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“In Vino Veritas” (Latin) “Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια” (Greek) “In Wine There is Truth.” — Erasmus, Adagia I.vii.17
“Drunken old fool.” My mother pulled me away from the old man, grabbed me by the arm with one hand, my sister by the arm with the other, and she led us around the corner, where we walked up the steps to the second floor of our apartment building on Babcock Street in Brookline, MA.
We’d been living there for three weeks, ever since we got off the plane at Boston’s Logan Airport, our port of entry to the United States. Dad was settling in at Harvard, where he was a new Fellow at the Center for International Affairs. My mother was, in her rather haphazard way, settling into life as a Stay At Home Mom (I believe the term at the time was, simply, housewife), caring for my two-year-old sister and trying to placate the woman we called “Fanlight Fanny” in the apartment below, who wasn’t best pleased to have a clumsy toddler making noises and dropping things on our floor/her ceiling at odd times of the day and night. Periodically, Fanny would show up at our door in robe and pink curlers, brandishing the very broomstick she used to bang on her ceiling (I imagined it pockmarked with craters like the surface of the moon) cursing up a storm, like a character from a Frank L. Baum children’s’ book. Mother would listen politely, make sympathetic and apologetic noises, then close the door and swear loudly and colorfully, as only she could.
And I was a fourth grader at Edward Devotion Elementary School, round the corner, about eight blocks away.
I didn’t like it all that much. My classmates were generally standoffish, although I was starting to form a few friendships. The teacher was mean and dismissive. She wasted no time telling me that I had a lot to learn and that I hadn’t been properly educated up till now. (By this time, I’d already attended about eight different schools over four years, with almost one year off from school entirely when there just wasn’t one to be had. My mother wasn’t much for homeschooling, so we just skipped it. I’d been to one-room schools, where children of all ages crowded into the teacher’s living room or kitchen, state schools where English was not the first language, missionary schools (learned a lot of hymns), convent schools, Muslim schools, small schools, and large schools). The teacher also made fun of the way I spoke. It hurt. And, while she didn’t ruin my life for long, the meanness she displayed towards a lonely, scared, and vulnerable little girl still hurts. Except now, when I think about it, my emotions go the other way and play out in a show of sorrow and pity for her. What an ugly woman.
The people I remember fondly from that time in my life aren’t from that school. Neither the adults nor the children. I mostly remember the kindness of grownups: my dad’s friends and colleagues, some of whom were, at the time, noted and awarded economists and mathematicians (who always had time to help me with my baffling “new math” homework); a few gentlemen who later became famous in public life; a couple of politicians, the president of a multibillion-dollar private foundation, and even an international statesman or two. It was something of a charmed life, and I didn’t even know it until much later.
With the singular exception of Fanny, our neighbors in the apartment building were nice, too, particularly the three young bachelors who shared a “pad” across the hall from our two-bedroom apartment. My mother (whose only son wouldn’t be born for another five years) immediately adopted them, keeping an eye out for them (bet they loved that), and feeding them her good British cooking (she was a terrible cook).
So, by and large, by the third week of November 1963, we were all settling in, and pretty well at that.
The only fly in the ointment (besides Fanny, again) was the building’s janitor. He was a tall, angular man with a manner that we’d probably describe today as ‘hyperactive.’ His arms were always waving around. His mouth was always moving. Sitting or standing, his legs and feet were always going, rocking back and forth, tapping and jerking.
And he was always rat-faced. (In best Lewis Carroll tradition, I’ve taken two phrases indicating extreme intoxication, one from my native land, one from my adopted home, neither of which is Code-of-Conduct compliant, and combined a part of each of them into a new one that is. It’s doubly apt because he really was, physically, anyway. Rat-faced, I mean. Just not an appealing specimen at all.) And he’d made matters worse, and run afoul of Dad, by sending all our household effects back to the dock when they were delivered, because they were packed in 55-gallon oil drums. (My parents had learned this trick after several moves in which a high proportion of our stuff was damaged or broken. Since the drums could easily be rolled around on their sides, the dock workers preferred them. So we packed everything in sawdust, hammered the lids on firmly, and that solved the problem. No more breakages.)
But Mr. “A” wasn’t buying it, even though he’d been asked to keep an eye out for them. (This is the one guy amongst the first 200 names in the Boston phonebook that you wouldn’t have wanted running the country. Trust me on that.) He refused delivery, sent the stuff away, and Dad had to move heaven and earth (something he was rather good at, fortunately), to get it back.
So, on that unseasonably warm November afternoon, my mother and my little sister had walked to Devotion School to meet me, as they always did, and we were making our way home. It must have been about 3:15 in the afternoon. I was anxious to get home and turn on the telly so I could watch the local Bozo the Clown show and a couple of cartoons. We’d never owned a TV before, so the only time I’d ever enjoyed one was at Granny and Grandpa’s (golf, Wimbledon, Ronald Coleman movies), and it was still a thrill to listen to it buzz and wait for it to warm up. Even a bit of a thrill to watch the occasional test pattern. Or to fiddle with the horizontal or vertical hold. (I know, it’s like a foreign language, amirite?)
Suddenly, my anticipatory schoolgirl ruminations were interrupted by a figure that appeared out of nowhere like Banquo’s specter at the feast. Mr. “A.” He was in even more of a state than usual. Rat-faced, red-faced, red-eyed, arms and legs waving independently in no known syncopation, his sparse hair sticking out all over the place, his pants unzipped, his shirt buttoned up wrong and two different shoes on. His nose was swollen, and tears were running down his face. He was shouting, as he got about six inches away from my mother’s face, arms going like windmills. He reeked of even more drink than usual.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” my mother exclaimed.
He was crying. So hard it was almost impossible to understand him when he spoke, his voice thick with tears.
“The President’s been shot. President Kennedy is dead.”
“Drunken old fool,” said my mother, and moved on.
Indeed he was. But, for once, he was speaking the absolute truth. As we found out five minutes later when we turned on the television, about 30 minutes after Walter Cronkite made his earth-shattering announcement.
It was an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary time to be new in the country. And to be living where we were, a half-mile from the house where JFK spent the first 10 years of his life, and for me to be attending the same elementary school as he did.
It was the start of a period of numbness, where people sat around for days, crying and glued to the television (where, two days later, a horrified nation watched another murder unfold as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot on live TV by Jack Ruby). The bachelors pretty much lived in our apartment for a week. I don’t know where their own families were, but we became their family, and they became ours. People just cried and cried. Nothing got done. Everything stopped. In unimaginable tragedy, people found what we thought would be unshakable unity. (That didn’t hold. We thought that again 38 years later, on another awful day. It didn’t hold then, either.)
But, on that sad Friday afternoon, we knew nothing of what was to come. All we knew was that something had been lost and that something very bad had happened.
“The President’s been shot. President Kennedy is dead.”
And my mother picked up the phone to call my dad.
And in a world without social media, in a world with no cell phones, no iPads, no 24-hour continuous news cycle, in a world with only three television networks, with limited communications technology among them, and in a world in which most people would wait to hear what had happened today, until tomorrow morning when the newspapers were delivered, she told Harvard University that one of its most famous alumni, the President of the United States of America, was dead.