My Mrs. Kennedy

Catherine O’Neill Grace

Mrs. Kennedy came to Delhi.  My mother was in charge of her house, which was a little bijou off Bagwandas Road. It belonged to Gerry Gerold, a pink-faced, white haired man who worked for PanAm, and it was a perfect little pink-washed bungalow set in the green garden of a larger house.  There were roses along the driveway and inside were low sofas and Indian art and sculpture. It was perfect.

Mrs. Kennedy was perfect, too, in her pink silk hat and her pink silk coat and her white kid gloves that snaked up over her wrists to her forearms, showing just a bit of skin below the silky sleeves of her coat. I had white cotton gloves that stopped at the wrist, and mine had little pearl buttons. I don’t know if Mrs. Kennedy’s had little pearl buttons, but if they did, I am sure they were perfect.

Mrs. Kennedy and her sister, Princess Radziwill, charmed everyone, my mother said. They charmed Nehru and they charmed Ambassador Galbraith and they charmed Indira Gandhi and they charmed my father. They charmed our cook, Safid, right out from under our noses and installed him in their little kitchen on Bagwandas Road for a few days. 

Safid’s speciality was angel food cake, and I had a passion for it. So my mother took me over to Mrs. Kennedy’s bijou of a house, the pink house set in the deep green garden like a tourmaline in a ring,  to see if I could have a leftover piece of the cake. My mother drove our green Mercedes down the red sandstone driveway and parked in the back and we went in through the kitchen. I was wearing a yellow dress with white rickrack on the hem and I had on my short white cotton gloves, with the perfect pearl buttons. In the kitchen the perfectly white angel food cake was sitting on the counter on a silver plate with one piece cut from it, a small piece. My mother looked around furtively. I imagined her starting to cut a piece for me, sawing back and forth carefully the way one must to get a perfect piece of angel food cake but she didn’t seem willing to dig in. And then we heard a voice from the other room say, “Mrs. O’Neill?”

It was Mrs. Kennedy, who had gotten back early from one of the dozens of events in her day. She was wearing a yellow dress and no hat. She was wearing a yellow dress, but no shoes. She was wearing a yellow dress, but it was unzipped down the back in the hot room. She was smoking a cigarette and her hair was mussy because she had taken off her hat, and there were freckles across her nose and she was perfect.

“This is my daughter, Mrs. Kennedy,” my mother said. I reached out my hand in its white glove as I had been taught to do and I looked her in the eye as I had been taught to do and I said, “Hello, I hope you are enjoying India.” She asked me my age, and I told her, 12. And she asked me if I played gin rummy, and I said I did although I didn’t say I wasn’t very good at it. And she said, “I miss my daughter, Caroline. Will you sit and play cards with me? And would you like a piece of cake?”

So I sat in Gerry Gerold’s pink bijou house and played a hand of cards with the First Lady of the United States. I kept my gloves on, which made it easy to hold the slippery cards. I ate my piece of cake as daintily as I could, with a little silver fork. Mrs. Kennedy nibbled the corner of her piece and I noticed she avoided the golden crust and ate only the airy white. We sat together on a low sofa and she tucked her long, tanned bare feet under herself and leaned toward me as we played, and touched my gloved hand once or twice.

Then there was a commotion in the hallway and in came the booming, six-feet-eight-inches of Ambassador Galbraith, unannounced, for drinks. Mrs. Kennedy’s voice went low and breathy and she said, “Ken, I wasn’t expecting you.” But it was time to go. My mother had left me alone with my Mrs. Kennedy, but now she raced in from the back and said, “Your excellency,” to the ambassador and told me to thank Mrs. Kennedy, which I did. As we fled through the kitchen and out the back door, my mother grabbed another piece of the angel food cake and we ate it greedily together in the car as we drove back to Nizammudin.

I never saw Mrs. Kennedy again in person. But I did see royalty. Later that spring we went to visit my father’s friend, the Maharajah of Kapurthala, at his hunting lodge far out in the country. The Karputhalas were our neighbors and they were glamorous and carefree. Like the other maharajahs, Suki was an ordinary Army Officer now, and my father’s friend. But when we drove to the hunting lodge in the lengthening shadows of the afternoon, in an open car, he seemed to change before my eyes. He grew taller and his beard glittered and he raised his hand with the heavy ring on it and he waved to the people gathered on the edges of the dusty streets. And as we drove past, very slowly, the men and women in their dusty saris knelt in the road and then prostrated themselves in the dust as we drove by and Suki waved his hand over them in a kind of blessing. “They think he’s a god,” my father whispered.

We were nearing the end of our time in India, and this time even my prayers and pujas to every god of every person in our household could not forestall the workings of the State Department. We had only one summer left. It was a year spent preparing for departure, and then departing. 

Back in America, in eighth grade now, I fell from glory. At Sidwell Friends, I was the only girl in my class who still wore undershirts. I still played with Barbies. I called my mother Mummy and I had only been kissed once, by Vijay Shrivastava, in the Himalayas, the summer I was 12. I had a muddy green cotton jumper that I wore almost every day. Ricky Rudy, a beautiful blond boy who spent most of his time on the playground running an elaborate Capture the Flag game with Carol Goldman’s gym shorts as the flag, would open his locker and lean in and pretend to throw up as I walked by.

That Friday afternoon, we were getting ready for a dance. A sock hop. At last I had a perfect dress, a pink-striped Villager shirtwaist from David’s Village Shop in Chevy Chase—the right shop—and it had a crinoline underneath. And as we eighth graders were clearing the floor of the auditorium to set up for the dance, Mr. Barger came in and told us to go back to our homerooms. So we did. And then Mr. Barger came in and told us President Kennedy had been assassinated. Cordelia Sheehan, who sat behind me, started to cry. So did our teacher, the formidable Miss Evans. Even Ricky Rudy started to cry. I didn’t cry, not then. Later, I waited behind the middle school building for my mother to come get me from work and there was an eerie quiet all down the block and all the other mothers stayed in their cars and it was silent, silent. My mother told me later that Ethel Kennedy had called to ask that everyone turn off their radios so young Joe and young Bobby wouldn’t hear the news while they were waiting for their carpool to pick them up and take them home to Hickory Hill.

After a long weekend with all the adults crying, my parents and I went downtown to watch the funeral pass by. We stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and I saw the caisson, and then the riderless horse with the boots backward in the stirrups and I saw Mrs. Kennedy, her head bowed and her long stride matching the dignified men all around her. By now she had changed out of the bloodied pink suit and pink hat into her black dress and her black pillbox hat and her black veil with a deep black border. I remembered her in the bijou house, the perfect house, her yellow dress unzipped in the heat, playing gin rummy and eating cake with me in the Indian afternoon.

When Suki Kapurthala, no longer a Maharaja, drove past his villagers on the road, they bowed down in the dust and put their faces in the gutter. They knew he was still a god. That day on Pennsylvania Avenue, I wanted to put my face in the road, too. Instead I watched as the people in black paced by in the November afternoon. My Mrs. Kennedy in her perfect black did not turn to look at me, but I bowed a little as she walked by.

New York

April 2013


Issue 12

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