We write. It's what we do, right? Reflect? On page after page, day after day, we reflect through our words our emotions, our experiences, our lives, and our memories. Through the things we write, we discover ourselves and we share ourselves. This is the quality that makes us all writers. We take our memories, examine them, pore over them, play with them, re-invent them, and they come out as fictionalized fragments of ourselves.
Let me take you back to the memory that is the earliest of my life, the one that happened on this date in 1963, the one that changed the world and somehow managed to change a small child in New Hampshire as well.
I've never been able to understand memory. There are, of course, certain things that happen to you that are always at the forefront of your mind, events you discuss or think about often, (although probably never in the same way twice). Then there are others, more secretive, that float in and out of your mind unbidden, tantalizing, but hazy and never fully visualized.
This is where most of my childhood memories lie, in that vague, unrealized category. Sometimes it will seem as if a file has suddenly slipped open in my mind, spilling its contents momentarily for me to glimpse. But I never get a clear look at what is inside. Other memories from those earlier times never seep out, but I feel certain that these memories never really disappear; they just get misfiled somewhere. Sometimes, searching through the vast catalogue of unmarked files that make up memory, you come across one that seems strange, almost dreamlike--childhood dreams and nightmares that have somehow, over the passage of time, been placed in the wrong folder.
There are others, though, that are shockingly crisp and clear, memories which, at the slightest provocation, can be dredged up in vivid detail, even if, sometimes, you wish they would simply go away.
A few years ago, I asked my junior classes to do a journal entry on the earliest memory that they had which was complete, which had the kind of detail that makes it stick with you. At the same time, I wrote, over several days, my own entry on that topic, an entry which resurfaced today when I realized that this is, after all, the forty-sixth anniversary of the event that spawned it. (I feel my bones creaking simply writing the sentence that I have memories that old.) I realize that it is somewhat trite, and that, to you, it is history as ancient as World War Two was to me; nonetheless, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a day which changed the world, also left an indelible impression on me unlike anything else had until that time.
I was reminded of all of that this weekend, since the same assignment is out there for my current juniors. Kennedy's death was, of course, as so many have written, the end of American innocence, the end of faith and trust, the end of a kind of naiveté that had, for whatever reason, sheltered this country from the storms of the century. Untouched (at least our land) by war, undefeated (although, in Korea, tied) in our role as world policemen, unfazed even by the recognition of scandal in our midst (as in the McCarthy hearings or the Quiz Show scandal), we persisted in the illusion that all was right in the world, that America was the greatest good in the world. Perhaps the people of this country were not such children then; perhaps the old black and white TV images of Lucille Ball or Donna Reed are lies, exaggerations much the same as some of our own icons, like Roseanne or the Bundys or the Simpsons.
We are not all the Bundys; surely we were not all the Cleavers. But the image remains: the fresh-faced child with no greater concern than his homework or his first date, in a world and a country which did not know of child abuse, which would have been horrified beyond words at child criminals, which had never heard of AIDS, which left its drugs in the pharmacy or in the hands of a small number of those considered utterly unbalanced, which smoked and ate red meat and wore furs and sold its toothpaste with dancing tubes and its Alka-Seltzer with a singing fizzy guy named "Speedy," which left its cars and houses and bikes unlocked no matter how long they were unattended, and which believed in itself enough to decide, for no real reason other than to satisfy a dream, to send men to the moon.
I was six years old. I have no earlier memories with this kind of detail; for that matter, I have no other memories before junior high which have this clarity. (That is another odd thing about memory: as you get older, it fades away, leaving more and more of those dreamlike half-memories and fewer and fewer of the clear ones.) Today, on the date on which this memory occurred 46 years ago, I offer it to you.
The crackle of a classroom speaker.
Dozens of small voices, stilled
by the sudden intrusion,
stop at once.
No movement in the room but
the rhythmic metronome of the teacher's ruler
swinging back and forth in her craggy hands.
The crackle sounds once more,
and our faces turn in unison,
towards its source.
A small, broken voice--
recognizable but not normal,
not the rich, strong voice usually carried into the room that way,
but a fragment of it,
a shell, without depth,
cracking like the speaker itself--
interrupts the silence.
"Bow your heads in prayer," it says.
Confused eyes stare at the oval grill
awkwardly jutting out of an ancient beige wall.
The voice, more broken now, continues.
"We have just received word that the President has been shot."
Vaguely we try to recall just what a President is;
visions of white-haired men in blue coats leap out of history books into
our brains, blur, roll into each other. Names, mostly from holidays,
flash through our minds.
And one more.
Again the electronic crackling,
as if the speaker itself does not wish to hear the news:
"President Kennedy was shot this afternoon in Dallas."
A pause. A sound like weeping. "Pray for him."
Dozens of eyes,
watch the teacher sit in stunned silence at her desk,
tears welling in her gray eyes,
the ruler grasped still tightly in her palm,
some connection to the world which has ended so abruptly.
Her face quivers, the gray in her hair even duller,
and her head slips to the desk.
We look at each other, recognizing
that something is terribly, unalterably wrong,
and bow our heads as well.
Eternity goes by.
No sound in the room but the humming of the clock
and the almost imperceptible click of its hand
An airplane in the distance rattles the blinds on the window.
Somewhere a woman is calling someone,
her pained voice reaching out into the bright autumn sky.
Somewhere a baby is crying.
And we sit, heads on our desks, unsure exactly
what it all means,
still as we have ever been, waiting.
And the history book images flood back in:
Abraham Lincoln was a President who had been shot, but that was long ago,
very long ago,
and the quaking voice from the speaker had said, "this afternoon."
Voices from the mind: fathers' voices, mothers' voices,
in dinner conversation,
working around the edge of a roast,
red and dripping,
saying something about a new age, a new life for the country,
a new hope.
The speaker comes to life again, startling us out of our thoughts;
the voice is choking back tears.
"President John F. Kennedy died this afternoon in a Dallas hospital."
Wailing from somewhere down the hall.
Silence in the classroom.
Our faces blank, our minds blank.
The speaker fades.
In the halls, there is silence.
Something terrible has happened, something
which will shape and define our lives.
So young, but we know that.
And we file quietly to our buses,
no tears in our eyes.
On this day, the tears are left to the grownups.
On this day, it helps to be a child.
And the buses roll through empty streets,
early afternoon traffic
stilled by the flickering blue light
of the television screens all are staring at,
and we go home to the arms of our waiting mothers,
and the blue lights transfix us too
Perhaps some of us cry then.
Perhaps some of us wait
for the scratchy images
of a frigid November morning
with a horse-drawn carriage
rolling along the street lined
with men in black and
women in dark veils and
the young boy raising his hand
in a silent salute,
or perhaps we wait until the small flame
begins its eternal vigil,
solitary on the hillside,
or perhaps we never cry at all,
and return to our desks
bursting with children's vigor,
forgetting what we have seen
not fearing the next crackle of the tiny speaker.
But there are some memories,
stark or vivid,
that haunt and cling and will not let go.
And there are some tears, shed or withheld, that never go away.