Announcement from the principal’s office
“Something is wrong, something is terribly wrong.”
Dear Blessed Mother, How did you let this happen? Please pass along the message to Jesus, Have mercy on all of us!
You couldn’t have suspected it, especially if you based your suspicions on the kind of day it was. A sunny day after the rain, everything crisp and shiny. Even in Pasadena, there were a few trees whose leaves changed to yellow and orange, reminding you that it was fall. Later on, as the sun beat down, the smog stretched its fuzzy dirt across the horizon and made the sky whitish, but right then, it was perfect.
I couldn’t wait for recess. All our 7th grade heads were bent over our shiny beige desktops, penciling in a Geography assignment. Mrs. Parry walked up and down the aisles checking on us like inmates. Static scratched the wall to the right next to the clock. I heard fumbling. Someone cleared her throat.
“This is an announcement from the Principal’s office. We have been informed that President Kennedy has been shot. It is not known if he will live. Please pray for his recovery.”
Mrs. Parry marched to the front and put the pointer on the ledge next to the chalk. “Continue with the assignment, boys and girls.” Then she opened the door and let the steel grasshopper leg on the top corner of the door pull it shut. A murmur rose up from all of us. Who would that be, I wondered, the person who continued with the geography assignment after the announcement that the President has been shot?
At recess, Sister Everista stood on the cracked asphalt near the lunch tables, in her black robes and thick rosary jangling from her leather belt. Her eyes were red from crying. I walked past her, thinking that her face would somehow answer some of my questions. What did she know about the President that made her cry? I’m pretty sure she never met him. I was sorry he died because he was a Catholic, but I wasn’t sorry because he was a Democrat. Sister Everista obviously couldn’t see through Kennedy’s Catholicism to the truth of his political mistakes. I wondered if God considers being a Democrat a sin. Maybe it’s a big sin, and maybe the President was being punished.
After recess we processed into the cool church, single file, all the grades, from first grade to eighth grade for a mandatory student body noon Mass. We were going to storm heaven with our prayers and we had to get the weather up there going. All four grades of St. Andrew’s High School joined us. It wasn’t long before Monsignor came to the pulpit and we heard that ‘shot’ had been changed to ‘assassinated’. President Kennedy was really dead, and we were all let out to go home. It was hard to understand. Since he was a Catholic, he would be up in heaven right now, enjoying the big pay-off. But the shock of his death was much more real. Everyone was talking about it. On the radio, in the newspapers, on television, everywhere. Nobody said anything about heaven in the world outside our parish.
I was perplexed and a little bit frightened that in the clutch, not only did our prayers fail, but the doctors couldn’t save him either. The doctors were so smart. They had drugs and they could operate. Their machines could keep you going when you were just lying there not even breathing. Why couldn’t they put him back together again, with stitches and somebody else’s blood flowing through his veins? He was the most famous man in the land. Our country was the luckiest in the world. What happened?
I felt guilty; could it have been my fault? That the president of the United States was lying on his back in a box with a lid on? Madcap was going out at night and sneaking back in at all hours, and sometimes, I had to cover for her. Which meant that I was committing venial sins every time anybody asked where she was. I always said she was in her room, doing her homework. I didn’t even know where she went. Sometimes she ditched school; she’d duck out of line when the student body filed into the church on special days for noon mass. Aaron Soloman usually picked her up. And sometimes, she didn’t get back until after everyone else had gone to bed. I don’t know how she got away with it, except I was part of it. Sometimes when she came in, waking me up by throwing seed pods at my window, she seemed silly and talkative and sleepy at the same time and her breath smelled like Daddy’s breath just before dinner, after Mother and Daddy had their martinis. I sat in Madcap’s room at times like this, trying to stay awake, while getting information from her about what she had been doing. Just in case. I was afraid for her. If anything happened, how would we ever know where to look?
