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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend: Beyond Tragedy

Death has been ever present in my life. I was named for my aunt Kathleen, who died in a plane crash three years before I was born. My brother Joe was named for our uncle Joe, who had been killed in World War II, as had Kathleen’s husband, Billy Hartington. My parents, Robert and Ethel, often talked about these three young people, each dead before the age of 30.

My aunt Kick was beautiful, lively, and giving. She had gone to England during the war to help and to be with the man she loved. My uncle Joe was smart, athletic, brave. They were in my thoughts daily. We prayed for them by name at every Sunday Mass, at the daily Mass we attended during the summers, and during nightly prayers. So while I didn’t know my aunt and uncles and had never actually met them in the flesh, remembering them and honouring their memory was part of our daily ritual. I knew from the youngest age that death would take the vivacious and the brave. Immunity was not possible.

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Joe and Kick Kennedy

When I was just four years old, my mother’s parents were killed in a plane crash. Now death was even more present. I had known my grandparents, George and Ann. I had hugged them, sat on their laps, and visited their home in Greenwich, Connecticut, over Christmas. I saw vividly how sad my mother became. I have a memory of my father carrying her up and down the stairs because she was so brokenhearted that she could barely walk. I probably conflated that memory with the birth of my brother David. Still, the fragility that death bred remains fixed in my consciousness.

My grandparents’ names were added to Joe’s and Kick’s as the family members we should pray for.

Then my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, was killed when I was 12. A few years later, another uncle of mine, George Skakel, Jr. – my mother’s brother – and one of my father’s best friends, Dean Markham, were killed in a plane crash. Dean and his wife, Susie, were our neighbours. They had five children. They carpooled with us. Nine months later, George’s wife, the mother of my four cousins, choked on a piece of food and died. My four orphaned cousins were sent to live with an aunt and uncle.

My father was killed in June 1968 when I was 16 and the oldest of ten children. My youngest sister was born in December of that year.

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JFK and RFK

While we were in college, one of my best friends committed suicide.

For my 25th birthday, I asked for a skull and got one. I admit that when I opened that present, the guests at the party, who’d been expecting some lovely trinket, I am sure – bath salts or a beautiful bowl – were shocked. There was momentary silence.

IN COLLEGE, A CLOSE friend told me that she had never been to a funeral. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, her experience wasn’t unique for people our age. The baby boomers grew up with death as a distant thought. But not me. A friend with whom I’d bought a car – a Volks-wagen, for $200 – was beaten up by thugs in 1971 and stayed in a coma for 30 years before he died. My brother David died of a drug overdose; my brother Michael, in a freak skiing accident. My cousin John and his wife and sister-in-law died in a plane crash just before my sister Rory’s wedding.

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Michael Kennedy

Many of these deaths are not news to you. They’re part of the public record.

What remains a mystery is how people cope. How do we go on?

The most straightforward answer I can give is: the same way that generations before have gone on. We acknowledge the pain and the loss. We develop rituals – religious services, music, funerals, and wakes – where friends gather, hug one another, cry together, and share stories and laughs. And we remember.

I don’t like the saying “Time heals all wounds.” It is not true. Years later, people can still be terribly sad and miss their mother, father, child, sibling, friend. Scars remain unhealed.

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