November 22, 2013

Remembering Fifty Years Ago Today

Where was I fifty years ago today, when JFK was assassinated?

My guess was that I was in a kindergarten classroom in Barrington, RI (given that I was only five years old). I called my Mom to confirm that, and she pointed out that I would have been at the baby sitter's, given the time of day. My brothers would have been in school, but not me. 

I remember where Mom was that day, though. Just a year younger than Jackie Kennedy, she was in a kindergarten classroom that day too - teaching in a Catholic school -- and got a knock on the door from one of the nuns who told her that JFK had been shot. Completely shocked, Mom had to go back to her class as if nothing had happened, because she didn't want to alarm the kids and because, at least back in the day, news like this was delivered to youngsters by parents, not by teachers.

When the second knock on the door came, this time the nun letting her know that Kennedy had not survived, it was even harder to maintain composure in front of the kids, because the school echoed with the sound of prayer. Everyone in the building - all the students except the youngest, all of the nuns and teachers and other employees - were praying out loud. It remains to this day one of her most vivid memories.

(Note to people looking for work: the fact that Mom, born and raised and to this day a practicing Methodist, was teaching in a Catholic school is topped only by the fact that when she was younger, she worked summers at a Jewish camp. When you need a job, you take a job.)

We were living in Rhode Island back in the early 60's because Dad was getting his Masters so he could become a teacher and stop having to uproot the family every time Goodyear decided to transfer him to another store. And so, he too was in a classroom that day, as a student teacher, talking about history as history was being made.

What I find interesting about remembering is how much I 'remember' things not because they're etched in my individual memories, but because they're in our collective memories. When Mom and I were talking this morning, I could clearly remember having heard the story before about the hallways echoing with prayer, and can remember Dad having talked about where he was that awful day.  And when I see people posting on social media or talking on the news about where they were fifty years ago, as has been the case over the past couple of weeks, I clearly 'remember' the day JFK was shot as if it was my own memory.

What's also interesting is how much we collectively focus on the "where were you when...?" question (WWYW?), as if we must remember where we were, or somehow be seen as less interested, or worse, less interesting, if we can't. I seem to recall a time when the question was about the event itself, not so much on where a person was when they heard about it, but I can't remember for sure.

I remember where I was the day of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, but I couldn't tell you when that happened. I remember where I was on 9/11, who I was talking to and why. I remember Bobby Kennedy being shot, and where he was when that happened, but not where I was. Sadly, it seems I don't recall the other WWYW? events of my lifetime off the top of my head, much less the answer to the pressing question.

Fortunately, everyone's collective memories of all these events sort of wrap their arms around me, protect and support and comfort me, both when I do have personal recollections and when I don't.

Where was I fifty years ago today?  At the baby sitter's. Where were you?

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