Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day A Nation and a Teenager Grew Up

November 22, 1963 changed an entire nation.

It also changed my life forever, but for an entirely different reason.

            My first encounter with Doctor Jordan was as a 7-year-old, when my dad decided—much to my mother's dismay—that I should be exposed to the new young doctor in town. "Mary needs a doctor she can count on in the years to come," he explained. "One who will be around to take care of her children."

             Oh, if only he had realized the irony of that statement.
            Flash forward, ten years.

             "Mary, the doctor will see you now." I, somehow, put one foot in front of the other and walked into the examining room to confirm what I already knew.

             Half hour later, I walked through the waiting room door, and barely heard the murmurs roaring like a tidal wave. Words like “Dallas” and “assassination” didn’t sink in since my mind filled with my own personal turmoil. The brisk November air didn't even faze me as I struggled with how to tell Mom and Dad I was going to have a baby in a few months. It seemed only yesterday I’d gotten my driver’s license, and now I was going to be responsible for steering a child through the twists and turns of life.
            Slumped beside my hand-me-down gray Studebaker, I felt overwhelming loneliness as two school buses passed by on the street with loads of chattering, carefree high school students. I could only imagine the serious discussions taking place about what to wear to the basketball game that night, or who did and didn't have a date to the “sock hop” after the game. I flashed ahead six months to the prom I’d been anticipating, and the graduation ceremony that I would probably miss because I’d have to drop out of school since, in the ‘60’s, a girl who became pregnant was not allowed to corrupt her peers by attending day classes. Looking back, I can't remember the same stigma applying to the fathers! All I really knew was that my decisions had forever altered the path my life would take from that moment on. 

             My mother came home early from work. I’m not sure if it was because of the dark events transpiring in Texas, or because intuition pulled her home. For whatever reason, the look of anguish on her face as I blurted out my news, is something I'll never forget.
           "It will be your responsibility to tell your dad when he gets home tonight."
            She might as well have said, "You're the one who has to stick this dagger into your dad's heart."

            Funny, I flashed back, once again, to the day I decided to surprise my mother with a gorgeous bouquet of the neighbor's freshly-bloomed tulips. I had expected a look of sheer joy and appreciation, instead, I got a look of horror at having ruined our sweet, elderly neighbor's prized flower bed. I can't say I ever expected a look of joy at my latest news, but the look of horror…pretty much the same.
            Yes, this was far beyond the time I'd had to admit breaking a neighbor’s window playing baseball three summers earlier. How ironic! My baseball and glove still held a prominent place on the bookshelf in my room, but soon, I would face the future…perhaps playing pitch and catch with a five-year-old.
            Through the afternoon, the steady, wrenching television coverage of President Kennedy’s death, made the wait for my dad easier. Is it any wonder that focusing on a national tragedy, rather than facing the problems and decisions that lay ahead, was welcome relief? My dad was a huge supporter of John F. Kennedy, and I knew he would be devastated by his death, so for me to add to his pain on this day was unbearable.
           The lights flashed from left to right through the front windows signaling my dad pulling into the driveway; home from his hour commute. I let him get seated in his comfortably broken-in chair before I spoke, like that would make the news a bit easier to bear. Perhaps thinking better of her stern admonishment from earlier, Mom took me off the hook and quietly told him he was going to be a grandfather. Without saying a word, Dad crossed the room, patted me on the shoulder and kissed my forehead. He wasn’t ordinarily demonstrative, so I knew this rare show of emotion was truly loving and supportive. A tear slip from my cheek as I choked, “I’m sorry, Dad.”

             The next three days were a nightmare. Our president was dead, his alleged assassin was gunned down on live TV, and I would soon be a seventeen-year-old mother. I hardly knew which event to focus on at any given time!

            On the Monday of the President’s funeral, my emotions fluctuated wildly from overwhelming sadness and confusion, to total wonderment and respect for Jacqueline Kennedy who planned this stately funeral, and  conducted herself with amazing class and decorum. I, along with the rest of the country, cried when John Jr. gave his innocent, but timely salute. Could I learn from her strength and ability to pull an entire grieving country together?

             At that sad, confusing moment, it seemed unlikely.

             To my surprise, the sun came up the next morning, and reality hit me square in the face. It was time to confront the issues I’d allowed myself to avoid because of the assassination.  What was to happen to me and to the baby that would soon be a major part my life? In those days, even considering raising a child by myself would have been absurd. The decision that marriage was the only way out of this shameful situation, was made by our parents.
            A week later, the wedding took place in my church, with my kindly minister officiating. My brother and sister-in-law stood up with us as our parents and grandparents looked on with sad resignation. There were no flowers or elegantly dressed bridesmaids to brighten the occasion. There was no photographer to capture a joyful and positive beginning to a story-book marriage I’d anticipated from the time I was ten years old. I promised myself, however, to make the best of it.
            John Allen was born a few months later with eyes wide-open, ready to take on the world. Being two months premature, he wasn’t expected to be big enough to live, but fooled everyone, including his doctor, by weighing in over five pounds.  His father, John, always assumed that his son had been named for him, but little did he know, I wanted my precious son named John after the little boy I’d watched salute his father during that emotionally charged weekend in November. A good solid name to carry throughout his life would also have special meaning to me.
            It's been a half-century since that tumultuous weekend in 1963. I look back on those five decades with both sorrow and gratification. I was divorced the year after my son graduated from high school, and have now been married to my “soul mate” going on 30 years. My son and I have had our share of challenges, but one thing stayed constant throughout; the love for that new little life that changed my life forever.




Patricia Cruzan said...

Thanks for sharing your story.

Mary Cunningham said...

Thanks for reading, Pat!

Stephanie@Fairday's Blog said...

Thanks so much for sharing. Reading about what you went through really hit home for me because it reminded me of my own mom. She had my brother a few years after you had John, but she got pregnant in high school and then got married. She divorced her husband a few years later. Over the years she has talked to me about the time leading up to my brother's birth and it sounds a lot like what you went through. So glad you have found your soul mate and that you have been together for so many years. :)

Wishing you a happy 2014!

Mary Cunningham said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Stephanie. I'm so glad my story helps you relate to your mother's story. All the best to you, your mom and your brother!

Mary Cunningham said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Stephanie. I'm so glad my story helps you relate to your mother's story. All the best to you, your mom and your brother!

Michael Mixerr said...

Great blog post. Thanks for sharing your story.