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Chance and Circumstance
The dictionary defines the word euphoria as "a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness". That is not incorrect, but it is not entirely correct either. Euphoria is plethora of things. It's every nerve ending feeling like it is in overdrive, hypersensitive to every touch. It's trying to stop from smiling too widely, because you don't want people to think your grin will split your face in two. It's having to clench your hands into fists to calm the shaking of your fingers. It's feeling like happiness is taking up the room in your lungs where oxygen should be, making it feel like it's difficult to breathe. It's waking up for days afterward and feeling absolutely, blissfully happy once you remember that one magical moment. Have you ever felt anything like that? I have, exactly one time in my life, when I met Ethel Kennedy in the summer of 2016.
The summer before, I had been accepted to the "Oxbridge Program", where students can spend a month at Oxford, Cambridge, or any number of schools, studying a major and a minor. My major was Speech and Debate, and given my penchant for talking for long measures of time, I was having a great time. But one night, no one in my class did the homework we were assigned to do. There had been a mandatory charity challenge that day, from noon to ten at night, and we'd all agreed that we would tell Michael, our teacher, that this had prevented us from doing our work the next day. He understood, but he gave us new assignments due for the very next day. Analyze a speech and the context in which it was given, as well as background info on the speaker. The speech I was assigned was simply entitled "Kennedy After the MLK Assassination", and the newspaper article I'd been given as help for background research was about someone named Robert.
At this point in my life, I knew next to nothing about American history. My elementary and middle school education had been at a French school, so I knew the history of that country inside and out. Freshman year at my local high school didn't have a history program for us new students, and sophomore year I took AP European History, a class in which I knew I could excel given my background. When I was given that speech about halfway through the month of July, the only thing I knew about the Kennedys was that one of them has been president, and he had been killed in Texas. I remember reading a Far Side cartoon featuring Jackie O and having to ask my father who she was. I was completely in the dark, but not wanting to let my teacher down after the events of the previous night, I threw myself into the research and analysis, determined to make an eloquent presentation the next morning in front of the class. You can thank my mother for that fever-like determination that comes out whenever I need it to; she instilled it in me when I was young. And that meant I would spend the entire evening holed up in my dorm room learning about America's royal family.
I listened to the speech first, entitled on YouTube "The Greatest Speech Ever". The guy who titled it was completely right. I had spent the past two weeks reading speeches given by Robespierre, Emmaline Pankhurst, and even Martin Luther King himself. But nothing resonated with me as much as an unprepared man standing on the back of a truck in Indianapolis, empathizing with others by bringing up his own loss, urging the country to move forward from the tragedy and find ways to forgive people who killed without cause. I'm both French and American, but I grew up with a French mother, spending most of my summers near Bordeaux, and learned about France for a good portion of my education. But listening to that speech, I felt, for what could have been the first time in my life, a sense of Patriotism. A sense of pride towards my country. I read the newspaper articles, poured over every single detail. I learned that Kennedy hadn't prepared that speech in the slightest, that it had come entirely from the heart. I learned that this was the first time he mentioned his elder brother's assassination in public, that people close enough to the truck were able to see the tears in his eyes. I learned he had been running for President at the time, and was hoping to make a difference in the country his family had already served for so long.
The next thing I learned was that Robert Francis Kennedy, the third son of his family, father of eleven children, devoted son, brother, and husband, was killed two months after giving that speech, right in my hometown of Los Angeles. That was what sealed the deal for me, morbidly enough. I'm a writer who loves history, and somewhere along the line, I've started looking at history as if it was just an intricately written novel, full of complex characters and vibrant stories. It's one of the reasons I've been drawn to people like Mary Tudor, Augustus Caesar, Henri IV, people who were interesting and compelling to read about. But somehow they never felt alive. But here was RFK, the ultimate tragic hero, and yet someone who felt real. I wanted to know more; I needed to know more. His life seemed too unfinished, and I needed to know exactly how much of an impact he had on the nation. I read and write rapidly; I probably could have gone out to get some food from the pizza truck across the road while it was still light outside by the time I was done with the necessary work I needed to my assignment. But screw the possibility of a Nutella pizza; I had stumbled upon someone who meant something. I think I stayed up until one in the morning that night, learning all I could about the son who felt ignored by his family, the lawyer who was determined to bring justice to those who had done wrong, the Attorney General who felt responsible for his own brother's death, the Senator and Presidential candidate who wanted to do so much good to everyone in the country. Nearly one hundred years after he was born, and nearly fifty years after his untimely death, his life had somehow managed to touch the part of me I had buried a long time, someone I'd shoved away for years. Robert Kennedy found and appealed to the idealistic, optimistic little girl who craved acceptance more than oxygen.
