Sixty-six years ago today in Winona, my parents were married. Fify-five years ago in Dallas, President Kennedy was killed, just months after my sister and I had shaken his hand at the Ambassador’s Residence in Rome. We were in Washington, DC, on the final weekday of Dad’s transition from Press Attaché in Rome to Public Affairs Officer in Bogotá.
The week came to a close. Dad had completed all of his meetings except with the Director, who he was scheduled to meet with after lunch. He picked up our air travel tickets, managing to get us all upgraded to First Class in the process, an unexpected treat. He wondered if he could parlay the travel into a kind of gift for Mom: it was their eleventh anniversary.
While Dad was finishing up at USIA, Mom, Susie and I had a tour of the White House. It was special to be in the place where our friend from Rome lived. I wondered if we’d see him, but Mom said that Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were on a trip.
The plan for the afternoon was picking up new school shoes for both of us girls. Italian shoes were really expensive and the selection was pretty limited at the PX in Naples. There was big department store a few blocks away, Hecht’s, bigger and nicer than Cim.
We got to Hecht’s a little after noon. Mom ushered Susie and me into one slice of the revolving door which spit us out in the makeup aisle. The store directory said the shoe department was down the escalator. Mom herded us forward, each of us in one of her hands. Down we went.
Rows of shoes pulled us off the escalator like a magnet. I had never seen so many varieties. In Italy, there was pretty much one style in one color for a whole season, which changed completely by the next. Here, there were heels and flats and boots in lots of different colors. We waded in alongside Mom.
“They shot the President!”
My head jerked up. A saleslady standing at the end of our aisle had her hand up to her mouth. The next few minutes were in slow motion as if somehow we were all under water. Grownups reached out for each other, their mouths twisted, but I could only hear the my heartbeat. Mom’s hand gripped my hand harder than I could ever remember, and she pulled us back up the escalator and through the revolving glass doors. My face felt hot against the cool air of the afternoon.
“What about the shoes?” I said.
“Yeah,” Susie said.
“Right now, we need to find Daddy,” Mom said.
All around us, people were stopped, talking with each other like friends. Mom steered us around the clusters. She was very good at this, Italian sidewalks being way more crowded. We were used to it too but there was a whole other energy around us today.
“What happened, Mom?” I said.
“Walk,” Mom said.
The news of Kennedy’s shooting had hit USIA even faster, and Dad’s meeting with the front office was cancelled. Dad was in our room when we got back to the hotel. The television was on. They said the President was dead. The television stayed on until dinnertime without any of those fun American commercials.
That night, we retraced our steps in the dark back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House shone bright in the night air. Just that morning, it was where my Man in the Purple Tie lived. It wasn’t any more. I kept one hand in my coat pocket, my fingers playing with the lint left from my cousins’ use; Mom had a grip on my other hand, the tips of her red nails firm against my palm. Susie danced at the end of Mom’s other arm, bouncing to keep warm. Dad’s hands were on our shoulders.
Mom and Dad’s anniversary was forgotten.