I will always remember that day in November when I was five years old. It was raining when we woke up, and Mama said it was bound to clear up ‘afore noon. My older brother and sister were sent to school, with instructions to go next door to the Williams’ during lunch. Mama and me, we were going downtown to see the President. I didn’t know who or what a President was, but I had on my Sunday school dress and shoes. Mama was wearing a light blue sleeveless dress with little white dots on it, the hat and gloves she always wore to church, and she said we would bring sweaters with us in case it got chilly. This day was not a regular day. A President must be important, I thought and felt very excited. I was going to see the President!
Mama drove from our house to downtown and parked under a skinny tree for shade. We had kicked up lots of dust as we drove, and Mama told me not to touch the side of the car when we got out. We held hands as we set off. She was walking fast and steady, like she did when we walked to the grocery store, and she wanted to be back home before the other children came in from school. I was trying to keep up, but my Sunday shoes were a little floppy on my feet. After two blocks, she slowed down.
She looked down at me and said: “I’m sorry, Cathy! I’m going too fast for you—I couldn’t help it, I am so excited! We’ll go down by the little park on Elm Street, there might be a bench to sit. We’re a little early.”
Mama had the newspaper that Johnny Karis delivered every day under her arm. It was folded funny to show a map with a lot of words. We walked on past tall buildings and two men who where washing windows. They were wet, and they smelled like they were working hard. Mama pulled me closer to her so I wouldn’t get close to them. I wondered if you had to be all grown-up to do that work. I thought it would be fun, but the two men had sour faces, even when they touched their hats and said “‘Scuse us, mam.”
Then, we walked past three women smoking outside what Mama called the book building. She told me that they weren’t allowed to smoke inside because of all the books. I laughed because that was so funny. The library lady on Church Street near our house smoked all the time, and there were sure a lot of books in there. Mama smiled, and told the ladies it was a fine day while she kept walking. They agreed, and the blonde lady with the black skirt, and pink blouse waived, and smiled at me.
”You look mighty pretty, honey!” she said. I waived back but had no time to say thank you. I was skipping now to keep up with Mama.
We got to the corner of Elm Street and Mama put her hand up to shade her eyes. She was looking for something. I wondered why she had a hat that didn’t keep off the sun, but grown-ups are like that. She sighed a happy sigh when she saw the little park, and we went straight for it. There was one person sitting on one of the two benches. We sat on the empty one. Mama was smiling. She smoothed her skirt, and my skirt too, because she hated wrinkles. She reached in her purse and took out a small jar that once had jelly in it. Inside the jar were six cookies. I got two of them right away!
I rested on the bench with my two cookies for a while. I took my time with those cookies, I knew they had to last a while. One of the big churches rang their bell twelve times and we counted the rings off together. I got a little mixed up in the middle, but I still got to twelve, and Mama said I “did good.” By now there were more people walking around and talking. Everyone seemed happy, and I got excited again. Something important was going to happen, and we all came to see it. We could hear police sirens, but they sounded far away. Mama took my hand and we walked down the hill away from the benches to the highway.
“He’s coming!” She bent down to me, “You watch now, Cathy, the President and Mrs. Kennedy will be in one of the cars. I bet if we waive real good, he will wave back at us.”
I looked to one side and saw a family with a mom, dad, and two kids my age. We were close to the highway, so the mom and dad were holding hands with the kids, like Mama was holding my hand. It seemed strange to me, this big, wide street had no cars on it at all. Then we saw the police car, followed by other cars coming down the hill, and I remembered that the Fourth of July parade in front of the library was a lot like this. This was going to be exciting!
We started waiving. The police car had a light going around on the top, but no siren. Two cars later, there were four people and a driver. The driver was way up-front, and the four people were back. They were waiving and smiling, just like us. The one lady had a pink dress on and a hat to match, she looked pretty. Then there was a loud noise, and another; then another.
People were shouting all around us. Mama and I were pushed down by a man standing near her. Mama had her arm tight around me, and I squirmed, but I could only move my head. I saw some men from the car behind the waving people run and jump up on the car in front of them. The lady in pink was trying to crawl out of the car but she stopped when the first man helped her go back into her seat. I heard him slap the car two times, and the motorcycle police made their machines go fast to get ahead of the car. They disappeared around the curve with the sirens on. Then I heard Mama crying.