My middle school was small. There were thirty kids in my entire grade. And with a school that size, it is very easy to alienate someone, ostracize him or her, make him or her feel like they are nothing for any other reason than to simply be cruel. That was what happened to me in sixth grade. For three years, I was entirely alone, eating lunch on my own, asking to do group projects by myself instead of with others, becoming better friends with my teachers than with my peers. I was isolating myself, so that way my forced exile felt more like a choice than something that has been imposed on me by shallow twelve-year olds for no reason I could understand. When I was in fifth grade, I was a social butterfly. I believed the best in people, and I made friends with the same rapidity that rabbits bred. Come ninth grade, when I transitioned away from that school and those people, I used sarcasm constantly as a defense mechanism, I never opened up to anyone, and I pretended to care about almost nothing, in order to avoid disappointment. And during my first late night reading, I learned that the need to project a tough exterior to hide any and all sensitivity was a trait I shared with Robert Kennedy. But any book I've read about him always mentions the sweetness he carried in his core, the childlike wonder at the world he managed to maintain even when the world took more and more from him. And that part of him, the one that hid beneath the hard and ruthless exterior, reached out to my own better nature, my own faith in a better world that I'd thought was all but dead. Maybe it had been, wheezing on the last dregs of life, before my accidental stumble onto RFK managed to rejuvenate it.
The rapid fascination I had for the man wasn't just because he was cute or smart or had an interesting life, although that was certainly part of it. It was that I felt connected. No, a domineering father and overachieving elder brothers hadn’t ignored me but no one can deny that childhood bullying can have a damaging effect on someone's psyche. I felt a sense of empathy, of similarity almost. And more than that, everything about RFK's campaign appealed to making the country feel connected, part of a unit, and most importantly, he believed in the power of young people. Everything about him, from his life to his ideals to his message, made me want to do something. Want to go out and make something of myself, do exactly what he told young people to do and create change. It's a testament to how extraordinary a man he was that his words could still have that kind of impact long after he left the world. My time at Oxford was by no means dominated by the sudden emergence of my RFK fascination, but I'd be lying if I said that, during some slow moments, I put on some Francis Cabrel or Ramin Karimloo and read some new piece of information about the man's views on the Warren Commission, or his time working for Senator McCarthy. And I listened to that speech from Indianapolis over and over again. By the time I returned to California, I had enough information to go on a fifteen-minute rant to my dad, who relayed that information to a business colleague. That colleague was Max Kennedy, RFK's son.
Keith Butler, an antitrust lawyer, had until recently been working at a law firm belonging to two partners. After a series of events, involving my father earning the firm a big case, and one of the partners leaving, the other partner proposed something to my dad: change the firm’s name. My dad’s name was now on the door, and given that I had watched some episodes of Suits with my cousins that summer, I knew that was a big deal. What I didn't know was that his new status as owner of a law firm opened the door for him to interact with some very influential people. And one of those people was Max, who lived in Los Angeles near us. And my dad, upon hearing me babble on and on about a senator who has been dead for 47 years retold it all to that senator's son. I personally thought it was embarrassing. Imagine if someone came up to you saying "Listen my teenage daughter thinks your dad is really cool". Wouldn't you be somewhat confused? But he was a Kennedy after all, and the family must be used to things like that. Max apparently thought it was heartwarming, and sent an email to my father saying that, if I was ever in the Boston area, he would be more than happy to arrange a tour of the JFK Museum and Library for me. That was my first taste of the realization that my passion might bleed over into my actual life, a rare phenomenon.
