A Memoir by Phyllis Italiano

We had just moved from West Virginia to Atlanta. My husband, a fund-raiser, had taken a job there with a charity. We bought a little three-bedroom house for $13,500 in Decatur on the outskirts of town, 1398 Willevee Drive. The price of the house is a dead giveaway that it was a long time ago —1963.

Although I went to school in Washington, D.C., and lived for one year in Fairmont, W. Va., this was the farthest south I had ever lived. 

  As a matter of fact, that first late August day when we arrived in town we drove to the newly integrated Americana Hotel and saw “them” picketing. We circled the hotel twice to gape at the men in white satin robes with pointed hats. It seemed surreal and gave me a sense of foreboding. I knew I was in a place different from anywhere I had ever been.

I was five months pregnant when we arrived in Atlanta. My eldest child, Joanne, was just three and a half. It was a bright Saturday afternoon when the moving van pulled in to the driveway. The movers quickly unloaded the furniture and boxes. As each piece was set in the room that would be its home, the thrill of owning our first house soared. The boxes and our accumulated household belongings were finally completely deposited inside our house.

We had shopped for some food earlier and I opened up a few boxes marked “Kitchen” to begin the dinner ritual when there was a knock at the front door. A small smile crossed my face when I noted that this was the first knock on the door of my Atlanta house. I opened it and a woman was standing there. “Hi, my name is India Aston. I live next door,” she said, pointing to her house on the next lot. I introduced myself, noting her strong drawl. 

She was shorter than I was, with steel wire-frame glasses and short hair. Her trim body belied the births of her six children. She wore khakis and a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Tucked inside the roll of the right sleeve was a pack of Winstons, just like I’ve seen workmen carrying their cigarettes. “I was wonderin’ if you would like to go to church with us tomorrow morning?” 

I was a bit taken aback, but quickly assessed the goal of her offer. She was asking what my religion was. I’m sure she knew from my accent that I was from New York, which was like being from a foreign country. “Thanks,” I replied, “but we’ll go to our own church.” Before she had a chance to ask what church that was, which was her goal, I changed the subject by asking her about her family, and telling her of my own young child who I knew would be delighted to play with her six children. I had happily noticed the array of toys, bikes, ropes and the like on her front lawn when we first looked at our property. 

Once we were settled in the house, I began to make it a home by decorating to our taste. I started by painting walls and fixing up each room to get ready for the second child we were to have. It was quite exciting to fix up this house to fit the vision I had of what my very own house should look like. I made every curtain in the house, even the shower curtain, with my featherweight portable Singer sewing machine. This kept me busy since my husband traveled for work and was away much of the time. He had just left that morning for a meeting in Chicago.

I had painted the living room an off-white, with a trim of deep gold around the windows. At the base of the three long windows in the small living room I placed a shelf I had crafted with decorative wooden handles that the lumberyard had cut for me. I painted them that same mustardy shade of the window trim and placed my plants on the completed shelf. The green leaves, some upright, some drooping, of the four plants set off the colors of the curtains and the windows. Taking a few steps back and gazing upon my creation, I smiled.

I had stayed up late the last two nights finishing up the last set of that very special set of curtains for the windows. The fabric was striped cotton with a deep gold background and narrow black stripes with small black and white flowers entwined in them. It was a beautiful print and it went so well with the furniture and the color scheme of the room. I designed a pattern of unpressed pleats for the heading, which were hell to sew. My sister had given me some gorgeous, expensive brass clips that would crown the curtains. All in all, I was a pleased with my handiwork. 

Since my husband would be gone over the weekend, I decided to take the opportunity to complete the tedious task of pressing the curtains, and hang them. It would be a nice surprise for his return. I opened the ironing board, and as the iron warmed, got a chair to sit down and iron. At five months pregnant I didn’t want to stand and iron. I turned the TV on to listen, as I always did whenever I ironed. There was David Brinkley on the screen in the middle of the day. He said, “So there you have it, ladies and gentleman. The president of the United States has been murdered, shot and killed.” Murdered? Murdered? I felt a blow to my core and let out a scream. I could hardly catch my breath. 

John Fitzgerald Kennedy shot. I heard Brinkley’s words, but in my head I saw Kennedy enter Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University. I was a freshman at American University in 1954, and my mother, a shop steward, was at a union rally held there. I met up with her so we could have dinner after the event. 

The keynote address was to be given by Senator Kennedy. They introduced him and he came in from a side door and crossed in front of the stage a few rows before us. He was handsome, tall, and slim with reddish hair and eyebrows and light skin, the kind that redheaded people usually have. He was surrounded by a few men. 

I jumped to my feet and started clapping hard and shouting. My mother stood up next to me and said, “Why are you clapping so hard?” 

“ ’Cause, Mama, he’s gonna be the next president of the United States.” My prediction came true and now he was dead — murdered, Brinkley said, not even “assassinated” to soften the blow. It seemed like a cruel word to hurl at me. 

I sat listening, unable to move. The curtains were on the ironing board. Tears streamed down my face. I had watched this man throughout his brief presidency, saw every news conference, and was madly in love with his humor and his wonderful Irish sense of language. He was beginning to take a stand against the racism that existed in this country, which I felt so strongly about. I knew of his infidelities long before America did because my sister, an actress, had told me of the Hollywood gossip, but I didn’t care. I knew enough about his family life and how he was raised, with an errant father and a mother who went about her own life, that I could forgive him his transgressions.

The phone rang. “Are you okay?” asked my husband, who was just arriving in Chicago. He tried to give me comfort. 

Later, I gently told my daughter what happened. At three and a half, she, of course, did not understand why I was so upset and crying. She had been playing outside with the neighbors’ children. I collected myself enough to press the curtains, though I no longer cared. I was too stunned and wounded to think anything so trivial could have importance. 

My sister Anne called from London. She was making “The Pumpkin Eater” there and was concerned because the rumors were flying in England that this was a conspiracy, and there I was in a southern city alone. She made me promise to be very careful and not tell people I was a northerner or talk about it with any of my neighbors. We commiserated for about an hour.

After I hung the damn curtains, my daughter and I ate dinner. I put her to bed and watched the television till the station went off the air as they did in 1963. As soon as we awoke on Saturday, I turned the TV on. We went about our day. She played and I watched and wept. Poor girl actually remembers some of that event to this day. 

On Sunday morning I decided we should go to church to light a candle for the president. As we were getting ready, the TV, which was on from the moment we woke up, was showing Lee Harvey Oswald being moved and walking in a corridor when out of the crowd a man stepped forward and a shot rang out. My God! How could this happen? It was so frightening. America had just witnessed a murder! For a few moments there was chaos. I was stunned. Thank God, my daughter was in her room playing and did not see a man being shot on television. 

By the time my husband arrived home later that evening, I had lived a lifetime there in my first house, forever marked, in those three days. 

Phyllis Italiano is a retired teacher and school administrator. She lives in Springs.