Dad’s 50th Birthday by
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(318 Stories)

Prompted By Assassination

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We moved from Detroit to our newly-built home in Huntington Woods (about 2 1/2 miles northwest of our Detroit location) on October 1, 1963. Rick and I had already started in the Royal Oak school system and we were in shock. We were both young in our classes, having needed to skip grades due to the vagaries of the Detroit school system. Rick was half way through high school, so at least could be in choir and work on the school newspaper, but he made few friends.

I was a loner, geek, mocked by the sophisticated girls who had all been together forever, and whose mothers were also friendly. The school was K-6; we were the oldest at this school now, so entering into that climate was challenging at best. It was devastating for me. Yet I was still one of the smartest, a truly awful combination. The teachers and counselors told me that in the fullness of time, I’d be fine.  That didn’t help me in that moment.

For the first several weeks of school, Dad had to drive me out to the suburban school (which recessed for lunch). My mother arranged for me to go home with someone from my class for lunch, or drive out and take me to a local fast-food restaurant, which I rather enjoyed, then come back and pick me up at the end of the day. The big moving van unloaded everything at the new house on that first day of October, but there was still a punch list to be finished (as is always the case in new construction). It was a few weeks before the house was finally finished and we felt settled.

The stress of the move and the unhappiness of her children was too much for my mother. She had a complete nervous breakdown sometime around the end of October and took to her bed. I don’t remember her leaving it at all for weeks and weeks. We had full-time cleaning help, who picked me up from school and my mother’s sister, Stella, came in from Cleveland to run the home. A depressed hush fell over the household. Mother was on a strong medication to treat “depression, anxiety and nervousness”.

This was the home scenario when word came to our class on the afternoon of November 22 that something terrible had happened. Our teacher told us nothing more than that. He stepped out of the classroom and a buzz went up about what could have happened. One wit said, “I know! They’ve poisoned our bubble gum!” Yeah, serious thinkers, these girls. Unconfirmed rumors about the assassination floated. The teacher came back, told us that the President had, indeed, been shot, but warned us not to tell the younger students and look out for them on the way home.

I raced home, turned on the TV for confirmation and went upstairs to my mother to give her the horrific news as she lay in bed. I burst into tears. I honestly don’t remember her reaction. Certainly no comfort came from her. I believe she asked me to leave her room. But soon the edict came down: the news was too depressing. She didn’t want the TV on in the house (though from her bedroom, she couldn’t hear it). I was not allowed to watch much of the coverage throughout the following three days.

My father’s 50th birthday was November 23. With the help of my two aunts (my mother’s oldest sister lived in Greater Detroit, as did most of my father’s siblings), there was a 50th birthday party/house warming party planned, even with my mother in her current state. One sister lent her a pink satin bed jacket, so she could receive visitors in bed. It was too late to cancel it, despite the devastating news from the previous day. The family gathered, marveled at our new home, sampled the proffered food, sang “Happy Birthday”, visited my mother in bed. It was surreal, like something disconnected from time. We couldn’t actually be happy, given what had just taken place in Dallas the day before, and with the “hostess” in bed. I’ve always referred to it as the saddest party on earth. I remember no joy, even though it was probably good to be with family at such a moment.

7 months earlier at Uncle Art’s 65th birthday (my dad’s oldest brother), including 6 of the Sarason siblings. Dad is on the left. I have no photos from Dad’s party.

I was sent to neighbors for most of the three day period of mourning for the President. The Pearlmans had four children, one was my age and in my class in school, a real friend; a daughter two years younger, with whom I became friendly; a year-older son who sort of tormented all of us, and an older, brilliant son, who would soon be off to Harvard. (I remained in touch with the parents until their deaths.)

I did not get to the funeral, nor see John, Jr salute his father’s casket though I had devoutly adored the Kennedys since seeing the movie “PT 109” years earlier (it had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with image). Those iconic images were lost for me.

I begged for, and was given, an early Chanukkah present: a OUIJA board, which I took over to the Pearlmans and we played with that by the hour. They were a wonderful distraction, but I never got over being denied the opportunity to mourn for the fallen President with the rest of the country and work out my grief collectively.

I became obsessed with the assassination and all things Kennedy. The Featured Photo is the first (of many) books I bought on the topic, this one purchased with my own allowance money. I didn’t get to the news stand quickly enough (I wasn’t quite 11 years old), so did not get a copy of Life Magazine from that week, but have MANY more from subsequent anniversaries. I clipped every newspaper story about the family. I have two banker’s boxes filled with magazines and clippings, and shelves full of books, too many to enumerate here, but here is one comprehensive, famous one.

