It was a chill gray day in Savannah, and there was a brisk breeze blowing in from the ocean. There were leaves on the ground in Forsyth Park and a few couples were wandering hand in hand, some women were chatting and smoking a last cigarette before they went back to work. And in Savannah High School, the hallways were deserted. The bell had rung at one o’clock, and the students were all in their classrooms. There was laughter coming from one room, and silence from several others. The squeak of chalk, the looks of bored despair on the faces of sophomores ill prepared for a surprise quiz in civics. The senior class was being talked to about College Boards they were going to take the following week, just before Thanksgiving. And as they listened, far away, in Dallas, gunfire erupted. A man in a motorcade catapulted into his wife’s arms, his head exploding horrifyingly behind him. No one understood what had happened yet, and as the voice in Savannah droned on about the College Boards, Paxton Andrews tried to fight the sleepy waves of warm boredom. And all of a sudden in the still room, she felt as though she couldn’t keep her eyes open a moment longer.
Mercifully, at one-fifty the bell rang, all doors opened and waves of high school students poured into the halls, freed from quizzes, lectures, French literature, and the pharaohs of Egypt. Everyone moved on to their next rooms, with an occasional stop at a locker for a change of books, a quick joke, a burst of laughter. And then suddenly, a scream. A long anguished wail, a sound that pierced the air like an arrow shot from a great distance. A thundering of footsteps, a rush toward a corner room normally used only by teachers, the television set flicked on, and hundreds of young worried faces pressing through the doorway, and people saying “No!” and shouting and calling and talking, and no one could hear what was being said on the television, as still others shouted at them to be quiet.
“Hush up, you guys! We can’t hear what they’re saying!”
“Is he hurt?. . . is he . . .” No one dared to say the words, and through the crowd again and again, the same words. . . “What’s happening?. . . what happened?. . . President Kennedy’s been shot. . . the President. . . I don’t know. . . in Dallas. . . what happened? . . . President Kennedy. . . he isn’t . . .” No one quite believing it at first. Everyone wanting to think it was a bad joke. “Did you hear that President Kennedy’s been shot?” “Yeah. . . then what? What’s the rest of the joke, man?” There was no rest of the joke. There was only frantic talking, and endless questions, and no answers.
There were confused images on the screen with replays of the motorcade breaking up and speeding away. Walter Cronkite was on the air, looking ashen. “The President has been seriously wounded.” A murmur went through the Savannah crowd, and it seemed as though every student and teacher at Savannah High School were pressed into that one tiny room, and crowding in from the hallways.
“What’d he say?. . . what did he say?” a voice from the distance asked.
“He said the President is seriously wounded,” a voice from the front started back to the others, and three freshmen girls started to cry, as Paxton stood somberly in a corner in the press of bodies around her, and watched them. There was suddenly an eerie stillness in the room, as though no one wanted to move, as though they were afraid to disturb some delicate balance in the air, as though even the tiniest motion might change the course his life would take. . . and Paxton found herself thinking back to another day, six years before, when she was only eleven. . . . Daddy’s been hurt, Pax. . . . Her brother George had told her the news. Her mother had been at the hospital with her father. He liked to fly his own plane to go to meetings around the state, and he’d had to bring it down in a sudden thunderstorm near Atlanta.
“Is he?. . . will he be okay? . . .”
