That Smile

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Fiona J. Mackintosh, with wounds dressed in Band-Aids, consoles herself.
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When I was growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 1960s, the Kennedys were a vivid presence in our household. My father had Profiles in Courage on the bookshelf by his special chair, and Jackie Kennedy’s outfits were featured in all of my mother’s fashion magazines. Even I, a first-grader, had a Jackie and Caroline paper-doll set that I played with all the time. I was fascinated by Caroline because she was born a mere five days before me in late 1957.

In August 1963 my family went on vacation to Cape Cod. On the first Sunday of our trip my father made a detour from the route we usually took to the beach and pulled into a little parking lot just off a two-lane rural road. Another family was already parked there, and I couldn’t understand why. There was nothing to see but the hedge bordering the road and nothing to hear but the faint sound of waves in the distance.

I was bored. “Be patient,” my father said, “something exciting is going to happen.” But that was hard to believe. My mother sat sideways in the passenger seat, using the flip-down visor mirror to put on her lipstick. My little brother dozed in his car seat. My dad chatted with the father of the other family, leaning against the side of their car. I tried counting birds flying overhead, but hardly any went by. I got out of the car and drifted around the makeshift parking lot, a mere patch of gravel carved out of a field. I began to run around the lot in circles to see how dizzy I could make myself. Suddenly I heard the growl of what sounded like motorbikes in the distance. Intrigued, I glanced up, still running. The toe of my sneaker caught on something, and I pitched forward heavily onto the gravel.

I can distinctly remember the sharp pain in my knees and my howl of shock and outrage. At that exact second my father shouted, “He’s coming!” and my mother hooked me under the armpits and swung me like a sack of potatoes to the verge of the road. Along the narrow country lane came two motorcycle outriders and then a long black limousine. To my astonishment I saw at the limo’s window the unmistakable face of the President of the United States.

When John F. Kennedy caught sight of me, a tearful five-year-old with bloody knees, he said something to his driver, and the long, low car slowed to a crawl. The President turned back to the window and smiled and waved—at me. “Wave, wave,” my mother urged, her own hands still trapped under my armpits, and I did, mesmerized by the President’s dazzling, sympathetic smile. I could feel trickles of blood oozing down my legs into the elastic of my knee socks. As the car passed us, we all piled onto the road, still waving. Kennedy turned around to look out of the limo’s back window and kept right on waving and smiling and waving and smiling until a bend in the road took him out of our sight.

Forty years later I can still feel the shock of being caught in the spotlight of that famous gaze. For days afterward, with crisscrossed Band-Aids like a badge of honor on each knee, I basked in the glory of that moment.

What I did not know till later was that the Kennedys’ newborn son Patrick had died only two days earlier. The President had gone to Mass alone that morning, as Jackie was still in the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, recovering from her ordeal. Later that day Kennedy took Caroline to the hospital to visit her mother for the first time since the baby’s birth and death. In newspapers the next day Caroline was pictured clutching a bunch of daisies and pressing her lips to the back of her daddy’s hand.

One afternoon three months later I came home from school and found my father sitting in front of the television set in tears. I had seen his car in the garage and come running in, delighted to have him home from work so early, but he got up from his chair and went into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He didn’t even say hello. My mother hastened to reassure me that he wasn’t angry with me, he was just upset because something very bad had happened to President Kennedy. It took a few minutes before I fully understood that the President was dead, but once I did, my first terrible thought was that someone, somehow, was going to have to break the news to Caroline.