Wednesday’s Wonder Woman: Jackie Kennedy
Whoever said that life gets easier when your kids are in school lied.
No, no, they did. And you, whoever you are, well, I will never believe anything you say, ever again.
Because this is not easier. It is busier than ever. I sleep less, I have less time to myself. I am slowly going insane. Each day another miniscule piece of my brain is falling off and being replaced by mush. And that mush cries, ‘you will never have another sane moment as long as you’re alive.’
Which, of course, with me, may not be so long.
I’m just kidding about that last part. Well, sort of. That kind of joke has become common in our house. Sometimes it makes me laugh when nothing else will.
But, if I’m being really honest, I spend lots of time flirting with exhaustion. It’s not the volume of tasks that overwhelm, but how each of those tasks – or roles – conflict with each other. Wife vs. Mother, Mother vs. Nurse, Nurse vs. Writer, Writer vs. Cancer-patient, Daughter vs. Sister, Taxi-driver vs. Peace-maker, Encourager vs. Disciplinarian, Caretaker vs. Housekeeper, Housekeeper vs. Social Secretary, and of course my favourite role: remember everything for everyone else and make sure each of them is reminded of that thing to remember every two minutes.
Women tend to have role confusion. We sometimes call it ‘juggling.’
I think its more like flame-throwing.
Sometimes I wish I could just go back to the beginning. I may be in the minority here, but I loved having my children with me all day. I loved the coziness of mornings that didn’t demand we leave the house before I’m really awake. I miss the moments of cuddling together on the couch, reading stories or watching Clifford.
Now that Noelle’s in school full-time, and a few extra-curriculars, it seems as though Mom is less a role I have and more a job I do.
Not that I’m complaining.
Just, ahem, processing.
After all, its only a week since I’ve heard that I’m not dying – just yet. We think. And, I wrote on Saturday how we need to practice gratefulness.
We often find reasons for gratefulness in our past.
Or, just the past in general.
On Saturday I said that one of the reasons we need to be better historians is that we inevitably find someone who’s gone before us and made our path easier.
Or given us some inspiration to follow.
Last week, I found another one of those people.
She’s arguably one of the most admired women of the 20th century. She might be the first ‘First Lady’ of all time.
But the thing that inspired me about her was that she was really just one of us.
A woman; a wife; a mother.
Jackie Kennedy knew a thing or two about role juggling. She moved to the White House when she was just 31. She brought with her a three-year-old daughter and eight-week-old son.
Yes, that’s right. Eight weeks old.
Sure, she had nannies, cooks, housekeepers, and yards of disposable income. But she also had a chief of staff, and national – and international – expectations.
She also had a husband who was rarely home – and his absence was not always due to work.
Last week I watched The Kennedys mini-series. I saw all eight episodes in 24 hours. I hadn’t expected much when I started. I rented the first disc out of sheer curiosity: would Katie Holmes be able to pull this off?
She did. Very well, actually. My mother-in-law says she ‘grew into the role,’ and I agree. I kept thinking of little Joey Potter with her toothy smile in the first episode, but by the time they got to the seventh, I forgot I wasn’t watching the real thing.
And though this mini-series is shrouded in controversy – the real-life ‘American royal family’ has large objections to its veracity – it caused me to have more understanding for all of them.
It also caused me to have greater appreciation for each of the actors portraying this enigmatic family.
I won’t get into how fantastic Greg Kinnear was as the extremely flawed – and exceptional – president, or how well Barry Pepper mimicked Bobby Kennedy’s unusual cadence and speech rhythm.
But I will say that Katie Holmes saw something about the first lady I hadn’t yet. In a behind-the-scenes interview, she says:
Think about what its like to have an eight-week-old baby.
For some of us, that’s right now. For others, that’s hard to remember, or extremely easy to remember, but we’re trying not to, because all we can think of is days and nights blurring together and trying to sound coherent for those few minutes a day we get to talk to adults.
Now, add a three-year-old and busy husband. Oh, and the media.
And the responsibility of leading the country; or, at least the country’s women.
Then try to look good, sound good, and act gracefully all the time.
The first thing Mrs. JFK did when she got to the White House was renovate it. It lacked historical significance, she claimed, and the family living quarters were unsuited to raising small children. The warmth, space, and convenience of what exists now – portrayed in such series as The West Wing (also some of my favourite TV) – is largely due to her insistence. This makes sense when we consider that the largest house in America was not used to housing such a young, active family.
