Thursday, September 26, 2013

When the music stopped


My mother and father were high school sweethearts who married and had children young.  One benefit to having parents ten years younger than my friends' parents was that music always played at our house.  The large maple stereo cabinet was never closed, its mellow green light illuminating  the  bold numbers with the red needle pointed at the top forty station.  When the radio wasn’t on, my parents played albums that filled the bottom of the cabinet and overflowed to another one across the living room.  They loved show tunes from Camelot, Whistle Down the Wind and later, Mary Poppins and the Sound of Music.  They adored Motown and the Supremes "Stop in the Name of Love" played whenever they entertained friends on Saturday nights.  I remember when we all huddled in front of the small TV to watch The Beatles invade the Ed Sullivan Show, and a few days later, Dad came home with a 45 of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand".  In the mornings before school, my mother had the local AM radio station on and we heard easy listening singles such as "Moon River", "Strangers in the Night", and other 60’s tunes as we ate our cereal at the kitchen table. I knew Percy Faith, Herb Albert, and Henry Mancini.  It was the soundtrack of our family.

On an unforgettable Friday afternoon, a perfect crisp fall day, my second grade class was interrupted by Mrs. McCarthy, a teacher from across the hall.  I watched as Mrs. McCarthy motioned to my teacher, Mrs. Gadbeiso to come to the back of the classroom.  Behind a manila folder I saw Mrs. Gadbeiso's eyes fly wide open and then we were suddenly dismissed from school.  Mrs. Gadbeiso told us our president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot by a gunman and that we were to go home to be with our parents.  I don't know if we left in quiet orderliness or not but I do know my sister and I were accompanied by my older brother on the long walk home, a rare occurrence.  When we reached the top of our hill, we were met by my younger brother on his bicycle.  "Mommy's crying", he said solemnly. Together, we four, raced down the hill to our house where we found my mother sitting on the living room floor in front of the TV, dabbing at her eyes with a Kleenex.  She told us the president died and hugged us to her.   I remember that weekend was long and sad and instead of music from the stereo, the TV played on and on. We stayed in the living room for three days, visited occasionally by neighbors, our uncle, my grandparents.  Mom kept coffee percolating on the stove all weekend and Dad ran out for sandwiches and pizza.  We waited and waited for a sight of Mrs. Kennedy and her children to appear on the TV and when they did, my mother dabbed her eyes again and again.

There was no school on Monday and we watched the funeral procession and were awed by the sheer majesty of the ceremonies.  We were mesmerized by the symbolic rider-less horse, the back facing boot, and the  haunting and plaintive trumpeting of Taps. More friends and neighbors stopped by to drink coffee and talk.  I am not sure if my parents were so affected because JFK was a native son to our Boston, or if they liked him because he was young.  I never asked them if they were Democrats or if they approved of the way JFK ran our country.  I think perhaps, they simply felt that something horrific and inconceivable had happened - that such a shocking act of violence could infiltrate the wondrous, innocent, and hopeful world we lived in at that time.

The next week was Thanksgiving and I'm sure we had turkey and fixings, linen napkins and candles.  My grandmother brought pies and the percolator tapped tapped all day again.  But even now, none of us who remain, have forgotten that rapturously beautiful and tragic Friday and the unutterably sad weekend that followed.  And in our house, it was the one time the music stopped. 

 (N.B.  There have been many JFK films but a brief scene in Mermaids (Cher, Winona Rider), captures 11/22/1963 perfectly.)


  1. You have described that terrible day perfectly. Fifty years hence and I can still vividly recall exactly where I was when I was told and who told me. And just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did with that haunting image of John saluting his father.

  2. Such a memory. I too was told of the tragedy by my teacher. The ride home on the bus was quiet and eerie, and the weekend was just the longest ever. I don't remember if school was out on Monday, but I suspect that it was. What a terrible time it was.