“I . . .” There had been a strange catch in George’s voice, a terrible truth in his eyes that she had wanted to run and hide from. She had been eleven then, and George was twenty-five. They were fourteen years apart and several lifetimes. Paxton had been an “accident,” her mother still whispered to friends, an accident that Carlton Andrews had never ceased to be grateful for, and which still seemed to startle Paxton’s mother. Beatrice Andrews had been twenty-seven years old when their son George was born. It had taken her five years to get pregnant with him, and as far as she was concerned, her pregnancy was a nightmare. She was sick every day for nine months, and the delivery was a horror she knew she would always remember. George was born by cesarean section, finally, after forty-two hours of hard labor, and although he was a big beautiful ten-pound baby boy, Beatrice Andrews promised herself that she would never have another baby. It was an experience she wouldn’t have repeated for anything, and she saw to it with great care that she wouldn’t have to. Carlton was, as always, patient with her, and he was crazy about his boy. George was the kind of boy any father would have loved. He was a happy, easygoing, reasonably athletic boy, with a serious penchant for his studies which also pleased his mother. Theirs was a quiet, happy life. Carlton had a healthy law practice, Beatrice had an important role with the Historical Society, the Junior League, and the Daughters of the Civil War. Her life was fulfilled. And she played bridge every Tuesday. It was there that she felt the first twinge, that for the first time she felt suddenly violently nauseous. She assumed she had eaten something off at the League breakfast that day, and went home to lie down right after her bridge game. And three weeks later she knew. At the age of forty-one, with a fourteen-year-old son about to enter high school, and a husband who wasn’t even gracious enough to hide his delight, she was pregnant. This pregnancy was easier for her than the first, but she didn’t even seem to care. She was so outraged by the indignity of it, the embarrassment of being pregnant again when other women were thinking about grandchildren. She didn’t want another baby, she had never wanted another child, and nothing her husband said seemed to appease her. Even the tiny, perfect, angelic-looking little blond baby girl they put in her arms when she awoke barely seemed to console her. All she could talk about for months was how foolish she felt, and she left the child constantly with the huge, purring black baby-nurse she had hired when she was pregnant. Elizabeth McQueen was her name, but everyone called her Queenie. And she wasn’t really a nurse by trade. She had borne eleven children of her own, only seven of whom lived, and she was that rarest of rare gifts of the South, the old beloved black mammy. She was filled with love for everyone, but most especially for children and babies, and she loved Paxton with a passion and a warmth that no mother could have surpassed had she given birth to her, and certainly, Beatrice Andrews didn’t. She remained uncomfortable around the little girl, and for reasons she herself couldn’t really explain, she always kept her distance. The child always seemed to have sticky hands, or she wanted to touch the delicate bottles of perfume on Beatrice’s table and she invariably spilled them, and somehow mother and child always seemed to make each other nervous. It was Queenie who comforted her when she cried, whose arms she ran to when she was hurt or afraid, Queenie who never left her, even for a moment.
There were no days off in Queenie’s life. There was nowhere she really wanted to go on a day off, her children had their own lives now, and she couldn’t imagine what would happen to Paxxie if she wasn’t there to help her. Her father was always good to her, and he loved that child so, but her mother was a different story. As Paxton grew older, the difference between them grew, and by the time she was ten, Paxton had already guessed that they had almost nothing in common. It was difficult to believe that they were even related. To her mother, her clubs were everything, her women friends, her auxiliaries, her bridge days, and benefits for the Daughters of the Civil War, her life with those women were what she lived for. She almost seemed uninterested when her husband came home, and she listened politely to what he said at the dinner table at night, but even Paxton noticed that her mother seemed almost bored by her husband. And Carlton noticed it too. Although he would never have admitted it to anyone, he felt the same chill emanating from his wife as Paxton had for years. Beatrice Andrews was dutiful, loyal, organized, well-dressed, pleasant, polite, perfectly bred, and she had never felt a single emotion for anyone in her entire lifetime. She simply didn’t have it in her. Queenie knew it, too, although she expressed it differently than Carlton would have, she’d long since said of her to her daughters that Beatrice Andrews’s heart was colder and smaller than peach pits in winter. The closest she ever came to loving anyone was what she felt for her son, George. They had a kind of rapport that she had never been able to allow herself with Paxton. She admired him, respected him, and he had long since affected a kind of cool, aloof, clinical way of looking at things that eventually led him into medicine, and she was impressed by that too. She liked the fact that her son was a doctor. He was even brighter than his father, she secretly told her friends, in fact, he reminded her a great deal of her own father who had been on the Georgia Supreme Court, and she felt certain that one day George would do great things. But what would Paxton ever do? She would go to school and graduate, and eventually get married and have children. It hardly seemed an impressive path to Beatrice, and yet it was the one that she herself had followed. At her father’s insistence, she had gone to Sweet Briar. And married Carlton two weeks after graduation. But in truth, although she enjoyed their company, and sought it out at every opportunity, she had no great respect for women. It was men who impressed her, who accomplished the great things. And there was no doubt in her mind that the pretty blond child who put her sticky little hands everywhere at every opportunity was certainly not destined for greatness.
Walter Cronkite’s voice droned on, as Paxton and the others stared silently at the television screen at school. The few people who were still talking were doing so in whispers. And every few minutes, Cronkite was switching over to the reporters now standing in the lobby of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where the President had been taken.
“We don’t have any real answers for you yet,” the face on the screen said, “all we know is that the President’s condition is critical, but there haven’t been any new bulletins in the last few minutes.” With that, a teacher’s hand reached out and switched the dial, just in time to hear Chet Huntley say almost exactly the same thing on another network. The students were looking at each other, with terror clearly etched on their faces. And again, Paxton could remember George coming to pick her up at school to tell her about their father. The accident, the plane coming down. . . and George’s face as he told her. He had just finished medical school then, and he was waiting to start his residency at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. He had managed to stay in the South for his entire education, although their father was a Harvard graduate and had encouraged him to go north. But Beatrice felt that it was important to stay close to their roots, and support the educational institutions of the South, and she frequently said so.