It hasn’t housed as young a first family since, either.
Is that a good thing? Sympathetic moms of America might say yes.
But the legacy of Jackie Kennedy leaves little to critique. She did it all, and she did it all well. Perhaps better than some of her less-stressed counterparts.
Even in her postpartum stage, Caroline and JFK Jr.’s mom got up early and went to bed late. She squeezed in TV tours, magazine interviews, and meetings with international dignitaries, all when her children were in bed or in classes.
She charmed the public. She deferred negative attention from her husband’s flaws. She improved the country’s sense of art and culture. Not surprising, when you consider her Bachelor of Arts in French Literature and fluency in five different languages.
Not surprising, no. But incredible, when you consider she did all of this in a time many women didn’t go to university, when most didn’t boast an intellectual, as well as emotional, match with their husbands.
Despite that breathy, feminine voice, despite her long-suffering attitude regarding her husband’s infidelity, Mrs. Kennedy was no shrinking violet.
Even the slightest research into her character reveals a woman who took her husband – and many men – to task, on issues from domesticity to foreign policy.
I wonder what it was like to be inside her head. I wonder if she ever felt alone, afraid. I wonder if she ever felt dismissed or overlooked.
Because I’d consider her one of the most respected women of her – or even our – time. Even her husband, even while cheating, looked at her with such admiration, it was obvious that despite his many dalliances, he loved only one, very worthy woman.
Perhaps that’s what the mini-series does best; it helps me understand why she did all of that, why she endured all she did, with grace.
She was purposeful. She knew that if she looked good, her husband looked good; and if he looked good, America looked good; and if America looked good, the world respected them; if the world respected them, there would be more opportunities for the average man, woman, and family in America.
Pretty smart, Mrs. Kennedy.
Pretty brave, too.
Jackie knew loss. Of her five pregnancies, only one child lives today: attorney, writer, and editor, Caroline Kennedy. Jackie’s first pregnancy ended in miscarriage; her second was a stillborn girl. Caroline and Jack Jr. welcomed a baby brother, Patrick, in August 1963, but Patrick lived only two days.
Three months after losing another child, Jackie dressed in a pink Chanel wool suit and joined her husband’s re-election campaign in Dallas.
She looked fantastic. Even the president said so. He reportedly referred to himself as the man accompanying Mrs. Kennedy.
But we all know how that November day ended.
Jackie didn’t hide her grief. She refused to wipe the blood spatters off her beautiful suit. She refused to leave the trauma room as the medical team worked on her husband. She listened as they pronounced the president dead. And, when given a moment alone with his body, she removed her wedding ring and slipped it on his finger.
Now, I have nothing left, she said.
She also knew fear. Her brother-in-law was killed five years later, just as publicly, just as horrifically, as his Oval Office brother. She married Greek shipping magnate Ari Onassis shortly after Bobby Kennedy’s death and whisked her children off to Ari’s private island. They’re killing Kennedys, she said. My children might be next.
But her oasis lasted only six years. By the time she turned forty-six, she’d buried two husbands.
Twenty years later, Jackie ended her life as she’d started: surrounded by her friends, family and her books. Refusing to be defeated by the cancer that claimed her life, she ended well. At her funeral, JFK Jr. said his mother was enveloped by the people and things that she loved.
The degree of hardship Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis dealt with would smother many women. But she refused to be engulfed.
She kept going. With grace. With composure. With a balance of light-heartedness and sense of significance.
She kept caring about things. Or, she found things to care about.
Her children were one of those things. If we don’t raise our children well, nothing else we do matters, she said once while Jack was president.
Her books were another of those things. She spent her last two decades as a book editor at Viking Press and Doubleday Books.
Her level-headedness as a grieving wife and working mother was another. She knew that how we present ourselves matters. She didn’t live for others impressions of her, but she was smart about how she created those impressions.
As the London Evening Standard reported just after her first husband’s funeral, ‘Jacqueline Kennedy has given the American people… one thing they have always lacked: majesty.’
She’s also given us a choice.
We do not have to be defined by the things that happen to us.
We can be defined by our response to those things.
So, though my little life seems often out of control; though the stress threatens to overwhelm; though the sense of loss sometimes seems sure to engulf, I can choose how I respond to all those things.
I want to choose grace. Like Jackie.
Because that’s a legacy worth leaving.