Wanda told fibs to her parents, too. Like the time we both went to the store to get Abba Zabbas instead of making her bed and arranging her dolls with real glass eyes and fancy costumes on the pillows.
Her mom pounded on the door, ‘Is your room cleaned up?’
‘Spic and Span! Wanda had said, as we chomped down on the chewey taffy, giggling. ‘And no, you can’t come in!’
Wanda thought confession was embarrassing, so she never went, and I felt scared for her soul, just like I did for Madcap. What if Wanda died without getting the chance to wipe the slate clean? But she had a point – the priests could recognize our voices, we were both sure, or maybe they could see us through the screen. We both hated the idea that they had all the nasty details to our personal lives. When you have to tell private sins like, even thoughts to a man, and you’re a girl, well, that’s why they put the confessional in the dark. I myself have to close my eyes and say it. I usually rehearse my sins so I don’t chicken out. I say them in a list, trying to sound very matter-of-fact about it. I hit my sister, I told a small lie, I borrowed a red scarf from my other sister without permission. Then, once it’s done you can muss up your soul a little by saying something that isn’t totally true, and it doesn’t look so bad to God, ‘cause your soul is like the blackboard and confession is the eraser. Actually lately, I relied on this one eraser loophole to be able to carry on with my lies about Father Stefanucci, back when he was going to be Pope.
Lying seems like a necessary thing, an unavoidable consequence of being in the world where there are so many rules. It’s bad enough that God can spy on your every thought. There’s no privacy at all, once you figure in the church and confession, and your parents knowing where you are at every minute. Other people had to be doing it too, and if everyone else is telling stories, it wasn’t just me – how could President Kennedy’s death be punishment for my sins?
But there was some good news on the horizon –Cardinal Stefanucci was coming to visit on Thanksgiving. We were all given extra chores to tidy up the house before he got there. I had to wipe off the smudgies and boogers on all the doors and walls. It took a few hours, but when the stuff came off, the doors around the handles seemed to glow, and kept looking at them every time I passed, feeling like I had accomplished something.
Because the Cardinal was coming on the Thursday of the Thanksgiving weekend, we would be the first in the parish to see him. But it wasn’t the same; everyone was thinking and talking about The President.
On Monday, November 25th, televisions glowed out of all the houses on our street. Schools all over the country were closed to observe the state funeral. The branches of the redwood tree reflected through the picture window and it was hard to see the tv screen because there was so much light.
Jacqueline Kennedy walked bravely between her brothers-in-law, Robert and Edward, down the street towards St. Matthew’s Cathedral for the funeral mass. She wore a black hat and I could see the breath in front of her in white clouds under her black veil. I was afraid someone was going to shoot her out in the open like that.
The coffin was draped with the American flag and I imagined the President’s body inside, stiff yet jiggling in the dark under the lid, rolling along behind magnificent white horses, with men in dark uniforms sort of bouncing atop their backs. The hush of the huge crowd staring in silence could almost be heard through the television. On the steps outside the cathedral, Jackie leaned over and whispered something to John-John. And then the little boy saluted. He was only three, a year younger than the twins.
Mother sat watching on the couch in her apron, wearing the usual thick-soled shoes and tensor stockings, sighing. Maybe I was too young to notice the last time, but I can’t remember her ever being this tired. Drums and bagpipes floated their squeaky, sorrowful music all the way out to California from Washington, D. C. The guns went off; soldiers stood at attention in white gloves, the eternal flame was lit and we heard the final lonely notes of a bugle playing “Taps.” I held my hand over the hard surface of Mother’s tummy to feel the baby kicking and I thought how Jackie is like the Blessed Mother. She is the woman who loves the most important man in our country, but who has to suffer while everybody else watches her.
Fourteen, The Theory of Expanded Love is a coming-of-age story featuring the quirky, unflinching voice of Annie Shea, baptized Catholic and gullible skeptic, number six in a family of thirteen children in the last six months of 1963.