It was two o’clock, and Paxton stood breathlessly in the corner of the room trying to believe that he would be all right, fighting back tears, and not sure if she was crying for their President, or her father. Her father had died the day after his plane crashed, his injuries too great, his wife and son at his side, while Paxton waited at home with Queenie. At eleven, they thought she was too young to see him at the hospital, and he had never regained consciousness anyway. She had never seen him again. He was gone, with all his warmth and his love and his broad wisdom about the world, his fascination with people and history and things far, far from Savannah. He was a southern gentleman of the old school, and yet in some secret ways he didn’t fit into the mold he had been born to, and it was that that 0 Paxton loved about him. That and everything else in fact, the way he hugged her tight when she ran to him, the way he sounded when they went for long walks and talked about things she wondered about, like the war, and Europe, and what it had been like to go to Harvard. She loved the way he sounded and the way he smelled, the spice of his after-shave would leave a fresh smell in the room after he’d walked through it. . . and the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, and the things he said about how proud he was of her. . . she felt as though she had died when they played “Amazing Grace” at his funeral, and Queenie sat in the back row and cried so loud, Paxton could hear her from where she sat between George and her mother.
Her life had never been the same again since her father died. It was as though he had taken a piece of her with him, the piece that used to smell wild flowers with him, and go to his office to visit him when he had to work on Saturday mornings, the piece that could talk to him as though she really understood the world, and ask him all kinds of questions. She had an uncanny sense about people, and she had once said to him that she didn’t think her mother really loved her. It didn’t really bother Paxton anymore. It just was. And she had Queenie and her father.
“I think. . . I think she needs someone like George. . . . He doesn’t make her nervous, and he talks about the things she cares about. He kind of is like her, don’t you think, Daddy? Sometimes when I say I really love something, I think it scares her.” She was more perceptive than she knew, and Carlton Andrews knew it too, but he never admitted it to his only daughter.
“She doesn’t express her feelings the way you and I do,” he said honestly, sitting back in the comfortable old leather chair that she liked to swivel in until it threatened to fall off its moorings. “But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have them.” He felt an obligation to protect his wife, even from Paxton, although he knew that what Paxxie said was true. Beatrice was as cold as ice. Dutiful and loyal and a “good wife” in her own eyes. She kept a nice home, was always polite and kind to him, she would never cheat on him, or be rude to him, or betray him. She was a lady to her very core, but like Paxxie he wondered if she had ever loved anyone or anything, except George, but even there she kept a cool, comfortable distance. It was just that their son was so much like her, he didn’t expect more than that. But Carlton did, and so did Paxxie, and they both knew that, from Beatrice, they would never get it. “She loves you, Pax.” But even as he said it, Paxton thought he was lying. She didn’t totally understand the subtle shadings of just how much the woman was capable of, or wasn’t. Carlton had a much clearer picture.
“I love you, Daddy.” She had thrown her arms around him then, without hesitation or reserve. She never held back anything from him, and he laughed as she almost knocked him off the ancient swivel chair.
“Hey, you. . . you’re goin’ to have me on the floor here in a minute.” He dreamed about her going to Radcliffe one day, and as he held her close to him, he could imagine her grown and beautiful, and the pride of his sunset years. She was everything he had ever dreamed of, warm and loving and giving and caring. She was everything he himself was, although he didn’t know it.
And then, he was gone, and Paxton was alone with them, except for Queenie. She studied hard, and she read all the time. She wrote letters to her father, as though he were away on a trip, and she could mail the letters to him, except that she couldn’t. Sometimes she put the letters away, and sometimes she just tore them up. But it helped her to write them. It was a way of still “talking” to him, since she couldn’t talk to “them.” Her mother seemed to jump at everything she said, she disagreed with everything Paxton said, and sometimes Paxxie almost felt as though she’d come from another planet. They were so different in every way. And George was just like her. He would urge Paxton to “behave” and try to see things her mother’s way, to be “reasonable,” and remember who she was, which only confused her further. Who was she? Her father’s daughter, or theirs? Who was right? But in her heart of hearts, there was no confusion. She knew that his broader love of the world was the only way for her, and by the time George finished his residency at Grady Memorial, and she turned sixteen, she knew without a moment’s doubt that she wanted to get out of the South and go to Radcliffe. Her mother wanted her to go to Agnes Scott or Mary Baldwin, or Sweet Briar where she had gone herself, or even Bryn Mawr, but she thought it a ridiculous idea for Paxton to go to Radcliffe.
