Summer 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. IV, No. 2


Poetry    Translations    Non-Fiction    Fiction    Essays   

Caryn Coyle


Forty-Five Years Ago

In 1963, I thought everyone went to Mass on Sundays with police officers -- arms out stretched -- holding people back. I had to wear white cotton gloves and itchy, multi- layered dresses in pastel colors; pink, lavender, lime. I walked up the wide steps to St. Edward’s Church in Palm Beach with my hand gripped firmly inside my mother’s. She looked straight ahead; her white lace mantilla hid her face.
The Mass wouldn’t start until President Kennedy got there.
Forty-five years ago, my father accepted a marketing position and moved us to Palm Beach from Marblehead, Massachusetts. Our new house was on Nightingale Trail and I was disappointed with the gold fish pond in the back yard. It was too small to swim in, and too dark. Orange trees surrounded the small rectangular pool, framed in a stone patio.
Several blocks down from Nightingale Trail, the Kennedy’s coral colored compound was always pointed out to me when we passed it on North Ocean Boulevard. I paid attention to the Kennedys because my parents did.

Yesterday, I was shocked at how my parents struggled to walk down the corridor of their independent living facility. They both use canes. My mother’s cane has red tulips and green leaves painted on the steel pole. It is the first time I’ve seen her use one. Both of my parents’ canes have four rubber soled legs that anchor it to the floor each time they put it down.
Our relationship has been reduced to day trips. I drive two hours to see them and take them to lunch.
In the restaurant’s booth, I sit next to my dad. He has white hair about a half inch long clustered on his jawbone, below his ear. The bristles around his mouth and chin are uneven. I wonder if he just can’t see them anymore or whether he has simply given up and doesn’t care.
My mother has brought a deep pink jacket because she is always cold.
“Mom, I like your shocking pink jacket,” I tell her as she pulls her arms through the sleeves.
“My what?”
“Your jacket. It’s shocking pink. Jackie Kennedy’s color.”
“Who’s color? Caryn, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I smile at her. Nod. I’m used to it. My mother has dementia.

At Mass, we would choose a spot in the middle of the church. If we occupied the pew in front of the President and First Lady, a Secret Service agent would sit with us. That annoyed my mother. He would peer into her handbag when she opened it, and she would thrust it at him so he could see everything inside.
Because my mother walked me down to the bike trail that overlooked Lake Worth, we watched the President’s dark limousine drive up the path where automobiles were forbidden; flags flapping off the front fenders. President Kennedy got out of his limousine and I saw Caroline and John bound down the ramp toward the Honey Fitz. The First Lady wore dark glasses; a deep pink scarf wrapped around her head billowed over her shoulders.
My dad took me to the bike shop on Palm Beach and I watched him pull twenty dollar bills out of his wallet to pay for a royal blue, ten speed. The bike trail was black asphalt and wide enough for two to ride side by side (or to accommodate the President’s limo). Dad would point out the street where we lived, beyond the properties that lined the bike trail and the bridge from West Palm that connected it to Palm Beach on Royal Poinciana Way.
As I peddled beside him, I listened to my dad talk about Mrs. Kennedy and Caroline. He had met them at the Bazaar International, the exotic shopping center he managed in Riviera Beach. It had a small amusement park and Caroline wanted to ride the train. He also took them up in the elevator of the Bazaar’s tower overlooking Lake Worth. Mrs. Kennedy had the softest voice he’d ever heard, he said.

My mother moves from one end of her cushioned bench to the other. “Do you feel a draft?” she asks a half dozen times.
Each time she moves, my dad sighs, “Do you want my jacket?”
She always declines.
“This place reminds me of Creighton’s,” my dad says.
“World’s best apple pie.” I say, smiling.
“You remember that?” he asks, his eyes are the color of swimming pool water and he looks at me through glasses he now wears all the time. He didn’t wear any for most of his life. In World War II, he flew Corsairs as a Marine pilot, supporting the ground troops in the Philippines.
“Creighton’s was at the front of the Bazaar, right? They had ‘world’s best apple pie’ as their slogan.” I say.
“Right. They anchored the Bazaar. Remember that, Claire?” he asks my mom.
“No, I don’t Charlie,” she says it as though he should know that.
He sighs and tells me about my brother, who is designing and building the house he’s always wanted. When it’s finished, next year, he will move my parents in with him and his family.

