My Grandmother, Rose Kennedy

January 31, 1995|By KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND

ANNAPOLIS — *TC Annapolis.-- I didn't really get to know my grandmother well -- Grandma as I called her -- until I reached adulthood and she was already 80. That's when she started to slow down. Until then I knew her mostly as the woman who would return my letters with red-penned grammatical corrections and as the ''baby sitter'' when my parents were away on trips.

She corrected our table manners, put us to bed an hour early, took us to daily mass. She inquired whether our parents were taking us to sites of historical significance. One weekend I stayed with her in New York and she had cooked Cream of Wheat. After I spilled my portion on the floor, she insisted that I eat it, noting that ''you have to eat six packs of dirt before you get to heaven.''

In her 80s she reduced her commitments and travels and started to spend entire summers, not just Labor Day, in Hyannisport. This was when I came to know a grandmother proud of her heritage, conscious of social injustice, dedicated to learning -- with a great sense of humor and a deep faith. She approached each day with vitality and determination.

She walked two miles each morning and afternoon. Often I accompanied her and learned about her life. She loved to recount the stories of her youth as the daughter of ''Honey Fitz,'' the first Irish-Catholic mayor of Boston. ''Everybody always knew who I was,'' she said. ''Naturally, I had to live to a higher standard.''

She told of campaigning with her father, listening to him sing in the campaign halls, at neighborhood picnics and in Irish pubs. And she saw the signs: ''Help Wanted, No Irish Need Apply.'' She resented not being as ''accepted'' by the Boston Brahmins. ''You should have seen my prom dress,'' she would say. ''It was as beautiful as anything those other girls would wear.''

Much later, the world-renowned Dublin theater group, the Abbey Players, visited Boston. To Grandma's disappointment, they performed Synge's ''Playboy of the Western World,'' a story of drunkenness and womanizing. ''How could they do that to us?'' she wondered, still fighting ethnic insecurity after 70 years.

Grandma believed in learning and self-improvement. During our walks she would pin to her sweater famous quotations to be memorized. ''You never know when you will be asked to give a speech,'' she explained, ''and you will have to say something appropriate and meaningful.''

After our walks she would return to her room to listen to French and German records. As a young girl she had wished to attend Wellesley College, which required knowledge of two languages. Her father, however, preferred that she attend a convent school. Decades later she still regretted that missed opportunity to prove to herself that she could have excelled at Wellesley.

When we watched the news she would call for maps of the British Mandate or Afghanistan's relation to Pakistan. She was always curious and always asking questions.

Once in Paris, when I was a teen-ager, I arrived with a friend at the Ritz Hotel dressed in blue jeans and back packs. Grandma, in an elegant blue gown, was preparing for a black-tie dinner. She immediately stopped primping, hailed a taxi and took us to our Left Bank lodging, where she climbed to the third floor to survey our room. Meanwhile she quizzed us about Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns and the details of every monument we passed.

She cared about art, music and history, but her real love was politics. Grandma saw everyone as a potential constituent, to be greeted with concern and respect. Once, while being feted on an aircraft carrier, she left the officers at their table in order to dance with the enlisted men. ''They'll remember and they vote,'' she smiled. ''Remember that, Kathleen.''

In her autobiography, she wrote: ''I hope my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will realize and remember that the United States of America was one of the few places -- perhaps almost the only place -- in the world where the saga of the Kennedy family could have happened. I hope they will always feel a deep sense of gratitude toward this country and deep pride in it, and an obligation to preserve, protect and defend it. If they choose to take the means of political life and public office, so much the better, for this has been so much a part of our family tradition, and it would please me to think of it being continued.''

My Grandmother Rose was our link to the past, when the Irish faced discrimination and politics was a way out for the poor and dispossessed. Throughout challenges and tragedy, her faith remained resolute. Her belief in God and her courage became her children's and grandchildren's strength and center.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is lieutenant governor of Maryland.

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