Of Caissons and Casseroles, Circa 1963
If you are among my family and you want to cause a disturbance, or possibly create a diversion to cover your escape, the way to do it is to lean in close to me or one of my sisters and say, “President Kennedy is dead.” Without fail, we’ll laugh out loud, make the others laugh, and then be unable to stop, only encouraged by the disapproving looks and frantic hushing. My parents will look at each other and sigh, “Kennedy’s dead again.” This tends to happen a lot in church.
If I knew anything about psychology I would know the word for this phenomenon where stimulus and response, cause and effect, cart and horse trade places. Whatever it’s called, we would be a textbook case. What happened was that we had taught ourselves a biofeedback mechanism in which we would solemnly pronounce the phrase “President Kennedy is dead” to stifle the fits of giggles that came over us when we all shared a room and were supposed to be asleep, and my father would warn from bottom of the stairs that he didn’t want to come up there one more time. It was the saddest thing we knew-the only genuinely sad thing we knew-and it worked well, at first. Before too long, however, it began to have the opposite effect, and we found we had to go back to the more primitive technique of stuffing our covers in our mouths. But before we thought it was funny, we knew it was very, very sad.
On the day of Kennedy’s funeral, we went to mass and came home and watched the procession on television. I recall trying to measure and plumb my parents’ dutiful participation in the public drama of grief. I knew they “didn’t like” Kennedy and had not voted for him. I worried that someone on TV would say the name of Franklin Roosevelt because that was associated in my mind with the words “President” and “Democrat,” and my grandfather, in whose house I had been warned never to utter those words, would go apeshit. But on the other hand, my parents were Catholic and Irish, as was poor, dead President Kennedy. And if you are Catholic and Irish and someone has died, there are two things you must do before the consolation of casseroles, cold ham, and cocktails: Go to mass and sit around. This can apparently entertain adults for hours and even days, but for us, after we had changed out of our church clothes and eaten our ham sandwiches and sat around fidgety for a while, there wasn’t much else to do. Finally my mother let us go outside with the promise that we would play quietly so as not to exhibit any disrespect that the neighbors would notice. Turning momentarily from the TV, she made sure we had put scarves on so that we wouldn’t get sore throats. I don’t mean scarves as in mufflers, I mean cotton kerchiefs tied under our chins. As we do in so many photos, we looked like poor immigrant children on the steerage decks straining after our first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
My sister Anne was seven, I was six, and Susie was five. We didn’t have Dorathy with us because she was three, afraid of everything, and a pain in the ass. We understood that roller-skating was too noisy, hopscotch or jump rope too festive, and there was no one else around to play with, so eventually we decided to play funeral. We hauled out all our tricycles and Anne’s big two-wheeler and attached miniature American flags to the handlebars with pipe-cleaners. Then we got out our wagon, having unsuccessfully auditioned the more serious-looking wheelbarrow for the role, and tied it to the back of the bike. Because my parents weren’t paying attention, we were able to rummage around where we weren’t supposed to be and find the big American flag that Dad put up on holidays, and draped it over the bed of the empty wagon. We tied another tricycle to the back.
In front of the house we assembled our procession: two tricycles with riders; the bicycle would pull the flag-draped wagon and the riderless tricycle. It was easy to maintain the proper slow pace going up the hill on Jefferson Street, but it took great skill on the way back down, and we admonished each other in whispers about going too fast. Having just learned the word “caisson,” and aware that such an occasion required music, we worked up a reverent and repetitive version of “Over here, Over there, and the casinos go rolling along.” We were so good that we needed to watch ourselves, so after a few passes, we removed one of the escort tricycles from the formation and took turns standing on the edge of the sidewalk playing the part of the mourner. It was best to pick a spot far enough from the corner so that you could experience the full glory of the approaching procession, letting your head turn slowly to watch it move past and recede toward the opposite corner. When you were the grieving citizen, you untied the knot under your chin and stood there bare-headed.
Elisabeth H. Piedmont-Marton was living in Roanoke, Virginia in November 1993. She teaches in the English Department at Southwestern University.