American women mourn loss of a son, a man, a boy

July 20, 1999|By Susan Reimer

People magazine called him the sexiest man alive. Other, more florid, writers called him the crown prince of America's royal family. But it all came down to the same assumption: that every woman wanted to be the one to marry John F. Kennedy Jr.

That we were swooning for a hunk with great pecs and bedroom eyes. Or we were daydreaming about being the lucky commoner he plucked from the crowd and elevated to enormous, casual wealth.

As usual, those who claim to know the mind of the American woman had it all wrong. When we looked at John Kennedy we were not fantasizing a romance novel, love scene or a royal wedding.

The truth is much more complex.

For American women of my generation, those who remember where they were when JFK was shot and when Bobby was shot, John Kennedy might have been our child, but he was never our date.

For all his life, and even now in death, John Kennedy has slipped in and out of time and across time for us. Pictures of his college graduation and his mother's funeral were always mixed with pictures of him horsing around in the Oval Office, as if no one had ever taken the time to straighten out the family album.

John Kennedy, because the man has always been pictured with the boy, triggered in us, still triggers in us, tangled feelings of grief and loss and love and devotion and humility, as well as grace and charm and style and romance.

Because the photos and the films of him as the little blue-coated boy in short pants, dutifully saluting the flag that covered his father's coffin at his mother's gentle suggestion, have been shown again and again in the 35 years since JFK's assassination, he has always been that little boy.

I realized over the years that I was growing up, but he was not. I was getting married and having babies, and every time I saw those pictures, I could feel the little boy tug at the pearls around my neck, I could feel the rush of pride and contentment when he flew across the tarmac into the arms of his adoring father.

I never felt like his lover or his bride, but every year in November, I was his suddenly widowed mother, planning his birthday party as she planned his father's funeral. He was a child put out of the only house he had known, and I was his mother, wondering where to go, how to go on, how to raise a boy without a father to help interpret the world for him.

For all of us, every time we saw those pictures, we were his grieving mother again, and he was our confused little boy.

We caught glimpses of John Kennedy over the years that followed, but his mother kept his growing up safely private. It was not until his graduation from Brown University that we saw with astonishment how tall and handsome he had become, how gallantly and without a trace of awkwardness he took his mother's arm at public appearances.

Certainly we would have liked those looks, that smiling assurance, that casual grace in whatever guy we were dating at the time. But we took notice of not just the man he had become, but the son he had become.

When he faced the cameras to announce her death, when he said with a steady, clear voice that she had died surrounded by her children and her friends and her books, when he said with a peaceful smile that she was in the hands of God, we marveled at his effortless good will on the saddest day of his life.

John Kennedy was no mama's boy, but it was clear that he did things and made choices and behaved in ways meant to please her. He was a handsome, rugged, charming tribute to his mother, and the women of America who can remember where they were when JFK was killed filed that away for a time when they hoped to see it in their own sons.

We admit it. We were curious for years about what kind of woman Jackie's son (our son?) would marry. Not long after her death, he dumped Daryl Hannah, the starlet girlfriend, and we were as relieved as Jackie would have been. We didn't want to see him in a string of 10-minute Hollywood marriages.

Nor did we want to see him in one of those dreadful arranged marriages with a translucent, well-bred girl from another aristocratic family. We admit it; we wanted to see him marry a commoner. And he did. But one who was every inch his match and his due.

The headlines on the stories that told of his secret wedding to Carolyn Bessette in that wooded chapel read, "Well done!" and American women agreed. His kiss of her hand in the only picture we ever saw of it told us that he felt lucky to have won her. The smile with which she rewarded him told us she never felt for a moment that it was she who should be grateful.

That was the fairy-tale moment for American women, and we didn't have to be cast as the bride to appreciate it. If People magazine and other, more florid writers are looking for the romance-novel hearts of American women, it was in that moment: The sexiest man alive and the crown prince of America's aristocracy was a joyful bridegroom who couldn't believe his good fortune.

Now John Kennedy is dead, and American women are not weeping Elvis tears but instead mur- muring grateful prayers that his mother did not live to bury him.

He passes permanently into our dreams, but not as Prince Charming. It is not a daydream he inhabits, but a fevered dream, a dream that is out of natural order. It is a dream in which we bury too soon the little boy who grew to be a gallant son and a handsome young man full of smiling promise.

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