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That Day, Again

Everyone will be talking about where everyone was that day. Except that “everyone” in this country now means fewer than one in four people — those of us who were alive and of an age to have had memories on November 22, 1963.

My experience was wildly atypical, for sure. I was nine time zones away, alone, in a tiny stone farmhouse in the French Alps. There was a phone. (Its number was “Le Cinq a Lans.”) It was connected to a switchboard in the nearby (half-hour walk) town post office and general store which was open, more or less, eight or nine hours a day except for three or so hours at lunch. When it was closed, there was no phone service.

There was a radio, and on it I began to hear frantic voices, some time in the early evening. I had been in France less than a month on what turned out to be more than a three year stay, at the end of which I was pretty much bilingual. But at that point my high school French, augmented by a lot of reading, was nowhere near up to the task of understanding what was going on. “Kennedy” “condition grave” “assassinat” bounced around, incoherently.

Frantically, I searched the dial. “Armed Forces Radio” and the “Voice of America” were somehow blocked by the nearby Alps. But, finally, a weak BBC began to penetrate the nighttime airwaves.

And so I stayed up all night, and the next night, too. When the phones were opened the next morning, I tried to call home. But a remote Alpine village with 50 or so phone lines had zero priority in getting on the transatlantic cable. Finally, I walked down to the post office, which was also a small general store. The day-old newspapers were no help. Neither were the villagers who trickled in for hours, although they tried. Some were in tears. Though at that point I’d met none of them, a few gave me hugs and wished me “courage.” The house I was borrowing belonged to an American writer who had lived there off and on for more than a decade. It was assumed, correctly, that I was an American too.

Then the village — more accurately, the regional — priest arrived. It was Saturday, and all day long the dull old church bells had been slowly ringing. The priest shook my hand, grabbed me by the shoulders, and slowly, intelligibly, invited me to be the guest of honor at Mass the next morning.

The thought immediately ran through my head that I didn’t have a thing to wear. Which was true, or would have been true, had such villages cared about such things at such moments. Which they didn’t. The men limited themselves to wearing anything but their usual all-blue coveralls, and the women decorated their all-black, all enveloping daily dresses (many were war widows; only 20 years before, the Germans had killed or deported a large percentage of the men) with shawls, but that was about it.

Somehow I had figured out when Mass took place, and, after abandoning my decrepit, tiny motorbike, as I had to do most days, I made it into town. The only house on my steep hillside road sheltered four cows on the ground floor. Their body heat kept the farm family upstairs warm all winter. (You can imagine what else permeated the structure.) Oddly, I don’t remember the weather, though it was probably dry and cold most of that winter.

An usher with a look I’ve never forgotten — part friendly welcome, part total sorrow — met me outside and took me firmly by the elbow to the front row, right on the aisle. The organ was playing, slow and sad; the bells seemed not to have stopped for two days. Someone had taken the local daily, Le Dauphine Libere with its nearly full page Kennedy portrait, bordered it in heavy black cloth, and placed it prominently in front of us.

The Mass began, even more incomprehensible to me than everything else, since in those days it was still in Latin. The priest, his hands steepled in prayer pose, chanted. A small choir sang. People brushed past me to take communion at the rail, giving me sidelong glances. There were no hymnals, only bibles, and not many of those, since most people brought their own.

Then the priest stepped forward, holding a leatherbound, small book, and began to read in French. My brain, relieved from the Latin, mostly was able to understand.

“In the midst of almost universal corruption, which has come to pass in this world, if those whom God has put in the highest places do not try with all their might to support justice, the earth will be desolate, and corruption infinite. Ah, the blessedness of striving for justice! A task worthy of the greatest Kings who receive us. May it be happily attained, as you have so nobly undertaken to do it!”

He went on for some time, extracting from other sermons in the book, dealing with sorrow, with the shock of the incomprehensible, with the infinite goodness that lies beyond all evil acts and people, if only one is open to, and receives, religion’s infinite consolation. Then he talked about Kennedy, his great sense of solidarity with France and the French, his French-speaking wife, his being the first Catholic President, his solidarity with the poor. I knew better, of course. I knew about his bigoted father, the Bay of Pigs, his sexual hypocrisy, and more.

But by this time half the congregation was sobbing, as was the inner me. Not so much at the priest’s words, but with the pain in my lonely self and with my fury at the entire wounding charade, the impossible violence that I had studied in US history from slavery through the Trail of Tears, and the ghastly, almost forgotten (except there!) slaughter in the Philippines. And now the impossible to understand: Oswald was dead too, by then, I had heard in the middle of the night. But one didn’t have to go to Dallas for horrific violence. Here, a few steps from the church, retreating Germans had slaughtered captured French Resistants. And not far away God had chosen not to intervene at places like Auschwitz. (But of course God doesn’t do intervention, right?)

It occurred to me that I might be asked to say something. Fortunately, I wasn’t, since I might or might not have had enough French to be understood. And, aside from thanking everyone for their solidarity and concern, I had would have had nothing to say.

The priest closed the book, stepped down, and handed it to me. So, he said, that I might have a deep and positive memory of our mutual time of sorrow.

I walked home alone. After I got a fire started, I began to read. It was (and is, I have it still, in my hands now) Volume II of “Masterpiece Sermons” by the seventeenth century Catholic cleric (eventually bishop), Jacques-Benigne Bossuet. An 1866 printing of sermons originally delivered in the mid-17th century. This copy, according to a bookplate, had been in a high school library in Rennes, in 1873, and had somehow made its way onto this church’s bookshelves 600 miles and 90 years away.

While fumbling for the BBC I began to read it. Over the next two months, I read it all. For years it was my bedside French book, until I took up deep study of Proust, about seven years ago. Over the years I’ve talked about it, sometimes, with cultured (and there are many!) French people who admire great prose, without undue (sometimes) concern for what it says.

I’ll read it a little of it on November 22, as I do every year. What I won’t do is watch any of the upcoming solemn, image-drenched, breathlessly stupid TV commemorations of Kennedy.

I’d advise you not to, either. Maybe say a prayer instead. Or make a wish that doesn’t necessarily have to include the god whose quotidian absence was never more palpable to me than fifty years ago.

That’s where I was.

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