By Randy Graves
Mrs. Stafford first knocked and then slipped into our fourth-grade classroom, which was kind of strange. Odd. We all knew that immediately. She motioned quietly to Mrs. Pickett and both leaned in to one another, shared a few words and then, turning to the whole class, Mrs. Stafford announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
I had zero idea of what that particular word meant but over the next days and weeks and for the remainder of my life, that word is tied forever to that day and that terrible horrible event. Friday, November 22, 1963. The next week was Thanksgiving which beckons the impending Christmas holiday season. For those of us who lived through that time, I think it is safe to say that our lives were all changed forever. If you were a child like I was, 9 years old, I had to take the time to translate literally that big new word into ones that I knew well and fully understood. President Kennedy was shot and killed. President Kennedy was murdered. Our young president is no more. That is exactly what I remember of that day and the weeks that followed.
No, this is not an uplifting holiday memory. How could it be? What would happen to John-John and Caroline? Yet, if you understand Christianity at all, the story of Easter is also difficult. Perhaps even more so. So it was, that the beginning of this holiday season – 1963 -- would be one ushered in with black and white images of a horse-drawn wagon, muffled drumbeats, clopping hooves of horses, and many sad and somber adults wearing black. At some point in our lives, we all must for the first time, face the realization and the rather “matter-of-factness” of our own mortality. It is a hard lesson at any age. It was a lesson we in our small town and Valley would revisit over the next few years as three young men – neighbors and classmates -- returned from Vietnam in coffins all before having even begun their second decade of life. These are no longer scripted nursery rhymes, fables, or fairy tales. This is life.
We had in our living room, a very well-worn but very soft and very comfortable chair that faced our black and white TV. I can remember that particular week very well as we as a nation listened to and watched a nation bury a president. We watched as reporters told us about chasing a man into a theater in Dallas. We heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald over, and over, and over again. Then we watched him shot to death on live TV. It was all unnerving, chaotic, and unsettling. And it would be years before I ever used those words on a regular basis. How did I process all of this at the age of 9 when the world I was anticipating was one of Thanksgiving dinner with the whole family? As I sat in the chair with those muffled drumbeats in the background, I reached for both the Sears and Roebuck and the Montgomery Wards holiday catalogs to look at the toy section. And even today, I distinctly recall wondering if I was doing something bad by thinking about Christmas and holidays and myself.
Of all of the Thanksgivings and Christmases that we spent together as a small family of five in that very modest farmhouse, November and December of 1963 was and still is a blur to me. I do remember eagerly waiting for my oldest sister to come from her first year of college. I had made her a “welcome home” note that I carefully placed on her pillow. I am sure that we had a Thanksgiving turkey. I am sure we had leftover cold turkey sandwiches with stuffing. I am sure we had a Christmas tree and presents, and I am sure we went to Christmas Eve service at the church. I am sure we hung stockings, that Santa came, and we had presents under the tree. But I honestly cannot recall much about those somber weeks other than the black and white TV screen, those images, those sounds, and me in that worn chair thumbing through the holiday catalogs and wondering what it all meant.
I know. This may not appear to be an uplifting holiday story. But actually, it is. And a true one. And one I think about often, when November 22 comes around each year. Today with more years behind me than in front, I truly hope I have come to terms with those darker times in my life. And when I think about it, I do know that it makes me thankful and grateful. Enormously so. My parent’s generation lived through the Great Depression and a second World War. I have never once in my own life gone to bed hungry. Our parents clothed us well and made us all appreciate education and the opportunities it brought and the doors it would open. I have never been treated poorly or threatened, either physically or emotionally, because of my beliefs, my gender, or the color of my skin. So, as I reconcile each year the meaning of both Christmas and Easter and various periods of my own life, I am more than aware of what a wonderful life I have had.
It truly is: “A Wonderful Life”