“You don’t need to go to a northern school. We have everything you need right here. Look at your brother. He had every opportunity to go anywhere in the country, and he stayed right here in Georgia.” The very idea of it made Paxton feel claustrophobic. She wanted to get away from their narrow ideas, from her mother’s friends, from the things she heard about the “horrors of integration.” Civil rights were something she discussed with her friends, or with Queenie, sotto voce in the kitchen. But even Queenie clung to the old views and thought that black folks should stay where black folks belonged, and that ain’t the same place as white folks. The thought of mixing the two frightened her, and it was only her children and her grandchildren who wanted the same changes as Paxton. But Paxton thought the things she had grown up with were wrong, and she wasn’t afraid to say so, or write papers about it for school. She knew her father would have agreed with her too, he always had, and that added fuel to her fervor. It was a subject she had learned not to discuss with her mother and brother. But that fall, she had applied to half a dozen northern schools, and two in California. She had applied to Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Smith, and in the West, Stanford, and UC Berkeley. She didn’t really want to go to a girls’ school, and Radcliffe was the only one she really wanted. She had applied to the two western schools because her adviser thought she should, and she had finally applied halfheartedly to Sweet Briar, to appease her mother. And her mother’s friends kept telling her how happy she was going to be there, as though her going to Sweet Briar was a foregone conclusion.
It was something she couldn’t even think of now, as her eyes clung to the clock. It was only two o’clock, half an hour after the President had been shot, ten minutes since they had been watching the television for news of him, as the entire nation prayed, and his family knew what Paxton had learned six years before when her father died. . . that it was over.
At 2:01, Walter Cronkite looked into the camera with a defeated look and told the American people that their President was dead, and in the tiny room at Savannah High, there was a murmur of grief that became a wail, and the room was suddenly filled with the sound of sobbing. People were crying everywhere and teachers and students embraced, muttering incoherently about how could a thing like that happen. Walter Cronkite went on, two doctors were interviewed, and Paxton felt as though she were moving underwater. Everything seemed to have slowed down, and everything seemed to be happening at a great distance. People were crying everywhere, and Paxton could barely see as the tears coursed down her cheeks and she felt a breathlessness she had felt once before, as though someone had squeezed all the air out of her and she would never catch her breath again. It was a pain and a grief almost beyond bearing. And in an odd way, this was like losing him all over again. Her father had been fifty-seven years old when he died, and John Kennedy was only forty-six, and yet both had been cut down in the prime of their lives, filled with fire and ideas and excitement about living, both had families, both had children who loved them dearly. And Jack Kennedy would be mourned by an entire world, Carlton Andrews was only mourned by those who knew him. But it felt the same to Paxton now, and she could feel what his children must feel, the terrible grief, the loss, the sorrow, the anger. This was so terrible, so wrong, how could anyone do it? She walked blindly down the halls as she left the school, without saying a word to anyone, and she ran the half-dozen blocks to their home on Habersham, and the door to their house slammed as she flew into the front hall, still crying, her white-blond mane still flying behind her. She looked like her father, too, or as he had as a boy, with shining blond hair, and big green eyes that always seemed to be searching for answers. And she looked frighteningly pale now as she dropped her books and her bag, and hurried to the kitchen to find Queenie.
Queenie was humming to herself as she hustled around the kitchen she loved. The copper pots shone to perfection as they hung on the racks above her head, and there was the fragrant smell of her baking. And she turned in surprise to see Paxton standing staring at her with a wild-eyed look and her lovely young face frightened and tear-stained. At that moment, Paxton was the symbol of an entire nation.
“What happen’, child?” Queenie looked frightened as she moved her enormous bulk toward the girl she had raised and loved like no other.
“I . . .” For a moment, Paxxie didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t find the words, didn’t know what to tell her. “Haven’t you watched TV today?” Queenie was addicted to the soaps, but she only shook her head and stared at Paxton.
“No, your mom took the kitchen set to be fixed yesterday. It’s broke. And I never watch the big set in the living room.” She looked hurt at the suggestion. “Why?” She wondered if something terrible had happened in downtown Savannah. . . maybe Dr. George. . . or Mrs. Andrews. . . or even her own children might be affected. . . maybe one of those terrible civil rights demonstrations. . . maybe. . . But she was in no way prepared for what Paxton told her.
“President Kennedy was shot.”
