This week’s Kennedy anniversary, the 50th, has me hovering over historical documentaries on television. I still remember why I first found myself intrigued by John Fitzgerald Kennedy. My great aunts, the Kelly sisters, Maureen, Norah and Clare (named after the county in Ireland) had saved a couple of old Life magazine issues from the time of the assassination. When I was a senior in high school, at Marymount College, I took an American history course. The textbook was smallish in size, paperback, white, with a stylized red and blue eagle on the front. I loved it. Actually, I loved all of the history courses I took in high school. I either had Mrs. Murphy or Mrs. Duncan. For American history, I had Diane Duncan, who remains my favourite teacher of all time. Her storytelling skills were amazing, as she recollected the pyramids and their various pharaohs, the War of Independence, the French Revolution, Pompeii and Herculaneum, not to mention the tale of Newfoundland joining Confederation in 1949. (I have a t-shirt that reads “Free Nfld,” which I bought in St. John’s about seven years ago. This is neither here nor there….just a reflection of what some Newfoundlanders think of their province, which might very well be a ‘Republic of Newfoundland.’
Mrs. Duncan loved the Kennedys. I still remember the whole unit that spoke to the scope of the family’s influence, politically and socially. It fascinated me. What other family, in history, had such an impact on a country and its people, on its very cultural fabric? They were mythic, larger than life, and so involved in politics. We learned about Vietnam that year, back in the late 1980s. (I date myself here, but it’s no shock, as I’m just about to turn 43 in a week’s time.) We learned about how Kennedy was trying to pull American troops out of Vietnam, how he went against his closest advisors, how he was constantly striving for peace. I also loved the films we saw in class, how eloquent he was, how well spoken. He had already been dead for 25 or more years when I began to learn about his presidency, but I was intrigued.
We talked about the Zapruder film, the conspiracy theories, the influence of Joe Kennedy on his sons and daughters, and how amazingly handsome John Kennedy Jr. was. . .of course, I went to an all girls Catholic school, so it made hormonal sense that we fixated on the now grown up son who had once saluted his father’s casket, at his mother’s nudging. Mrs. Duncan spoke of the time she went to Hyannis Port and tried to walk up the Kennedy driveway, ignoring signs, feigning innocence, trying to meet a Kennedy, I think. . .and how she was stopped by a guard who turned her around and sent her on her way. I loved how spunky she was, how much she loved living history. . .to the point that she wanted to try and see if Teddy Kennedy was home.
I remember sitting up at my great aunts’ house, 160 Kingsmount Blvd, round the kitchen table, sipping on mugs of instant coffee. It’s where I had some of the most amazing conversations of my life. Both Maureen and Norah were school teachers, and Clare worked as a secretary at the train station downtown. The conversations, whenever my sister and I slept over, were peppered with tall tales, family stories, and mentions of Ireland. On one occasion, I must have told them I was studying the Kennedy assassination. They rushed off to some small removed closet on the second floor of the house my great-grandfather had built years previous and returned with the Life magazines. I still have the two of them somewhere here. . . .
I think my great aunts (whom we often just called “The Girls”) felt a kinship with the Kennedy family. My great-grandfather, James Cornelius Kelly, ran the Hudson’s Bay store in Creighton when it was still a lively mining town, in the early 1900s. He did well for himself, moving into Sudbury and building a grand brick house on Kingsmount, a hill that overlooked the city. I never knew him, but his Knights of Columbus cloak used to scare the bejaysus out of me when my cousins and I played hide and seek in the basement. It was stashed away in a tall wardrobe, next to his ceremonial sword. There are photos of him in the uniform. He looked stern and impressive.
My favourite photo of the Kellys is one of my great-grandparents surrounded by all ten of their children in the back garden. Yes, you read that correctly, they had ten kids. They were Irish Catholic after all. :) All ten are dressed up to the nines, captured on black and white film, looking like Hollywood movie stars. They were a good looking crew. I always have thought of that photo when I think of the Kennedys. There is the same vast family landscape, always perfectly turned out when they were young and dynamic in the 1940s or 50s, living up to the family name and stature. This isn’t to say that it was a perfect family; I don’t think you can have ten kids and manage to make them all feel truly loved and cherished. One was a nun, one a doctor, a few were teachers. . .it was like my great-grandparents had plans for them all, whether they wanted that life path or not. Those were the days when you didn’t have much choice of a career, either, if you were a woman. Still, all of the women who were my grandmother Alice’s sisters were strong minded and independent in their own ways. They certainly knew how to speak their minds and hearts, and they definitely passed it on to my generation. For that, I will always be thankful.
I think The Girls loved the Kennedys (or maybe ‘the idea of the Kennedys’) because they embodied that same Irish Catholic tenacity. There was a sense of ancestors, not so far gone, who had come to North America from Ireland just after the Famine. No one ever really wanted to leave Ireland. They couldn’t have, or it wouldn’t have played such a large role in their stories of family history. Maybe they just knew that I ate up stories, or music, or history, but they did tell me fabulous tales of an ancestor who was a gardener at Bunratty Castle, outside of Limerick, who ran off with either a maid or governess. The story had been passed down forever. I wish, now, that I’d written down the names and details. . .but I didn’t. I think they also loved the fact that the Kennedys had suffered, in true Christ-like fashion, and persevered. There was that odd sense of duty that eclipsed everything else. They took care of everyone, until one by one left. . .you see, they often, as women, neglected to care for themselves. That gene is in me, too. . .and now I’m struggling to learn how to take better care of myself, after too long taking care of others.
There is only one of the ‘original’ Kellys left, Clare, who is in her early 90s. The family has shrunk so much that it’s hard to believe it. Christmases on Kingsmount pepper my memory and I only wish I’d cherished those family gatherings more back then, especially as I miss them all so much now. I had close relationships with my great aunts and uncles. They were all fabulous story tellers and had great wit and compassion. Of course, I also miss my uncles, Terry, Peter and Jeno. I’ve learned that people with families are blessed. I still have one, of course, but it’s all over the place, with cousins all over the country. We rarely get together anymore and Facebook is the only way I can get a sense of how they’re all doing. It makes me sad, but I know that time moves forward. . .
So, on this 50th anniversary weekend, I think of the Kennedys, the Kellys, and everyone I’ve been blessed to have spent time with in my family. I miss them, but I’ll always love them and hold them close in my heart and in my memory.