Skip to main content

Vignettes of a Baby Boomer Part 10. The Death of a President

Jeaninne is an award-winning fiction and essay writer who is the author of "Manuel's Murals."

Where Were You?

Once President Kennedy was assassinated and my father left, my Barbies were carefully put away in their black patent leather case. I had bigger things to ponder regarding my future. The questions that loomed over me as a nine-year-old were laden with adult concern: How would my mother ever be able to send me to college? Would I even have a secure economic future if presidents were going to be killed?

Those of us who were old enough to remember when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot know exactly where we were and what we were doing. I was in the milk line at Walnut Elementary School in La Habra, California.

A fellow classmate yelled out, “The president has been shot!”

I responded, “That’s not a nice to say about President Kennedy!”

Once the lunch bell rang, signaling us to go back to class, I felt the air shift. Everything seemed different, even though nothing visible had changed. It wasn’t until I entered my fourth-grade classroom, and saw Mrs. Claude’s head resting in her folded arms as she tried to stifle muffled sobs, that I knew my classmate was telling the truth.

Waiting for our parents to pick us up early that day, we watched the venerable CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite, swallow his tears on the black and white classroom television set. We sat stone still as Mr. Cronkite reported the facts surrounding the assassination in Dallas, Texas. I had never heard our classroom so quiet. You could cut the sadness with a knife.

The day Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin, on his way to jail two days after Kennedy’s murder, we attended my second cousin’s funeral in San Diego. My mother’s cousin, Michael, died in a motorcycle accident. He left behind a young wife and two small daughters. I remember my mother saying, “Now, I have to mourn my cousin, the end of my marriage, and the president of the United States.”

I came home with Michael’s electric shaver because my grandmother thought I could use it in a few years when I was old enough to shave my legs. When I turned it over in my hands, I thought, “What am I going to do with a dead man’s appliance?” Looking back, it makes perfect sense. My grandmother was a very practical, no-nonsense kind of woman. She probably thought it would serve as a treasured keepsake and a useful tool. I think I gave it to my brother, even though he received a motorcycle key chain.

When mom gave us a copy of the Life Magazine Kennedy Memorial Edition, thinking we would like a piece of American history, I was especially struck by how much she reminded me of Jacqueline Kennedy. I always thought my mother looked like Jackie, but in that moment, I saw a shared sadness between these two classy women who had just lost way too much in their young lives.

Soon, Beatlemania exploded. Within months, I went from being a Barbie doll little girl to a British rock group teeny-bopper. Even my mother loved the four mop top rockers because their happy music infiltrated a sad America; and more importantly, their music coincided with the arrival of my mother’s true love, Fred. The man with whom she would share the next fifty years until his death.