Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday, November 22, 1963

Fifty years ago today, I was eleven years old and living in Napa, California. Our family of seven (2 older sisters, 2 younger brothers) had just arrived 8 months earlier from Holland, full of hope and angst. Only my father knew English, but the rest of us were well on the way to picking it up, immersed in our classes at a local parochial school, taught by Sisters of Mercy from Ireland, all heavily dressed in black robes but always carrying a sparkle in their eyes and a keen sense of humour, which gave humanity to their no-nonsense teaching style.

In my own case, Sr. Mary Ligouri had placed me in the back of the 5th grade classroom and assigned one of the brighter boys to help “tutor” me, giving us an early grade spelling / writing book as our only resource. It was full of pictures, and in the way that kids have, we were able to communicate despite the fact that there was no shared language. When I’d finished one book, the next grade’s version would appear. Gradually, immersion did the trick and English became my dominant language – although I won’t tell you what my first learned words were.

Life might have been hard for my father and mother, uprooting themselves from all that they had known and loved, relatives and friends included, but there was a general tone of optimism through it all. We had done what my father had wanted to do twenty years earlier, and here we were in the land of opportunity, with a young President, beautiful vistas, and roads that went on forever. Where in Holland you would make serious plans if you were visiting relatives in a town 15-20 miles away, here that would simply be a nice afternoon drive to go shopping.

In some ways it was quite an idyllic time. I had a newspaper delivery route on early mornings, served Mass at 6:30 am during my shift at the local parish, bicycling there in the semi-darkness, and enjoyed making new friends among a group of classmates that were much more multi-cultural than the society from which we had come.

As you may have guessed, I’m trying to set the scene for the news that Sr. Mary Ligouri shared with us just before lunch on November 22, 1963, with tears in her eyes and a constricted voice. An old TV was found and rolled out. Lessons stopped. The news on the small black and white television became our most important teacher. And the idyllic dreams for the future became a bit less idyllic for a while. For three days, the world watched as the nation went through its mourning rituals, with the television as our 1960’s version of the internet, communicating what it could and providing a national support network for us all. It was an amazing experience.

Today, when I reflect back, I can appreciate the sense of tragedy, injustice, and mild national depression that ensued. But I also recall the palpable and growing national conviction that even this would not undermine the country’s aspirations and hopes. If anything, it made them all the more important, focused, and worthwhile. Difficulties and suffering can bring goodness to light, although it requires a change in perspective. “The dark takes form in the heart of the white, and reveals it.” (Rabindranath Tagore) Finally, with grace and experience, hope prevails.