At Mass, my mother whispered about the President’s brothers. I didn’t realize who they were until she’d nudge me, “That’s Bobby – or Teddy – the President’s brother,” when they held long wooden poles -- attached to deep rectangular baskets and lined in red velvet -- to take the collection for St. Edward’s.
My brother was born in Florida. We brought him home from Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm in a bassinet that hooked onto the back of the front seat. But within a month of my brother’s birth, my father’s business went bankrupt. We returned to Massachusetts in the summer of 1963.
On Friday, November twenty second, my teacher, Miss Woodberry, ushered us out to the school bus. “Let’s hope it’s not serious,” she said. “Maybe the President’s only been shot in the leg.”
I sat on the floor of our living room most of the next few days watching the casket being lowered from Air Force One; the horses towing the caisson with the President’s coffin on it. Caroline’s white gloved fingers under the flag on her father’s casket in the Rotunda of the Capital Building.
In the corner of the room furthest from the television, my baby brother was learning how to hold himself up by gripping the sides of his play pen. He had multi-colored plastic donuts he could pile on a bright green plastic pole and a little yellow school bus with small student pegs he stuck into round holes inside the bus. One even had brown braids, like mine.

We wait a half hour for our lunch. My dad notices the people on the opposite side of the aisle, seated after us, are already eating their food. They also appear to have ordered the same thing we have. He gets up from the booth – without his cane – and shuffles off in search of someone to talk to about it. When he comes back, the waiter has appeared with our order and my dad declares, “C’mon. Get up. We’re moving.”
The waiter is cheerful and leads us out of the vast room, reconstructed from a barn from somewhere in New England and rebuilt as the largest and tallest of the rooms in the restaurant. We are relocated in another room and seated next to a fireplace with a large portrait of George Washington above it.
“Much better,” he says, shuffling into the new booth. “Where’s my cane?”
My mother stops, looks around her, she has her tulip handled cane in her hand and is leaning on it.
“I’ve got it,” I tell him, holding it up.

When President Kennedy walked down the aisle to Communion, two Secret Service men followed him. One carried a telephone. I wondered who would call him on that phone, but I never heard it ring.
On Thanksgiving, the Thursday after President Kennedy was killed, we hosted a somber dinner. I remember my grandparents, my great-grandmother, my aunts and uncles spoke of the fate of the Kennedy family in the new dining room my mother had remodeled. Someone said, “So much for the torch being passed to a new generation.”
Painted above the chair rail on two walls of the dining room was a large mural of palm trees on a Florida beach. The scene reminded me of waves the color of turquoise we could see as we rode along North Ocean Boulevard. My dad is driving toward Royal Poinciana Way from Nightingale Trail and a convertible pulls out of the Kennedy compound. I watch it follow us and realize the President is driving. His brownish red hair is blowing. There are several people in the car with him.
“Daddy! Daddy! The President’s behind us!” I shout from the back seat, tapping his shoulder.
My dad turns slightly, looking at me in the rear view mirror. “Wave at him!” he says.
I turn around and kneel on the seat, raising my right hand and wagging it back and forth in the huge back window. The President is wearing dark sunglasses. His mouth opens and he says something, nodding. He sees me and laughs. One of his hands is on the steering wheel; the other is up in the warm, tropical air.
I turn from the President and see my dad’s hand is also up, off our steering wheel. He is waving back.


© Caryn Coyle



Poetry    Translations    Non-Fiction    Fiction    Essays   

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