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Another Kennedy Family Tragedy

November 2020

Maeve McKean, Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter, and her young son were lost in a tragic boating accident.

On a windy afternoon this April, Maeve Kennedy Townsend McKean, a vibrant blue-eyed 40-year-old, and her son Gideon hopped into a canoe to chase a ball that had blown into the water. But the wind and waves swept them into the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis. Then they disappeared. 

The Kennedy family pioneered a new form of mourning, with 3,000 other friends and family gathering by Zoom.

I know the place where they were lost. I kept thinking of lovely Shady Side on the shore of the Bay while we were celebrating the life of that remarkable woman during an online memorial service.

Maeve Kennedy McKean with her husband David McKean and children.
Maeve Kennedy McKean with her husband David McKean and children. Photo courtesy David McKean.

It had all the makings of a Greek tragedy. Maeve was a global health expert, what America needs right now. In her 20s, she volunteered for the Peace Corps and served in Mozambique. 

That would be the Peace Corps that her great-uncle President John F. Kennedy founded. The family grieved along with thousands of other Americans when President Trump terminated all 7,300 volunteers during the coronavirus crisis, with a restart of the Peace Corps remaining in doubt.  

For her work, Maeve had traveled the world, to Haiti and Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. But it was from outside her mother’s house on the Maryland shore that she vanished. 

Gideon was 8. He loved skiing and once sped down an Olympic slope. He was the great-grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, or “Grandpa Bobby.” To hear it told among tear-stained friends and cousins, Gideon inherited a compass of social justice. They swore they’d always love him, never forget him. The children’s camera montage was charming. 

The Kennedy family pioneered a new form of mourning amid the pandemic, with 3,000 other friends and family gathering by Zoom meeting. First, from South Africa came a song with a promise, “We’re together in spirit.” For this we prayed.

The 21st-century congregation witnessed remembrances, elegies, poetry and music from various living rooms. “Lord of the Dance” summoned the Irish soul. Starkly personal, the new Zoom form meant nobody got lost in the crowd. 

Nobody needed to say how Bobby Kennedy’s light shone in the tumult of the late ‘60s. He wept when he witnessed Mississippi poverty. He calmed a crowd in Indiana the cruel night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in April 1968, giving the speech of his life — quoting Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian.

See Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi, by Ellen Meacham

In a knell that broke the country’s heart — again — the senator was slain that June, while running for president. Five years before, President Kennedy’s assassination had frozen the nation in grief In 1963.

Maeve Kennedy McKean delivered remarks at the Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary Commemoration. She had served int he Corps in Mozambique.
Maeve Kennedy McKean delivered remarks at the Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary Commemoration. She had served in the Corps in Mozambique.

His younger brother Bobby and Ethel Kennedy had 11 children. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the oldest, is Maeve’s mother. We met when she was Maryland’s lieutenant governor and I was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

Heartbroken for her, I sent a sympathy note. Kathleen welcomed guests with grace and made us feel at home, so to speak. I was touched to be virtually there.

We listened to a reading of a W.B. Yeats poem, “Old Age of Queen Maeve,” about a woman with “lucky eyes and high heart ... beautiful and fierce.”

That became clear in images smiling on the sea, in the snow, doing things Kennedys do. Maeve loved green apples and listened to NPR at dawn. This loss had more female characters than other iconic Kennedy tales. A sister choked as she spoke of their “secret language ... I can’t find without my sister.”

The program was conducted by Mark Bailey, near his wife Rory Kennedy. She’s the youngest of 11, an image of her father. Their Nantucket wedding was John F. Kennedy Jr.’s destination with his wife, Carolyn, and her sister on their ill-fated flight in 1999. They never reached the island as their plane went down over the water.

A somber Edward Kennedy Jr. sat with his family, looking like his late father. Once when we met at a New York gala, he told me he lost his leg as a child. “I remember that,” I said, the same age.

Most recently, Maeve McKean served as Executive Director of the Global Health Initiative at Georgetown University. Photo courtesy Georgetown University.
Most recently, Maeve McKean served as Executive Director of the Global Health Initiative at Georgetown University. Photo courtesy Georgetown University.

If we had tears for all that the family had given and lost — without counting the cost — they were shed that day before Easter.

Maeve’s husband, David, bravely gave his tribute, holding his toddler son. The Kaddish prayer for the dead was recited. Melissa Etheridge sang “Spirit in the Sky” live from her studio. All were invited to light a candle in memory of Maeve and Gideon.

“We made friends who became family,” Mark said. “We’ll be together still when we close these laptops.”

True that was.


Jamie Stiehm can be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.
 

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