November 22, 1963
If you are of my generation, you know exactly where you were the day my mom’s worst boyfriend skipped town.
I was nine years old. My father died six years earlier and my mother was on boyfriend number 53 (or so it seemed.) In the 60s, nobody was divorced. No other kid had to make a stupid clay ash tray for an already-dead dad. And nobody’s mom dated. It was humiliating.
Mom was 32, the mother of four kids ages 6 to 11. She desperately wanted a husband and a father for us. I don’t know if she was that lousy a judge of character or if the gene pool of men willing to take on someone else’s brood was that shallow. But she hooked up with some real losers.
The “Worst” award goes to her fiancé, Cliff Kartcher, a chubby, sweaty man who smelled like a wet dog wearing bad cologne. He was nice enough to us in front of her, but the minute she’d leave the room, he couldn’t be bothered with us. It never occurred to me to let on. She wanted a man and we had to go along with it. Besides we were poor and Cliff’s salary would mean steady meals – and I might get a new dress instead of Susie’s outgrown ones.
So on this earth-shattering afternoon, there was a knock on my third grade teacher’s door. Miss Brosnan excused herself from the class and came back a few minutes later, crying. Oh my God. Our teacher was crying! We all sort of panicked. It was uncomfortable enough to run into your teacher at the grocery store. But to see her cry! Unbelievably scary. She was trying to hold it in, but the tears were dripping down her thin face. She looked up at the ceiling. I looked up there too. Then she studied all our faces and said, “Okay, class, school is ending early today.” And then, with no air left in her lungs, she whispered, “Go home.”
What just happened? What was so upsetting in her life that she couldn’t keep teaching us, her beloved students? Did the principal know she was doing this?
I hoisted the wooden top of my desk and grabbed my Butterfinger. It was Friday and I was looking forward to a nice weekend with my candy. We went to the coat closet, gathered our jackets and shuffled out in eerie silence. Once outside our room we saw that all classes were being dismissed – kids filing out like little zombies
On the playground, I found Ricky, my 8-yr-old little brother. He was so sweet and cute, with blonde curly hair and a happy smile. I loved him and loved being his big sister. We started walking together and then raced to the monkey bars. All the dutiful kids followed their teachers’ direction and went straight home. We saw no harm in swinging by our arms a couple times up and down the row. It was such a treat to have the playground all to ourselves. After a few minutes, in big sister fashion, I said, “Okay, Ricky, we better go now. We have to tell Mom what happened.”
We ran the short block home, burst inside and found our mother lying on the couch with her back to us. At first I thought she was taking a nap. But then I heard her crying and sobbing and moaning – in a kind of rhythm. It was muffled by the cushions and I think that’s what made it sound sadder than her usual crying. After a couple of verses, my eyes finally moved away from her to look around the room.
My two sisters had (dutifully) arrived home and stood frozen at the foot of the davenport. In the far corner of the living room, the TV was on. The after-supper news man was talking in the middle of the day. President Kennedy had been shot. And along with Miss Brosnan, Mom seemed to be taking it really hard.
We were Catholic and very proud of President Kennedy. It wasn’t just his religion. He was handsome and funny and, I imagined, a perfect father. Someone I’d love to have as a dad. Nothing like Cliff, who was not handsome, not fun and certainly not Catholic.
When Mom could start using words again, she sat us all down and explained that Cliff left with all our money, her engagement ring and our car. I’m not sure, but this may be the origin of the term ‘Fiscal Cliff.’
She told us she called Grandpa and he was on his way over. He called the police and was going to meet them at our house.
Oh no. Other people are going to know about this? I started crying. We all cried. Then I heard the familiar slam of a car door. Mom wiped her face and shot to her feet. Grandpa puffed in sucking on his unlit, stinky cigar. He came directly from work – wearing dress pants, a limp white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, suspenders and a tie, with his signature Knights of Columbus clip. He fixed his eyes on Mom and said, “Kids, get your coats. Grandma’s making you supper tonight. Jesus, Mary, I told you he was a dirty bastard.”
Grandpa drove us over to his house. My older sister, Susie, bravely broke the silence and asked how President Kennedy was doing. Oh, right, I’d forgotten all about that. Grandpa said, “The goddamn commies blew his head off, how do you think he is? He’s dead.”
Words of comfort to four little kids who didn’t already have enough to worry about. Thanks, Gramps.
Grandma was waiting for us in the driveway wearing a pale yellow dress with a faded, flowered apron. We piled out of the car and she greeted us with warm, reassuring, life-saving hugs. She was a tiny woman but easily scooped up my 6-year-old sister (her ‘Jeannie Bug’) and we all went inside. She looked back for Gramps, but he was already on his way to give Mom a couple more ‘”I told you so” punches to the gut.
A week later our car was located in, of all places, Dallas. No explanation of why it ended up there. No clue if ex-fiancé, Cliff had family or maybe even another girlfriend in Texas. No link (that we know of) to Lee Harvey Oswald. And no trace of the “dirty bastard.” Eventually, our yellow and white 1957 Buick was transported back to Michigan.
We were one of many families who suffered a double tragedy that day. Somebody’s baby died. Somebody’s dad was killed in a car crash. Somebody’s mom succumbed to cancer. All of those somebodies’ families are watching this week’s 50th anniversary coverage with a deeper sadness than the rest of us.
John F. Kennedy was vibrant, handsome, funny, athletic, loving, smart, hopeful and strong. He came from wealth, but empathized with the poor. He grew up privileged, but fought for social justice and equality. The Kennedys were, and 50 years later still are, magical.
We all lost something in Dealey Plaza that day. And others lost even more.