that. It seems strange each year to call my BIL to wish him happy birthday–his birthday is September 11th. Usually, I just wait to call him until the 12th.
You’re right that we as a culture don’t muse too much on the Kennedy assassination these days. Nov 22 is my mother’s birthday too, and while I used to ponder the weird intersection of personal happiness/national tragedy a lot as a kid, now it’s all about mom.
This post broke my heart. When it comes to the failures and downtrodden-ness of my parents, I prefer to keep my head in the sand. I can’t bear to think of them so sad, so disappointed, so unfulfilled. Of course I see it every time we visit, but I [perhaps foolishly] lie to myself and say they’re just getting old and tired.
Lots of connections. Poignant.