My memories of this day and weekend of 50 years ago are the same yet different from most people’s. The same in that I share the same experiences as the rest of the country (and world) watching the events unfold on TV. Yes, I do remember where I was when I heard JFK had been assassinated. Yes, I remember watching as Oswald was gunned down. Yes, I remember the catch in my throat when John, Jr. saluted his father’s coffin.
But my memories are different from other people’s, too, in that they are intertwined with other memories that are far more personal. Yes, I was mesmerized by the TV, but it wasn’t at my house. It was at my parents’ best friends’ house, where I was helping babysit their children, whose mother was in the hospital after suffering an aneurysim. She was fortunate: it leaked instead of burst. It was repaired successfully repaired surgically, and today, fifty years later, she is still with us, living in Florida not far from my parents.
But I have an even more powerful and personal connection with November 22, 1963. It was my cousin Peter’s 15th birthday. We got together as planned at his house, a modern split level in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston, to celebrate the day. But instead of singing “Happy Birthday” and opening gifts, the family sat in front of the TV and tried to comprehend the enormity of what we were witnessing.2
Six-and-a-half years later, Peter, too, was dead. He suffered massive brain damage caused when a speeding station wagon skidded on a wet road and slammed into his VW bug. He had parked on the shoulder until the storm passed. The impact was so hard that his seat belt was pulled from its mooring. Ironically, one of the physicians who consulted on Peter’s case also treated JFK .
Peter and I were first cousins, once removed. His mother and my paternal grandmother were sisters. We all lived in the same house, a three-family Queen Anne Victorian my great-grandfather (the grandfather Peter was named for) had bought around 1907, in Roxbury, then a new “streetcar suburb.” Peter’s family lived on the first floor; my grandmother and great-grandmother and aunt lived on the second; my parents and I on the third, in the attic apartment originally designed for the housekeeper. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and great-aunt all became widows within about three years of each other.
Peter was five weeks older than I am. We shared the same gene for red hair, as did my great-aunt. Whenever my mother would take the two of us out for a walk in the stroller, people would stop her and say, “Oh, how cute. Are they twins?” And my mother would answer, with a straight face, “No, they’re five weeks apart,” and then walk on before the questioner could react. (They would also stop my then twenty-one year old mother and ask her how much she charged for babysitting.)
We moved from Roxbury when I was about four years old. But Peter and I still saw each other frequently. We were like twins.
Even the most universal and shattering event can have a personal dimension that overshadows it. I can never think about JFK’s assassination without thinking about Peter.
I still miss him. Happy 65th birthday, Peter.