A Day When Everything Changed

Monday, November 22, 2010

Like December 7, 1941, before it and September 11, 2001, after it, November 22, 1963, was a day that anyone who lived through will never forget.

I think when people from later generations lived through September 11, they finally understood why everyone would always tell you where they were when they heard the news that President Kennedy was shot whenever the subject would come up. People do the same thing now with September 11, tell you where they were and what they were doing and how they felt.

But before September 11, when I was still in that mode of understanding on an intellectual level, but not on a visceral level, the importance of November 22, 1963, I read the letter excerpted below and it brought home the reality of the assassination in a way that nothing else I’d ever heard or seen or read had.

The letter was written by Ursula Nordstrom, who was a children’s book editor from the late 1930s through the late 1970s who was completely brilliant and played a major role the development of children’s literature in America. She published virtually every important children’s book author of her era, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Maurice Sendak to E. B. White to Shel Silverstein to dozens and dozens more. She also wrote great letters to all of them, and her correspondence is collected in the book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, which was published in 1998 and which I ran across when I was trolling the shelves at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle and bought and read and loved.

The following is taken from a letter she wrote to Kay Thompson, author of the Eloise books, on December 26, 1963 (which she mistakenly dated as 1953 and then wrote “wishful thinking” and wrote the correct year).

Dear Kay:

Your letter about Kennedy was great. Even the typing. Yes, it is utterly unacceptable and we have to accept it. Unbearable and we have to bear it. Unbelievable and we have to believe it. Etc. It doesn’t get any less incredible. I was sitting here talking to an out-of-town artist, and a couple of people came to my door and said the president had been shot, and I explained that the radio always got things all wrong, and exaggerated, and then I went back to the out-of-town artist, and then others came to my door and said it was his head, and I explained carefully that he was a very strong extremely healthy person, and just a little old shot couldn’t possibly be serious, and then someone came and said the president is dead, and I felt terribly angry that anyone would say anything so ridiculous. I always though that scene in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra where Cleopatra gets so damn mad at the messenger over the content of the message is silly. But that day I saw, again, Shakespeare is unfallible…. We closed the office and I walked up Park Avenue and saw the flags at half-mast and wept all the way home. I was watching t.v. when Ruby walked up and shot Oswald. The ultimate nightmare. I felt the whole country was unravelling. I still feel it. I’ve always believed in an idiotic way that the ultimate perfectibility of the human race was perfectly possible, it would only take a lot of patience, but you know, the children will be better than their parents, and their children will be still better, and wiser, and the children of THOSE children will be better still. But I don’t believe it any more. Anyone can have a surly crazy son who can hoist a cheap rifle and put a bullet in a beautiful, reasonable, intelligent head. Oswald’s mother on t. v. was one of the worst horrors—a coarse neurotic stupid person, primped up for the cameras, touching her ear-rings, being almost arch. Of course one can understand—oh understand nothing.

OK, Poody, chin up as you say.

One Response to “A Day When Everything Changed”

  1. Lorrie Says:

    On November 22, 1963, I was in 4th grade and was playing on the school playground at lunchtime when I heard the news from one of the teachers who had playground duty. On September 11, 2001 I had just turned on the TV to watch Dr. Phil on Oprah while doing my ironing (It was my usual Tuesday routine) when everything was pre-empted because of the horrible news. You are so right. We don’t forget where we were when such events occur.

    Thanks for sharing this moving letter. I, like Ursula Nordstrom, like to believe that with each generation the world is getting better. I believe that in many ways it is. However, I also believe that we can only change our own hearts, and in changing ourselves, we can help to make the world a better place.


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