One night in 1963, when I was four, the outside world made my little world shake and tremble. Looking back now, it was probably just pointing a finger saying something along the lines that although you are only four years of age that terrible and unspeakable things can happen and do happen. A little boy’s Daddy can be shot and when he’s shot he dies and there is a funeral. And little boys will be very sad if their Daddies die like that. They may even salute their Daddy’s coffin as it’s being taken away.
It didn’t happen in our house, it was somewhere in America, but it was on our telly and my auntie Rosie was with us when it happened. In her house in Castle Road they didn’t yet have a box. They couldn’t with Granny being sick all the time and Granda only wanted the radio on. So sometimes Auntie Rosie would come down to our house to watch the telly. One winter evening my sister, brother and I were getting ready for bed and went into the parlour to say goodnight to the adults. They were watching the BBC news and suddenly Auntie Rosie shouted: “Jesus, Kennedy’s dead. Somebody’s shot Kennedy”! She had a John Players cigarette still unlit in her mouth. I looked at her and noticed her yellow pallor against the gleaming white of her cigarette. She couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what was it she couldn’t believe. I looked too at the small screen but couldn’t really see anything. There were lots of big cars driving along with crowds of people waving flags. But the picture was also very snowy and I didn’t know who this Kennedy was. Also I think was the first time I had ever heard of America. The America of cowboy films and television series like Batman and the Flinstones that I was later to discover, simply belonged to a different world. And then there was Auntie Rosie’s shocked face. She still had forgotten to light her cigarette. “There’ll be another world war, Rosie, you mark my words”, Daddy said as he lit Auntie Rosie’s cigarette for her and one for himself. There was more puzzlement for me. Why would there be another world war? A war? But Daddy wasn’t shocked or sad of if he was he didn’t show it. He didn’t seem to care about Kennedy and the next world war. Mammy just looked on in silence. Assassinated. That was the word they all used. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a long word to say and it took me a lot time to be able to spell that word. It meant that the man who shot the president was hiding with his rifle. And no-one could see him because he was hidden. Then he fired at the passing car.
A few days later we watched the news again with pictures of Kennedy’s funeral. The word funeral was new to me and when Mammy and Daddy talked about Kennedy’s funeral, it meant that he was dead and that was sad. But first there were these guards on horses pulling a cart with big wheels. And on the cart there was something wrapped up in a flag covered with little white stars and long thick black stripes. I turned to Daddy: “Where’s Kennedy, Daddy? Where’s Kennedy, Daddy?” “That’s the coffin, the flag’s the coffin, the coffin’s under the flag,” he said back. As I was later to discover my father could never simply answer you. Coffin. Flag. Kennedy. He never seemed to be clear about the meaning of things. Coffin. At four years of age, the word coffin sounded even worse to my ears, but I could only see the flag, I still couldn’t see this thing called “coffin”. But when I saw other pictures of the funeral where the little boy makes a salute as the coffin leaves the church, I was sad for the boy. That was the worst part. Seeing this little boy like that. He was with his big sister and standing beside his Mammy who was all in black and holding his hand, her face hidden by a long veil. But he wasn’t crying. I know I would have been crying.
There was a picture of John F. Kennedy in every Irish house afterwards or even an effigy. It was hung often close to the pope’s, Paul VI. It was if John Kennedy had become a new Irish tragic hero-saint.
I tried to assassinate my twin sister once in our garden. I remember she had her new Sunday dress on and her hair was lovely and full of rinkles. My bullet was a small wooden block. I still remember it’s colour and size. Luckily it wasn’t heavy. I remember there was a cortege of her friends all running by and I was hiding behind our yellow laburnum bush just in front of our door. When I saw her coming I aimed for her forehead. She cried so much that everyone thought she had been killed. I remember the small wound I managed to impart. It was tiny, she didn’t bleed much but it landed me in big trouble. I didn’t know why I did it. She was the centre of attention with our friends. For once I despised her, jealous of her being in the centre of attention. Maybe I was feeling lonely just then. Funny though I don’t remember getting a hiding. Guilty yes, I remember the guilt and that was worse than my father’s hard hand. But I didn’t cry that day.
(c) Ciaran Ross
(This is an excerpt from what I hope to be my future memoir How long are you home for? A story of love, adoption and separation.)