I was studying AP US History that year, and as I learned more about the country, I started putting the pieces together of how the family rose to power. I read a ton of biographies, watched any dramatization of documentary I could find, and when we reached the unit about the fifties and sixties, I ended up having multiple conversations with the lecturer about McCarthyism, the Camelot myth, conspiracies around Jack and Lee Harvey Oswald, and of course, Robert Kennedy. The Northeast college tour I had signed up for during spring break did take us to Boston, and I did get my tour, and it was phenomenal. Just like Oxbridge, my junior year of high school wasn't dominated by the Kennedy fascination, but it was present. I definitely did better on the fifties and sixties test than on the others, I managed to slip a couple mentions of the family in history essays (which got me bonus points for synthesis), and when we were allowed to choose topics for the end of year APUSH term paper, I chose the impact MLK, JFK, and RFK had on the Civil Rights movement. I thought that would be the end of it until my next history class, if I excluded the very long book I was reading that was about the intense rivalry between Robert and Lyndon Johnson.
But having a father who collaborates with a Kennedy has benefits. Max invited my father to the annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Compass Conference, hosted in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The RFK Human Rights Foundation is led by his daughter Kerry Kennedy and a few others, and is devoted to serving RFK's mission of creating a better world. Once my dad’s firm started working with Max, a portion of whatever money they made was donated to various charitable causes. Because of this, it made sense to invite to the conference my father and his wife. Unfortunately, his wife-my mother-would be in France at the time, along with my younger sister. I was staying in California to take a summer math class and then several tutoring sessions to prepare myself for the SAT and the ACT. I wasn't planning on doing anything until my mother proposed that my father take me to Hyannis in her stead. It took some convincing, but in the end my dad responded that he would be coming, and taking his seventeen-year-old daughter with him. I was told early on that I wouldn't be doing much, mostly staying at the hotel while my father went to the dinners and sessions, and that because this was a serious, grown-up conference, I would not come close to the compound. I didn't mind. My closest brush to fame was when Fabio-the Top Chef contestant, not the model-gave me a hug when I was twelve. Going to Hyannis Port because my father was friends with the son of a man who had rapidly become a personal role model was good enough. I would get a reprieve from my classes, and I would meet a Kennedy. That alone was cause enough for me to feel the first glimmer of that earlier mentioned happiness.
Hyannis Port was beautiful. It looked, to me, like Claremont, the quaint college town we had passed through during a trip to Ojai when I was fourteen. I'll admit that I was asleep when we first arrived, because we had woken up early for our flight, and I was ready to pass out. But once we started doing a little sightseeing, I loved it. It was gorgeous, like a town still stuck in the sixties. We managed to do a lot in that afternoon, pretty much all I had been expecting to do before my father went off to rub shoulders with all these important business people. My dad went off to the lobby of our hotel to register for the conference, and I contemplated changing into my pajamas early so I could slip into bed and get ready for a nice long night of doing nothing. But then my dad came back with his Compass Conference badge and told me that he managed to secure me a last minute spot at the dinner, hosted at the house of none other than Ethel Kennedy.
I had always been curious about Ethel. The books I read always described her as the first person to provide her husband with unconditional love and support. They said that with her in his life, he blossomed. But nobody talked about Ethel after her husband's death. Her sister in law's life after JFK's assassination was well-documented, but nothing on Ethel herself. I had to pour over her Wikipedia page just to find out if she had ever married again (she hadn't). I thought that Ethel would be a fascinating person to read about. She was arguably one of the three most important people in her husband's life, and after he was gone, she had managed to raise eleven children on her own. The fact that nothing had been written about her outside of the context of her marriage both frustrated and disappointed me. I didn't believe that I would even so much as catch a glimpse of Ethel at the dinner, but that didn't matter. Just to be in her house, their house, was enough for me. How often can one's passions bleed over into their lives in this way? Where they can walk in the place their idol lived, see the pictures of him and his family mounted in the walls? How many people can shake hands with members of the most prominent family in America and explain, as succinctly as possible, just how much one of them meant? I could barely contain my excitement when I met Kathleen and Kerry Kennedy and told them how much I admired their father. Admiration was too paltry a word, but I was having trouble breathing correctly, let alone putting the variety of things I felt in regards to Robert Kennedy in words. If I had been asked to leave at that point in time, I would have considered it a night fulfilled.
