Karen Borrell grew up in a very rural town in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. At the time of the Kennedy assassination, she and her husband were living in Mexico City. In this piece she recalls how she coped with the news that day in November fifty-one years ago. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns Traumatic and extraordinary events that happen leave most of us with an acute recall of where we were and what we were doing when it happened.
I was living in Mexico City and had arranged to meet a couple at their hotel. They were friends of my husband and on vacation in Mexico. I really didn’t know them. I had offered to take them to the National University which they had requested. My husband was broadcasting at the time on the radio, so I would be doing the guide bit by myself.When I arrived at the hotel, I called the Osborns and waited in the lobby, only to be called to the desk and told my husband wanted to speak to me. I picked up the phone and said” What’s up?”
Gary said, “President Kennedy was just shot!”
I was stupefied and horrified. At that moment the Osborns appeared. I told everyone in the lobby what I had just heard. The Osborns expressed a certain dismay. I just wanted to go home and crawl into a ball and listen for hopeful news.
Mr. Osborn said “We can’t do anything about it, let’s go as planned.” I gave in reluctantly to their wishes.
We rode in a cab to the University. The cab driver had his radio on and announced as we got into the cab, “Your President has been shot and he is dead!!”
He spoke in Spanish and my face and body told the visitors what I had heard. Our president was dead. It was an assassination in my life time - something that had happened years ago to another president, but it was not supposed to happen in my lifetime. I was devastated.
We arrived at the University famous for its beauty with the large murals, the reflecting pools, lovely statues and sculptures. I mechanically led them to the points of interest, adding tidbits of information and color to our tour.
All the while we were frequently being approached by students and other visitors asking us if we knew that our president had been killed. It was a painful obligation that I completed.
I resented that I had to wait until I returned them with their apparent calm to their hotel. I needed to weep and be alone in my own home.
President Kennedy and his wife Jackie were very popular in Mexico. They were so young and attractive physically, and they were Catholic like most Mexicans. Jackie even spoke in her slow and cultured Spanish at several places during their visit. My good friend Sharon was married to a Mexican politician and it was arranged that their daughter Samantha present a large bouquet of flowers to the first lady.
In the days that followed, we were all glued to our TV sets. The pomp and ceremony, the special effect of the rider-less horse, the boots in the stirrups backward, the solemn marching of the regiment, all drew sarcasm from some of our friends. They insinuated that Jackie couldn’t be too grief stricken to give such elaborate planning and instructions. I didn’t know at that time that this was the way it had been done many years in the past and continues to be done now. My own sister-in-law had a similar ceremony when her father, a decorated four star general was buried at Arlington.
A few days later, we were helping friends paint the inside walls of a beautiful very small old house. The T.V. was playing as the news was constant on the developing story. The media was now concentrating on Lee Harvey Oswald who was charged with the shooting.
We again suffered complete disbelief as before our eyes we saw Jack Ruby lurch from a group of officials and fire fatal shots at Oswald. We screamed and stopped everything, still holding wet paint brushes in our hands. We stood glued to replay after replay, as if the repetition would give us another ending.
We had entered a time of many replays…the president clutching his throat, Jackie jumping over the back of the car, the Oswald shooting, and the very solemn funeral ritual.
From time to time we bought small groceries at a tiny store around the corner from our house. Every time I went in for the next few weeks, the lady who owned the shop would see me and start crying. I was an American and she identified me with her own grief.
The death of Robert Kennedy, years later, engraved the loss of naiveté. We were a changed society in my life time. I never felt the same again.
Published: Nov. 27, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 33