I was a chubby eight-year-old boy walking home from school when Mrs. Guy passed in the opposite direction, crying. She wore a heavy black coat and her grey hair was out of bob. Tears nested in her cheek creases.
I always thought Mrs. Guy was terribly mean. She’d never really talked to me. She would come out of her house and yell at us to get off her lawn if our ball bounded into her bushes. And she would open her front door brusquely and snarl “No” if I rang her bell trying to sell chocolate bars for our Catholic school.
Selling chocolate bars was the trial of my youth. The nuns deposited a carton of twelve fat ingots on our desks and warned of dire consequences should we fail to return with $12 on Monday morning. But how could I, so small and shy, sell a dozen chocolate bars. My three older siblings had similar cartons to sell, and every other house on the street was full of kids from the same school. Supply was abundant; demand negligible
I grew up on a street of seventeen identical houses. Cramped, 1950’s split levels around the corner from Saint Joseph’s Church. Every household was the same: a handsome father invigorated by war and enriched by a low-interest G.I. mortgage, an exhausted stay-at-home mom, and a crop of kids. That is, every house except for the Guy’s. The Guys were older and childless. They had a manicured lawn and kept their shades down. They were different from the rest of us.
“The President was just shot.” She looked past me, just as she did when she refused my chocolate bars. But the contempt in her eyes, disdain I’d always attributed to Mrs. Guy lacking a chocolate peddler of her own, disintegrated into blank despair. All my past fears of Mrs. Guy were eclipsed by a new reality. As the messenger of national tragedy, she was truly scary. I gaped at her, unaccustomed to adult crying. I understood the literal meaning of her words. But I also intuited their ramifications; that the world was so much bigger and more dangerous than the children on my short street had ever considered. I knew that stray balls and chocolate bars shouldn’t come between us now; we had bigger problems and we ought to hang together.
I quickened my step and hurried home. My father sat before the television. For days, all we did was watch TV. LBJ’s swearing in, Ruby shooting Oswald, that elegant funeral march to Arlington Cemetery. Everybody cried. I got used to adult tears; even my father’s. It was the only time in my life I ever saw him cry.
A few weeks later we groused out of continuous mourning. Somehow, my father finagled the former President’s official portrait that hung in our post office after Johnson’s headshot went up in its stead. He hung the huge framed photograph at the bottom of the stairs. Over the next twenty years, as we children grew up and my parents moved a dozen times; as my mother embraced women’s lib and a paying job while my father’s alcohol became his best friend, the great constant of my family was this larger than life size image of John F. Kennedy, the first Irish-American Catholic President. JFK greeted me every time I came home. We reveled in the thousand days of his brief, shining Camelot. We wished that his eternal presence would keep his hope alive after Dallas. But his image alone could not sustain us. We children scattered and my parents divorced and the giant photograph got lost amid so many other dreams.
Mrs. Guy never yelled at me again when my ball landed in her bushes. I never tried to sell her chocolate. After we passed one another at that singular moment when the world shifted, the distant old lady and the fretful boy rose above petty interactions. We exchanged few words, but when we spoke, we were quiet and respectful.
The Portrait that lived in our house.