Sister Anthony was smiling, always a good sign to a Catholic school student in Brooklyn. A first-grade classmate was standing in front of the blackboard, singing about strolling in the park one day in the merry, merry month of May. Soon he was whistling and tap dancing and the entire class was laughing. So was Sister Anthony, stage left, her wimple-encased head tossed back to reveal a wide, toothy grin, her rosy face blazing against the white of her flowing habit.
It was a Friday afternoon. Lunch was over, homework had been assigned, merit and demerit slips passed out to a lucky and unlucky few. The song-and-dance routine was just a fun way to keep a few dozen 6-year-olds entertained until we could file into the schoolyard to climb on a bus and head home for the weekend.
The laughter was still rolling through the classroom when a voice from the loudspeaker startled us into silence. “Attention, please,” our principal said. “Attention, please.”
Sister Anthony was no longer smiling. I saw the color drain from her face as the principal said something about a motorcade and Dallas. President Kennedy had been shot.
“Who?” a bunch of us murmured.
I raised my hand. “You mean the man with the haircut?” I asked Sister Anthony.
Yes, she said. The president of the United States, the first Catholic commander-in-chief. Sister Anthony reached for the rosary at her waist and dropped to her knees right where she was standing. We scooted out from behind our desks and did the same. My kneecaps ached as they pressed into the cold, hard tile. We began to pray out loud, over and over. Our Father. Hail Mary. Glory be.
Then came another announcement. President Kennedy was dead. This is bad, I thought, shocked by the tears dripping down Sister Anthony’s face. Until that moment, I didn’t know nuns were allowed to cry. We continued praying until the buses came to bring us home, where my world was changing, too.
My parents had recently bought a house on eastern Long Island — “the country,” my uncle called it. The move was already underway. My mother was in our basement apartment, packing boxes, when I opened the door. The TV was on, grim voices drowning out the few words my mother said as she sorted through drawers and piled up the things we’d take with us. She was only across the room, but she seemed far away. I wanted her to stop what she was doing, look at me and explain why everyone was so upset, why what had happened was so important. She told me to go outside and play.
I pushed open the gate and started walking up the community driveway that ran behind the entire block of houses — Brooklyn’s version of a cul de sac. I spotted my best friend just up ahead, running toward me until we were face to face. “My mother’s crying,” he said.
My 5-year-old brother and I spent the weekend at our grandmother’s nearby apartment. We snacked on refrigerated Hershey bars, ate orange Jell-O for dessert and watched Grandma’s color TV while our parents and 9-year-old brother were in the country, getting our new house in order.
We watched a lot of TV that weekend, resigned to the fact that the same thing was on, no matter how many times we changed the channel. We watched hour after hour as a never-ending line of people shuffled past the flag-draped casket. I heard words I’d never heard before, like caisson, cortege and catafalque. “What’s it mean?” I’d ask any grownup in the room. “What’s it mean?”
We were watching Sunday morning when a man in a suit shot the guy who killed President Kennedy. I thought it was a good thing, but Grandma told me it wasn’t. It would be years before I realized she was right.
There was no school on Monday, so we watched the slow funeral procession through the streets of Washington, D.C., and saw JFK Jr. salute his dad. The announcer kept pointing out that the president’s coffin was being followed by a riderless horse named Black Jack. I didn’t understand why he was making such a big deal about it.
Unlike the rest of us, Black Jack knew where he was going.