“Oh, my land . . .” Queenie sank her enormous bulk into the nearest chair with a look of shocked horror. Her eyes moved to Paxton’s then with an unspoken question.
“He’s dead.” Paxxie began to cry again, and then knelt next to Queenie and put her arms around her. It was like losing her father all over again. That terrible feeling of loss and despair and grief and betrayal. And Queenie held her as they both cried for a man they had never known and who had been felled so young, and for what? Why? Why had they done it? How angry could anyone be? What purpose would it serve? And why him as an example? Why a man with two small children and a young wife? Why anyone? And why someone so alive and so full of hope and promise for so many? Paxxie mourned him in Queenie’s arms, and the old black woman held her and rocked her as she had as a child, as she herself cried for a man she had never known, but believed to be a good person.
“Lawd, child. . . I can’t hardly believe it. Why would anyone do such a thing? Do they know who did it?”
“I don’t think so.” But when they went to the living room and turned on the TV, there was fresh news, a man named Lee Harvey Oswald had shot and killed a Dallas policeman who tried to question him, and had been traced to the Book Depository where the fatal shots had been fired into the motorcade at one-thirty. And he was believed to be President Kennedy’s killer. Oswald had been apprehended, the policeman and the President were dead, a secret service agent too, Texas governor John Connally had been severely wounded, but was doing well, and the President’s body was on its way to Washington on Air Force One, with his wife beside him. President and Mrs. Johnson were on board, too, and there had been earlier reports that he had been wounded slightly, which were later proven to be only rumors. An entire nation was in shock, and Paxton and Queenie stood there mutely, still unable to believe what they were hearing and seeing. They were still standing there, watching silently, tears streaming down their faces, when Paxton’s mother walked in a few minutes later. She went to the hairdresser every Friday afternoon and was just returning from her weekly appointment. She had heard the news there, and she looked grim as she silently joined them. Several of the women had gone home with wet hair, and most of the hairdressers didn’t have the heart to finish what they had started. Everyone was in tears, and Beatrice Andrews had been having her hair rinsed when they first heard the news. But she had stayed to have everything done, and even convinced one of the girls to finish her manicure. She hated to let it all go for a few more days. She had a lot to do that weekend before Thanksgiving, and her bridge club was giving a dinner. It never dawned on her that no one would be giving anything. Every festivity imaginable would be canceled, as people sat glued to their TVs and an entire nation went into mourning. But that hadn’t occurred to her, and she had come home, feeling subdued, but not hysterical by any means. She thought some of the women got a little too carried away. She knew what real grief was, she had lost her own husband, after all, hadn’t she, and it was impossible to feel the same emotion for a public figure. And yet people did feel that for him, that intense kind of personal grieving as though they had known and loved him. He had brought new hope to everyone, the promise of youth brought to ancient tasks, the magic of a world they would never know and could only dream of. And his beautiful wife reminded everyone of a fairy princess.
Beatrice Andrews stood solemnly beside her daughter and the woman who had raised her, and then sat down to watch Lyndon Johnson take the oath of office on Air Force One, but she did not invite Queenie to join her. The cameras showed Judge Sarah Hughes administering the oath to Lyndon Johnson, as Jacqueline Kennedy stood beside him, and everyone watching suddenly realized that she was wearing the same pink suit, the suit she had worn when he was killed, the suit that was still covered with his blood. And her face showed the ravages of grief, as Lyndon Johnson became President, and Paxton sank slowly into a chair beside her mother. The tears were pouring down her cheeks, and she stared at the screen in disbelief, unable to absorb what had happened.
“How could anyone do such a thing?” She sobbed as Queenie shook her head, and still crying herself, went back to the kitchen.
“I don’t know, Paxton. They’re talking about a conspiracy. But I don’t think anyone knows yet why it happened. I feel sorry for Mrs. Kennedy and the children. What a terrible thing for them.”
It made Paxton think again about her father. Although he hadn’t been assassinated, he had died unexpectedly, and his absence still hurt her. Maybe it always would. And surely the President’s children would always feel his absence too. Why did it have to happen?
“These are times of terrible turmoil,” her mother went on, “all the racial disturbances. . . the changes he tried to make. . . perhaps this is the price he paid for it in the end. . . .” Beatrice Andrews looked prim as she turned off the TV, and Paxton stared at her, wondering if she would ever understand her.
“You think this is because of civil rights? You think that’s why it happened?” Paxton sounded suddenly angry. Why did she think that way? Why did she want to keep everything back in the Dark Ages? Why did they have to live in the South? Why had she been born in Savannah?
Excerpted from Message from Nam by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.