NOTE: As I approach my 70th birthday, I’ll reprise a milestone post here each day until the end of May. Today – from May 8, 2014
I seem to be living in the Way Back Machine this year. Lots of memories of 1968 and even 1963. Now as January 20, 2009 approaches, yet another looms. January 20, certainly, but in 1961.
See that crowd? Somewhere, way in the back, probably at least a block beyond, stand an almost-fifteen-year-old girl and her mother. Fresh off an overnight train from Pittsburgh, having arrived at Union Station in time to watch the Army flame-throwers melt a blizzard’s worth of snow on the streets of the inaugural route, they make their way to their parade seats: in the bleachers, way down near the Treasure Building.
I spent most of 1960 besotted with John Kennedy. And Jackie. And Caroline. And all the other Kennedys who came with them. Most of my lunch money went to bus fare as, after school, I shuttled back and forth “to town” to volunteer in the local JFK headquarters. I even had a scrapbook of clippings about Kennedy and his family.
So. My parents surprised me with these two parade tickets. My mom and I took the overnight train and arrived
around dawn Inauguration morning. We couldn’t get into the swearing-in itself, of course, so we went to a bar that served breakfast (at least that’s how I remember it) and watched the speech on their TV, then made our way along the snowy sidewalks to our seats, arriving in time to watch the new president and his wife roll by, to see his Honor Guard, the last time it would be comprised solely of white men (since Kennedy ordered their integration soon after,) in time to see the floats and the Cabinet members and the bands and the batons.
It was very cold. We had no thermos, no blankets, nothing extra, and my mom, God bless her, never insisted that we go in for a break, never complained or made me feel anything but thrilled. Which I was. As the parade drew to a close, and the light faded, we stumbled down the bleachers, half-frozen, and walked the few blocks to the White House fence. I stood there, as close to the fence as I am now to my keyboard, and watched our new president enter the White House for the first time as Commander-in-Chief.
That was half a century ago. I can’t say it feels like yesterday, but it remains a formidable and cherished memory. It was also a defining lesson on how to be a parent; it took enormous love and respect to decide to do this for me. I was such a kid – they could have treated my devotion like a rock star crush; so young, they could have decided I would “appreciate it more” next time. (Of course there was no next time.) Instead, they gave me what really was the lifetime gift of being a part of history. And showed me that my political commitment had value – enough value to merit such an adventure.
Who’s to say if I would have ended up an activist (I did)- and then a journalist (I did) – without those memories. If I would have continued to act within the system rather than try to destroy it. (I did) If I would have been the mom who took kids to Europe, brought them along on news assignments to Inaugurations and royal weddings and green room visits with the Mets (Yup, I did.) I had learned to honor the interests and dreams of my children the way my parents had honored my own. So it’s hard for me to tell parents now to stay home.
My good friend, the wise and gifted PunditMom, advises “those with little children” to skip it, and since strollers and backpacks are banned for security reasons, I’m sure she’s right. But if you’ve got a dreamer in your house, a young adult who has become a true citizen because of this election, I’d try to come. After all, he’s their guy. What he does will touch their lives far more than it will ours. Being part of this beginning may determine their willingness to accept the tough sacrifices he asks of them – at least that – and probably, also help to build their roles as citizens – as Americans – for the rest of their lives. Oh — and will tell them that, despite curfews and learner’s permits, parental limit-setting and screaming battles, their parents see them as thinking, wise and effective people who will, as our new President promised them, help to change