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August 20, 2019 | Rome, Italy

Extinguished

By | 2018-03-21T20:05:58+02:00 February 4th, 2017|Area 51|
The smile few could ignore.
M

y mother’s depression began in the fall of 1963. It deepened in the following month and throughout the next year. Eventually, in mid-1965, she left a 15-year marriage to return to Rome, her adopted home. She could no longer bear her husband, her churlish son, and a Washington, D.C. environment twice transformed in four years.

I knew nothing about depression at the time. I did know my mother spoke less and cried more often. Kindness did not console her, though I was more brattish than kind. I scanned my boyish brain for clues to her behavior but gleaned none.

Half-a-century later, and 30 years after her death, the sequence of events is far clearer and infinitely more relevant. My mother adored John F. Kennedy. She’d become a U.S. citizen in 1960 — finally burying her Polish roots. She found the new, young president stylish in the way she knew Europe, or wished to remember a Europe before a war had torn it apart. His wit, demeanor, stunning wife, and inbuilt worldliness suggested that America was leaving behind roots she sensed as closed and parochial. For the length of the brief Kennedy presidency, my mother busied herself hosting cocktail parties and dinners on behalf of my political scientist father. The evenings glittered. So did she. I remember her in a sleek red dress in sky-high heels. She was 39.

The proudest day of her life, she told me later, was when she obtained citizenship and the right to vote. I scoffed at this idea. It seemed silly. It was not.

Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 not only shattered a deeply held affection but also broke apart a vision of a country that would ride into the future on the shoulders of its controversial but determined young president. It was not a specifically political vision but one tied to hope, class, intellectual nimbleness, and packaged into an office she had come to respect deeply — the presidency.

The murder wounded her to the core, as it did many others, a great many of them on the U.S. East Coast.

Kennedy’s successor was his vice president, a broad, vulgar, unsophisticated Texan named Lyndon Johnson. In fact, Johnson would do a number of remarkable things while in office, but his strengths were of no consequence to her. She loathed his uncouthness. She took solace only in the priorities of his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who took an interest in revitalizing the Washington, D.C. city center.

But Lady Bird Johnson wasn’t enough to ward off my mother’s encroaching gloom. She resisted living in a Kennedy-less Washington, a city she sensed as having been returned to its Dark Ages. The parties disappeared, as did my father’s connections, which had been deep under Kennedy.

Whenever the assassination was discussed on the TV news she turned sullen and left the room. Whenever Johnson spoke, mouthing his slow drawl, she winced. As the 1964 election shaped up, with Johnson up against far-rightist Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, she began planning her escape.

She spoke more wistfully of France and Italy. She begged my father to find a new job overseas. She said the new environment and the new president, as well as the coming election, made her feel unhealthy and unwell. Again, at the time, all this seemed very silly. Tree-climbing sons were impatient with moody mothers.

Johnson won in a landslide. Liberals celebrated the rout of the right. But my mother’s wound remained open. Memories hurt, and she couldn’t rescind them. Not even listening to The Beatles (my suggestion) did much good.

In May 1965, she took a trip to Rome, alone. A few months later she announced she wasn’t coming back. I found the prospect of living alone with my father exciting. I didn’t think twice. I didn’t probe for motive. I didn’t understand how a man, let alone a president, could affect the workings of the human clock, let alone break it.

Now, as a new president plays raging bull in the presidential china shop, I do.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner
Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.

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