I am so sad about the death of Eunice Kennedy Shriver. At first I didn't know why. After all, I did not know Mrs. Shriver. What's more, she was 88 and ill. Having combined, by all accounts, a solid personal life with a stellar public one, she died the kind of death that it is odd for a stranger to mourn.
Then I realized: I am not a stranger. Although she was born in Massachusetts in 1921, and I in New Jersey in 1966, Eunice and I grew up together—or at least very much alike. My family, like hers, was big, Irish Catholic, and Democratic. We were close and competitive and complicated, with blue eyes and bushy heads and mouths full of teeth and wisecracks. We were privileged, although not nearly as privileged as the Kennedys: Just one GI-bill generation separated my grandmother, who went to America to clean big, beautiful houses, and all of us, who grew up in a big, beautiful house.
We were also imperfect—although not nearly as imperfect as the Kennedys; as far as I know, my father never slept with Gloria Swanson, and no one has ever driven anybody off a bridge. But this is not the time to score Kennedy triumphs versus tragedies. Eunice seems to have embodied all that was great about growing up in our kind of family; the kind of family that, at its best, produces people like her. Or rather, used to. For so many reasons, our kind of family is dying, not only in terms of size, but style. So this feels like a moment to write an elegy for an ethos.
A fond farewell to:
The "happy dictatorship" school of parenting. My parents, like Joe and Rose Kennedy, seemed to have mastered a miraculous child-rearing formula by which they combined total adoration and genuine enjoyment of their children with absolute, unquestioned rule over them. My parents were not the types to hit us or lock us up, and they were the types to let us wreck the lawn and watch too much TV. Yet I would no more have dreamt of talking back to either one of them—ever, for any reason—than I would have swallowed my steak knife.
The inability to spoil anybody. This was simple math. No matter how wealthy or emotionally connected a large family may be, there are only so many speaking slots at the dinner table, only so many spaces in the back of the station wagon, only so many times a week Mom is willing to schlep three or four cartloads through the supermarket. (For us, incidentally, this was once. If all the Oreos and Lucky Charms disappeared the minute she got home, you could beg like Francis of Assisi, but you were looking at six and a half days of All Bran and Nilla Wafers.)
The joy of going for it, even if "it" was crazy. My fifth brother, Murphy, was born very premature and thus grew up very small. Nonetheless, he wanted to play football. Today's mother might say, "Oh, that's too dangerous, you'll get clobbered, just look at this research on the contact-sport-to-spinal-cord-injury ratio in underweight ten-year-olds;" or perhaps, "Dedication to a sport in which you'll never crack the All Stars? What good is that on your college applications?" The Rose Kennedy mother—my mother—said, "Remember, Murphy—you're just like Napoleon! Small but mighty!" She proceeded to stuff his cleats with cotton.
The savagely sarcastic siblings. Ever wonder how the Kennedys can take so much criticism from so many quarters and keep on keeping on? I know exactly how: They've been getting it worse at home from day one. All my life, my siblings and I have loved one another unconditionally and teased each other mercilessly. After a lifetime of being hung out windows and told I was adopted, you think I'm going to be cowed by some guy who thinks I look fat in a dress? Please.
The call to serve... with style. Some Kennedy Shriver tributes have featured photos of Eunice in a bathing suit, splashing around with developmentally challenged kids at her Camp Shriver. Those images perfectly capture the spirit of service as we were brought up to understand it, which is supposed to be a spirit of human engagement, not simply charity-ball check-writing.
Those photos reminded me of the many summers when my parents held picnics on our front lawn for an organization that aided low-income, visually impaired people. On the eve of one such event, my sister and I were trying to talk sense into my mother, who was ironing and re-ironing tablecloths for people who wouldn't be able to see the tables, let alone the cloths, let alone the wrinkles in the cloths.
"Mom, it's 3 a.m. Why are you ironing linens for people who can't even see them?"
"Guests are guests," she purred.
The next day, a guest sat down at one of the tables, felt for her fork, and hesitated. After a second, she started to run her hands over the freshly pressed tablecloth, and sighed a sigh that shamed me: "I knew this was going to be nice."
Now I am mythologizing my own family just as America has long mythologized the Kennedys—only to de-mystify them, and brand them hypocrites, often with reason. But hypocrisy comes from having an ideal, and failing to live up to it. In an age when so many wealthy young women seem to have zero ideals that don't involve a board-certified plastic surgeon, I will risk good old-fashioned, messy, Irish Catholic, Kennedy-style hypocrisy any time.
Say what you will, but the Kennedys had ideals. And sometimes, as the life of their daughter Eunice calls to mind, they met those ideals in spades.
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