The Kennedy ethos: sharing joys and grief with strangers

It was totally in keeping with the family ethos that Sen. Ted Kennedy’s wife, Vicki, his son, Patrick (a member of Congress from Rhode Island), and other family members spent hours this week greeting those in line at the Kennedy presidential library to pay their respects to the family patriarch.

This continues to be a family with an extraordinary sense of responsibility and connection to people whose lives bore little resemblance to their own.

Years ago, I was the editor of several community weeklies on Cape Cod, one of which served the town of Barnstable, which includes the community of  Hyannis Port, home base of the Kennedys. I lived in bicycling distance of the compound and would occasionally ride through their neighborhood.

For as much mystique as “the Kennedy compound” carries in American life, it is a fairly ordinary-looking place, at least in that neighborhood of  old-money beach retreats. If you don’t know where to look, it might not be clear whether it’s that fenced-off property, or the one on the other side of the street — until a tour bus swings by and pauses for a couple of minutes, anyway.

Working at the newspaper with local people who’d grown up around the Kennedys, I heard stories, mostly about the ordinariness of their interactions with family members: Running into matriarch Rose at Mass at St. Francis Xavier; seeing Ethel, widow of Bobby, en route to the Stop & Shop; catching glimpses of the younger kids playing on the beach, or of the young adults out with friends at a local bar.

Yet the mystique held, even among those who fixed the roofs on Kennedy houses and changed the tires on the family cars

So when as editor of the Cape Cod News I had the chance to attend a picnic at the compound, of course I made sure to go. As luck had it, my mother was visiting at the time, and she happily went with me. This was despite having broken her pelvis and wrist in a fall a few days earlier, limiting her mobility.

The picnic was hosted by then-Rep. Joe Kennedy, Robert’s son, who represented the 8th Massachusetts Congressional District. The guest list included reporters and editors from around the state and from Washington who covered the congressman and his family. That alone was unusual. It’s certainly not common for members of Congress to invite the folks who report on them to drop by for a cookout.

It was an extraordinary day. With Mom’s wrist in a cast and her obvious difficulty walking she attracted lots of attention and frequent offers of assistance. Probably half a dozen members of the Kennedy family — mostly the congressman’s siblings — made a point of stopping to ask about Mom’s injuries and make sure we were managing the beach terrain well enough.  They chatted with us about her travel from Arizona, about their work, about the weather and the food. Normal stuff, but heady when the chit-chat is with people typically seen on television.

Then there were the house tours. It wasn’t enough that this immensely famous family had invited a couple hundred members of the media and their families for a picnic on the beach made famous in unforgettable footage of the Kennedys’ touch football games. They also welcomed us to walk through a couple of the family’s houses, the main one, home of Rose Kennedy, and Ethel’s.

I remember being struck by the normalness of each. Ethel’s was bright and sunny, lots of casual beach furniture with yellow print cushions and grandchildren’s toys — Big Wheels and Playskool kitchens —  tucked out of the way of foot traffic.

Though every step obviously caused her some pain, Mom didn’t miss the chance to visit Rose Kennedy’s house. We paused to search for familiar faces among the dozens of family photos arrayed on tables and a piano. We marveled at the tiny armchair, with slightly worn upholstery, positioned in front of a television, in easy reach of the compact elevator that the then 90-something Mrs. Kennedy used to get upstairs.

The impression was simultaneously of visiting a museum — where else would you see so many images of such famous people on display and in a setting you’ve seen countless times on the news — and of intruding on a neighbor’s home while she was out running errands.

This week, as reporters described the Kennedy family members spending time to greet people at the library where Ted Kennedy’s body rested, I was reminded of that afternoon on the Cape.

Here was a grieving family, their every step filmed and photographed and scrutizined, not just at one loved one’s death, but twice in a few weeks and regularly throughout their lives. They had every right to be hiding from the public if they could manage it.

But despite the aggravation and heartache such incessant attention must bring, the Kennedys remain not just aware of the voyeuristic need the American public has to share some part of their lives with them, but willing to let us do that, even at a time of great personal grief.

The news has been full of stories of ways in which Ted Kennedy quietly did things like tutoring Washington schoolchildren in reading and attending the funerals of every Massachusetts resident who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The reports from outside the Kennedy library reinforce that the next generation of Kennedys has taken to heart the example Ted set and that Mom and I experienced that afternoon in Hyannis Port.

They understand the peculiar place their family holds in Americans’ hearts and minds. There’s no doubt a symbiotic element to the relationship. But whether it means letting strangers traipse through Grandma’s living room or taking time from your own grief to work a crowd, the Kennedys show great generosity in letting us feel connected to them. They set a challenging example of how to rise above your own pain to understand and accommodate the needs of others.

Sheen spotted on the subway

No, not Martin the actor, but the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen — on a book cover.

On Wednesday evening on the subway in Washington, I spotted a young man with shirt sleeves rolled up and tie loosened — obviously heading home from a long day at work.

He was plugged into his iPod and equipped with the requisite — these days anyway — laptop and BlackBerry. Nothing unusual about that sight, but what was a little out of the ordinary was that with all that high-tech gear, he was reading “old media” — a book. But what really caught my eye was its title: “Way to Happiness: An Inspiring Guide to Peace, Hope and Contentment,” by Archbishop Sheen. First printed in 1954, it was reprinted by Alba House and released in 1998.

It seems words written by an archbishop from the last century can still resonate with a member of the millennial generation.

And by the way — many folks might know this — Martin Sheen the actor has often told the story of  taking his stage surname from Archbishop Sheen because he admired the churchman’s style on his popular television broadcasts.