I wasn't seated with my father. I had been such a last minute addition that I would go wherever there was room for me. I didn't particularly mind; I knew how to talk to people on my own. Table 13 was close enough to the stage that we would actually be able to hear the speakers, and the people seated there -all over thirty years of age, at the least- were kind enough to ask me about myself. One of those people was named Ronald Funderburk. Now, my father and I are very big fans of Will Ferrell, and his role of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. So when I saw the name Ronald, I was expecting a mustachioed news reporter telling me that he was "kind of a big deal". Funderburk did not have a mustache, and he looked nothing like Will Ferrell, but he was funny and nice and he asked me many questions about my father, my school, and why I was here. I told him, and the woman sitting next to him, all about what my dad did, what life was like at school, and other little anecdotes that come from growing up in Los Angeles. I ended up mentioning that I was somewhat of an admirer of Robert Kennedy and what he stood for.
I can't explain why what happened next did. Was it pure dumb luck? Or had some divine power interceded on my behalf? I like to think it was the latter. I like to think that, somewhere, God was looking down on me, and decided to deal me this one sweet hand. Ronald told me that he had gone to law school with one of Ethel's sons, and did I know that she was here tonight? I did; I had seen her in passing talking to a former governor, laughing uproariously and looking very small but very strong on the arm of one of her grandchildren. I downplayed my awe, telling my tablemates that yes, I had seen her, and it definitely was cool. And then, out of the blue, Do you want to meet her? The answer on the tip of my tongue was yes. Yes of course I wanted to meet her, this figure of legend, this woman who had known one of my biggest personal role models in a way no one else had. Of all the people under that tent, invited to that conference, Ethel had the strongest connection to Camelot, to that first generation of heroes. More importantly, she herself was formidable, someone remarkable, someone for whom I held the greatest respect. But at the same time, that was the most nerve-wracking proposal of my life, and all I could manage was a stunned laugh and a noise that vaguely resembles a hum. Was that even possible? Just walk over and meet Ethel Kennedy? There was no way. The next minute played out something like this.
Ronald: Are you sure? I could introduce you.
Me: No no it's OK
Ronald: You should it'll be fine
Me: She looks busy I don't wanna bother her
Ronald: Come on, when are you going to get a chance like this ever again? Come on, I'll go with you.
He was right. When would I get a chance like this ever again? So I acquiesced, and Ronald Funderburk told me to bring my phone and took me over to her table.
I've heard people tell me that good memories, for them, are like blurry dreams. They can recall the sense of contentment associated with the memory, but never the specifics. It's the opposite for me. I've always had a good memory, and in this instance, I can recall every single detail. The grass was the brightest thing in that tent; with so many men wearing black business blazers and the sky more gray than blue as the sun began to set. The breeze hadn't managed to penetrate into our little sanctuary, but it still brought the tang of salt from the Cape, and it felt almost like it overpowered the perfume I'd put on back at the hotel. More than anything I remembered feeling like I was going to explode, as if there were too many emotions inside my chest and it was about to break in two. My breathing was coming in rapid, shallow gasps; there was a lump in the back of my throat; I was trembling more than the leaves of the trees at the mercy of the wind outside. There are moments, and then there are moments. Moments where anything that has happened over the last twenty-four hours is rendered completely inconsequential because something amazing is about to happen. Something phenomenal, a memory that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I assume this is how people feel when they get married, or when they have a child. For me, I felt that moment coming when Ronald Funderburk said hello to his boss, turned, and said "Mrs. Kennedy, there's someone I'd like you to meet."
