We were not like the other people. We were always told that. They, the Protestants, were good at math and science and ran the local hardware stores. And there were the swamp Yankees, who owned all the low water in Nanaquaket. But they didn’t seem rich; they worked on the boats and as skilled carpenters and school teaches. They just owned all the old land and held firm to it. Then somehow at around 8 years old we began not to get the difference.
They played Little League baseball; we played baseball. And the aunties, tall and white as porcelain, saying the rosary together in a circle in the evening around a statue of the Blessed Mother, rumbling with a collective chant, began to seem almost like an alien force. None of the other kids in Little League and public schools had aunties like that and so many unmarried relatives at the Sunday dinner table and the weekly wakes and funerals. I was struck by that as well. They, the Protestants, never seemed to go to wakes. We, the Irish, seemed to die more frequently.
This was important, my father said: He could be president some day. He was Ireland’s Promise. But the aunties didn’t get it. It was not the kind of work the Irish were supposed to be doing. They, the Protestants, were supposed to be running things. We were supposed to be nuns and priests, holding the flame cupped in our hands, waiting for the Jews and Protestants to finally see the light. Maybe now they never would.
To an 8-year-old, he seemed much different than the other men in charge of the Irish Brigade of Southie politics. Handsome and smart, nothing like us really and nothing like the thick and vulgar Irish political bosses. Honest too. When he appeared before three local Southie Irishmen and said he intended to run for office and needed a few thousand signatures, they said they would have them on his desk in the morning. Kennedy said, no, you have to actually go out door-to-door and get them. No one had ever spoken to them like that before.
In fact, we saw him often. He would sail down Narragansett Bay and through the narrow straits of the Sakonnet River in his yacht, the Honey Fitz, as royal as a Russian tsar but Irish, and we would sail out to visit and wave in our little sail boats. Then he was married in our high school parish in Newport and it all seemed to be happening in our own back yard. Some of us, the quiet men and the aunties, wondered and even asked if we were ready for this. And would we still be Irish after this? What would we be instead? What were we becoming?
The answer came on Nov. 22, 1963, and something within us died with him. It wasn’t about the Irish anymore as we all died together with him.
These were maybe our first days — our rite of entry — into being Americans, as everything before seemed forgotten, and the aunties mourned along with everyone. And we were all Americans now, born of blood and mourning.