“Mama! Mama! What’s wrong?” This was not like any other parade. I was suddenly scared. I couldn’t understand why that man had pushed us down. It was not a nice thing to do. I didn’t know what made Mama cry. I suddenly thought she was hurt and I started to cry too. Mama sat up straight.
“He got shot!” she said, then she patted me all over. “Cathy, are you ok? Does anything hurt?”
“No, Mama, I don’t hurt.” I sniffed and wiped my face with my hand and I sat up too.
“Thank God!” she said in the same low voice she used when we said our bedtime prayers. I had seen the gun fights on Roy Rogers, and in the cartoons with the hunter chasing Bugs Bunny, but Mama told me that was pretend. I had never thought about guns and people. Papa went hunting sometimes and brought home meat, that looked like regular meat, but tasted different. Mama let me have peanut butter for supper when she made that meat. Papa’s gun was locked in a closet when he wasn’t hunting. Could the guns on TV be real, like Papa’s hunting gun? I was thinking about that when I looked around. I wondered if the shooting was over. I was afraid and I cried quietly to myself.
There were now many people crying and some moving about. They seemed to be looking for something, but no one bent down to pick anything up. Some of the police motorcycles were now parked on the grass and there were men in suits caring big guns that Mama said were machine guns. Mama had stood up, but then she sat down again next to me on the grass. I leaned into her and she put her arm around me. This made me feel better, but I was glad that I still had my sweater on, because I felt cold out here in the sun.
It seemed like a long while went by as we sat on the grass. Three men with little notebooks were moving from person to person, talking and writing. One came to us and Mama stood up. The man said he was Harvey Willis, with the Secret Service. He asked Mama where we lived and what our phone number is. He wanted to know how we got here, and she told him where our car was parked. Mama told the man about the bench and cookies. She looked around for the newspaper, but she couldn’t find it. The man went down on one knee and looked directly into my face.
“Is this your Mama, honey?” He asked with a little smile.
“Yes, that‘s my Mama.”
“Good, thank you, Miss. How did you get here today?” He asked and he waited while I thought about what to say. Then I remembered the window men, and the smoking ladies and I told him about them.
“And then, when we got up there” I pointed to the benches, “Mama gave me two cookies. When the church bells rang, we came down the hill to here.”
“Thank you for your help, Miss. Are you ok? Are you scared?” He asked.
“Yes.” I smiled a little. “Is the man that got shot all right?”
“Well, don’t be afraid, honey, just stay close to your Mama, and let me and the men look out for you. When you get home, you can talk to your Mama about what happened. Everything is going to be all right, no matter what.” He smiled at me and touched my hair softly. His eyes made me believe his words.
He stood up and said, “Thank you Mam, you are free to go. We probably will call you in a few days. Take care going home now.” The church bell was ringing again. This time only once. I stood up and took Mama’s hand. We started walking up the little hill again. Mama was not in a hurry now. She held my hand tightly and kept looking around. We went all the way back to the skinny tree.
“Mama, are you scared?” I asked as we finally got to the dusty car.
“Yes, Cathy, just a little.” The answer was a surprise to me.
“Well, that man Harvey said not to be. He said everything would be all right, no matter what.” I said firmly. I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back.
“Thank you, Cathy!” she said with a smile. “You’re a living wonder!” She did not speak again until we got home, and she told me to put on play clothes.
When the other children came home from school, they were acting different. There was no running and shouting, no playing. They told us how their teachers were crying and talking in low voices. None of us ever heard of a teacher crying. Mama explained to us that the President had died and that we had a new President. She told us to only play in our own yard for the next couple of days. She announced that we would go to bed early that night. Papa was different too. He was quiet when he got home, he told Mama that he was glad she and I were safe now. There was no joking around with us and there was no teasing Mama. We ate supper, but we were all quieter than usual.
After supper, my brother and sister played Chutes and Ladders with me without any orders from Mama or Papa. I was happy that they were playing with me, but I knew it was strange. This was not a regular day. Papa and Mama watched TV after supper, and spoke in low, quiet voices so we could not hear them. This day was not a regular day at all! Mama told us to pray for that lady in the pink dress, and her little kids, as we went to get ready for bed. This was the day that President Kennedy was killed. Before I went to sleep, I thought about the man Harvey Willis. He told me not to be afraid, that everything would be alright, and I believed him. I hoped he was right.