He told her about the subject of my term paper, plain and simple. Apparently, a seventeen-year-old girl who cares enough to write about the Civil Rights, and the influence the Kennedys had in relation to it, is surprising in and of itself. Ethel nodded once, turned to me, and held out her hand for me to shake. The world shrunk. There was no Keith Butler, no Ronald Funderburk, no Kerry or Kathleen or Max Kennedy. To me, it felt as if the only two people in the word, at that moment, were us. Amélie Butler, a girl who found a connection to RFK forty eight years after his death, and Ethel, the woman who had kept his memory and his message alive for the rest of us. Her hand was small, warm, and dry when I took, and for a moment, I felt as if I were about to cry. Something expanded in my chest, crushing everything, heart and lungs and ribs, leaving just this sense of complete and utter delight. Ethel Kennedy was shaking my hand, Ethel Kennedy said hello to me, Ethel Kennedy asked me how I was. My legs were shaking, and when I knelt down, it wasn't just because I wanted to speak levelly with her (she was sitting down and was already tiny standing up), it was also in part because I felt like my legs were going to give out. Hoping I wouldn't start choking on my own emotions, I answered her as best I could, thanking her for letting us into her home, telling her that I really admired her husband and what he stood for. She smiled and shook my hand again, said that was very sweet of me to tell her. My smile grew, and I name-dropped my father. I mentioned he knew her son Max. When she told me he was here, I simply nodded and said "Oh really?" Her response: "Well, when he heard you were coming, he had to fly in."
Here was a woman who had seen her husband torn apart by grief and guilt for years, who had watched the man she loved bleed out on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel, who had raised eleven children without a father, and she was cracking jokes. From what I've gleaned in my research, I'm well aware of the fact that Ethel has in no way moved on from Bobby's death, but the fact that she is able to be so vibrant, so full of life and laughter, it is an enormous testament to her character, to the type of person she is. In that moment, I wasn't delirious with happiness because I was meet Bobby Kennedy's widow, it was because I was meeting Ethel Kennedy, a phenomenal woman who deserves more praise than she has ever gotten. My smile felt like it was going to crack my face apart, and when a photographer asked for me to pose with her, when she took my hand again, I think that's the best picture of me ever taken. The man sitting next to her then asked me what I felt was the most influential thing Bobby did in regards to Civil Rights. Answers flitted through my head, millions upon millions of anecdotes from quotes and books and dramatizations. But there was only one answer I could give, in the end: "The speech he gave in Indianapolis after Dr. King died." The one that started the whole cycle that led me here, at Ethel's house at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port. It seemed a fair enough answer, and I was told once again that there had been no preparation for the speech that stopped riots, that it came fervently and earnestly from the man's own heart. And it's one thing to read it, but to hear the man's widow, the woman who had been there that night, tell you about it? There are no words, however much I might like to try. When I was asked why I admired her husband so much, I finally found a way to explain the tumult of feelings generated every time I hear the former Attorney General speak, or see an old black and white photograph. That Robert Kennedy's mission to help the country be better, that his appeal to the youth, and to the gentility of man's better nature, had managed to strike something in me I hadn't felt in a long time, and for that I had nothing but the most profound respect and admiration. She smiled at me then, a wide smile full of gratitude, simply thanked me, and told me that was touching to hear.
There was an understanding then, that the conversation was ending. I had met her, we had spoken, and there was no longer a need for me to take up more of her time. I stood, and thanked Ethel Kennedy for the immense honor of talking to her. She shook my hand a fourth time, the final time, and said it was wonderful to meet me too. Ronald, who had been conversing with a coworker, followed me back to our table, and showed me the picture he'd taken, on the sly, of my conversation with Ethel Kennedy. I've never liked having my picture taken, I've always felt that I'm not very photogenic, but I look good in that picture. Maybe everyone would look good in a picture taken during the best moment of their life. I managed to keep control of my emotions for the rest of the night, listening respectfully to the speeches and making pleasant chitchat with the people at my table. It was only when my dad and I left did I explode, finally able to let out all of those pent up emotions. I was Jack when he was told he was President, I was a child meeting their favorite princess at Disney, I was my golf fan sister being given a ball by Phil Mickelson. There is nothing quite like when your normal life merged with the lives of those you are fascinated by, and it's something few people get to experience. And that's euphoric. Those ten minutes have made me want to, if I may paraphrase a great man, tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.