I have a dear friend who lives outside of Dallas. I visited her for the first time in that location in the brisk winter of 1994. Knowing my Kennedy obsession, we drove down to Dealey Plaza. We stood on the grassy knoll and looked in all directions, imagining the events of that long-ago Friday (I’ve seen the Zapruder film). We went to the Book Depository Museum and looked out the window. I wrote a cri de cour in the Visitors Book. I thought it would be a cathartic moment, but I did not have a revelation, nor find closure.

There is nothing more for me to do. I know of my psychic wounds. The participants are dead. Those four days are inextricably bound up with national and family trauma and the psychodrama of young adolescence from which I try to move on. I hope the nation does not ever head down that path again.

Huntington Woods house, March, 2015. It was white with black shutters when we owned it. I did not knock on the door. It does not hold pleasant memories for me.

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Beautfiully written and powerful in all respects, Betsy. A good number of us (myself included) have written about the intertwined of the events in our personal lives with assassinations, most notably JFK’s, starting with the near-proverbial “Where were you when…..?” But, especially considering our age at the time, most of us (again, including me) were leading fairly prosaic lives then. And yet, by contrast, your experiences were so incredibly traumatic, immediately before and even without the assassination. .

    Given the melding of the tragic events, both personal and global, no wonder they have left an indelible mark on you. And, as you acknowledge, even now, all these years later, you have not found closure with either one. Clearly, these are still wounds for you, not healing scars.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      It was a very difficult time for my family. My mother was never really the same after her breakdown and we sort of tip-toed around her, trying not to upset her. I have worked on my wounds, doing my best to heal.

      In a high school Facebook forum, someone who lived around the corner, out of the blue this week, commented that she remembered when my house was built (we are talking 59 years ago) and that she “liberated” construction material from the site to build a playhouse in her backyard (she must have had help from some confederates, as she is my age). I responded that, though I was a child, I remember that vandalism slowed down the construction (and probably cost over-runs, though I didn’t post that). She then blamed another kid in the neighborhood and seemed somewhat contrite, but this was and remains a very nice neighborhood. This is indicative of the BS that was tolerated toward newbies in the neighborhood.

  2. Thanx Betsy for your personal memories of that
    awful time for the nation, and for your family – it’s sounds as if you and your brother Rick were caught in a sad, perfect storm.

    And your interest in collecting Kennedy books and memorabilia is understandable..

  3. Dave Ventre says:

    Beautifully told; an accomplishment for a tale of such pain!

    Being the new kid is hard. Unfortunate that at least one of your new classmates didn’t break the ice and try to make you feel welcome.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Being new is always difficult, but particularly at that age.

      One girl did befriend me at some point, Dave. And much later in the year, another became an important friend, who introduced me the group who would become my friends from 8th grade forward, throughout high school. So I did find some friendly faces by the end of that year. Thanks for your concern.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Oh, Betsy, this is so sad. Having your own challenges and no way to process what was a very tragic loss is hard to imagine. And your father’s attempt to celebrate a milestone birthday amidst so much sadness. I wish you had been able to find closure in 1994 and hope that you have made peace with all of this now.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. It was certainly a sad, bad memory that persists (I just looked at my daytimer- as all of my kids are flying in tomorrow, and immediately thought of my father’s birthday). I no longer buy every book written about the Kennedys; that progress! And I think I’ve moved on from my feelings about the 6th grade, though a certain amount of pain persists. At some level, I think I grew into the person I am because of those events.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    These were traumatic times indeed, and you describe the pain so clearly. It certainly sounds as if the various wounds were a lot to process, and kudos to you for carrying on through it all. The Kennedy obsession might have been easier to focus on than what was happening in your family. Maybe writing about it has helped too (with always great pictures).

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Khati, it felt like the perfect storm. The country’s trauma mirrored my own wounds, only of course, much greater. I didn’t know how to process any of it, so I connected one to the other and an obsession was born. I did grow out of my trauma (though, as I intimated, my mother was never really the same and eventually my parents divorced). Did our country ever heal? I can’t say it did, and look where we are now. I did learn empathy, how to listen and I am probably a better person for having come out the other end of the whole thing.

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