Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Kennedy Family: An American Ideal

My grandmother, who lived with us and helped to raise the five of us, taught me to read from the newspaper. Before long, she had me cutting my teeth on the politics of the day. In Nana's bedroom, on one side of her bed, was a large portrait of the Pope, and on the other side, an equally large portrait of JFK: this is the measure that captures the Kennedy's role for my family. They were as important as the Pope, but real enough to have their pictures on the wall with the rest of our family. At our house, the Kennedy's were the quintessential ideal: in reality, they were the yardstick for every middle class Catholic family in America.

JFK was a sainted soul, in Nana's eyes, his brothers close to that status, martyrs to the cause. Chris Matthews today talked about someone telling him he never got over the death of John Kennedy, and I am certain my Nana never did. I remember coming back from Mass one Sunday morning, changing clothes, and heading out the door to take a parks and rec sailing class. I was wearing a polo shirt, khaki's and the Topsiders I'd saved up to buy (cut me some slack, it was the 80's...), and Nana, proud as could be, kissing me on the cheek and proudly telling me, "You look like one of the young Kennedys." That was high praise. While I never did learn to sail, that moment is an indelible memory.

We followed the comings and goings of the Kennedys as if they were another branch of the family. Mom and Nana spoke of them using their first names, talking about what Jack could have accomplished, what Bobby would have thought of this or that, and how grown up Caroline was getting. We heard about what the nieces and nephews were doing, and how Teddy had fought hard to make something happen on the Hill that would help our family. While in reality, the closest we ever got to the Kennedy Clan was Life Magazine or the TV, they were as real and down to earth to us as if they had lived next door. Their tragedy was our tragedy, their joys our own. And from one large, Irish Catholic family to another, theirs was forgiven their trespasses as we would wish to have ours forgiven. The tragic losses of Jack and Bobby were penance enough.

At the passing of Senator Edward Kennedy, for the first time in my life I directly feel the impact of the death of one of the giants of America's First Family. And I am awash in so many of the memories of my growing up years in which the Kennedys have played a part. The Apostle Luke wrote "To whom much is given, much is expected." And despite the faults, the humanity, of Teddy and his brothers, this was the hallmark through which the Kennedy brothers lived their lives. And, contrary to popular belief, while an era has ended, another generation of Kennedys remains to take that legacy forth into the world. At the end of Mass, the priest says, "The Mass is ended. Go in peace," to which we respond, "Thanks be to God." It is a beginning, not an end, a chance to go out into the world and do the good works our faith inspires. It is an opportunity to take the good works further, into practical use in the world. Let us make this time of sadness over the death of Teddy Kennedy a time to renew ourselves to the cause at hand, in his memory. Let's forge forward to pass healthcare that will work for all Americans, "the cause of his life," as had been said so many times before. In this greater sense, we are all Kennedys.