1968 was the year I learned about death.Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Bobby Kennedy, the two anchoring figures of my childhood, were gunned down in seconds that I will forever remember as soaked in blood and tears.
The giant Sylvania at my house in Connecticut was always tuned in to WTIC AM early in the morning. It was June 6, a Thursday, and Bobby Kennedy had just died. Bob Steele was the voice I woke up to every morning—a voice that was nasally and giggly as he joked his way through newspaper headlines and traffic reports. That morning he announced, “Bobby Kennedy is dead,” flatly and somberly—a tone that frightened me.
I went downstairs hoping that if I were closer to the radio the news would change. I expected to see my father sipping the Sanka he chemically sweetened with tiny pills of saccharine. But his plastic, wobbly mustard yellow mug was empty. His sensible, healthy cereal untouched. His head in his hands. It was odd for me to see my father upset. He was rarely emotional or affectionate. He never told me that he loved me.
I had already pinned my RFK campaign button, the one with Bobby’s glossy black and white picture, to my pajama top. Bobby’s hair almost fell into his eyes. His toothy smile made me smile too. For months, I wore giant, circular RFK buttons that my cousin Kathy had given me. Kathy was an impressive sixteen-years-old to my puny seven-years-old and I liked anything that she liked. But my love for Bobby was deep and mine alone. Bobby had set up camp in my imagination.
The Kennedys conjured the perfect families I saw in sugary cereal commercials wedged between the Saturday morning cartoons. I wanted nothing more than to spend long summer days on the beach in Hyannis instead of the pool at Eisenhower Park where the water was laced with stinging chlorine. I wanted to play touch football on a grand front lawn instead of horseshoes in my weedy backyard. Like my father, I always wanted to be someone else. The morning of Bobby Kennedy’s death, my father asked if I wanted to sit on his lap. His question embarrassed me. I needed to mourn for Bobby on my own.
Bobby Kennedy was the most charismatic man I had ever seen. He was young and sporty—attributes I desperately wanted in a father. My father was so old, so routinized, so strict.
“Bobby Kennedy was shot by a bad man named Sirhan Sirhan,” my father said with his head still resting in his hands.
“Why does that man have two names?” It was the first question that came into my mind.
By now my mother had walked into the kitchen, robed in frilly nylon that matched her nightgown.
“I should have named you Jacqueline,” said my mother another Kennedy worshipper like me.
I was born a few months before Jackie would come to mesmerize my Cuban mother. But I had the wrong J name and I would never be part of Bobby and Ethel’s clan.
At my request, my father drove the aquamarine Chevy Malibu to school with the headlights lit to memorialize Bobby. Like reciting the Jewish prayer of mourning, my mourning was mobile. It was a mourning that was illuminated. A mourning that was magnified. A mourning that was sanctified. And my hero Bobby Kennedy was dead.