About seven or eight months ago, Doralong posted this enchanting story about wearing a perfect little black dress and meeting Jackie Kennedy. I promised her a story about my own Kennedy meeting and the dress I wore. Then my husband got sick and my life fell apart for a while. But I'm picking up some of the pieces now and trying to get back to some semblance of normal. So here, long overdue, is my little offering.
As you may or may not remember, my maternal grandmother was not my favorite person on Earth. She neglected and criticized my mother, her youngest child, and, by the time I really knew her, she was an alcoholic, drinking sherry out of tea cups in the morning because it looked like tea. (My, what odd smelling Darjeeling you have Granny!) She was also a country-club, debutant-ball Southern woman with all the ugly classism and racism that goes with that territory.
But there was also a lot that people loved and admired about her. She was an early and vociferous champion of women's rights, starting with working to get them the right to vote. Toward the end of her life she was a supporter of the equal rights amendment. She knew Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and worked tirelessly for the Democratic party. My grandfather once sent her a telegram that read: "Gladys -STOP- I loaned, not gave, you to the Democratic Party. STOP Come home. STOP Charlie STOP" And she was a "snappy" (to use her word) dresser with a snappier sense of humor and charm.
And, yes, I did just organize a yardsale/fundraiser and raise $620 for Obama. And, yes, I am aware that I am not entirely unlike her, said the pot about the kettle.
But, despite all my mixed feelings about her, there was one wonderful thing she did that, for me, almost makes up for it all. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed her to the U.N. as Commissioner for Women's rights. There was to be a small induction ceremony in the oval office where she was sworn in by the president. She was asked if she wanted to bring anyone. "Why yes!" she replied. She sent them a guest list that included her entire extended family - children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws - all of us! And the Whitehouse swallowed their surprise and let us all come. Of course, we were excited and nervous, and the way my mother and I expressed that was to focus on what we would wear. Much fussing about was done, but eventually it was settled that I would wear a fairly sedate kelly green dress with a full, petticoated skirt, a bow in the back, a peter-pan collar, and - fabulosity alert! - appliqued - and stuffed for three dimensionality - tam-'o-shanters! Oh, how I loved that dress. I remember wearing it and joyfully petting those surprising little hats.
I also remember being in the oval office with my great crowd of cousins. There are times when it's a good thing to be the littlest person in the room, and that was one of them. I got to stand in front while the bigger ones had to squeeze in behind. Here we all are. My grandmother is the older woman in the suit on the right of President Kennedy. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)
I'm sure my grandmother was duly sworn in, though I remember nothing about that. What I do remember is waiting as the president gravely shook hands with one and all. Finally he stood in front of me and my dress. He seemed about forty feet tall, and I remember him, as if in slow motion, bending waaaaaayyy down toward me, reaching out, and solemnly shaking my hand. For me, the ceremony ended there and memory stops. But I treasure this photo of it and, folded away in a box in my basement, I still have the green dress that took me to the White House to meet a president.
Let me add, in memory of my grandmother with all her imperfections and passions, that I write this now, in part, as a talisman of hope that another young, charismatic senator who is running for office against an old, experienced Republican, will win the presidency and inspire generations to come.