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Decades later, letter handed to a Kennedy

Rebecca Nappi The Spokesman-Review

Dear Robert: You don’t know me, but I would like to share with you something that showed me a new viewpoint of your father’s death. The night before the funeral I was watching a movie on the life of Norman Vincent Peale. He said that death was nothing to fear and he compared death to an unborn baby’s thoughts. The baby might think that inside his mother he was perfectly content and dreaded to think that he might have to leave this. But when he was born, he was in gentle hands. He had a loving mother and father.

Thirty-seven years ago this weekend, Sen. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California presidential primary. I was in seventh grade. That year, I wrote almost every day in a diary, kept hidden in a dresser drawer in my bedroom. Filled with descriptions of boy craziness, the diary is an embarrassing read now.

During the funeral, I spied Robert Kennedy Jr. on TV. He was my age. I wrote in my diary: “I’ve decided to write a letter to Robert Kennedy Jr. He’s so cute. I feel so sorry for him.”

A few days later, I wrote The Spokesman-Review in search of Robert’s address. A column titled “The Answer Man” was featured in the newspaper’s now defunct Sunday magazine. Readers asked questions and some were answered in the newspaper, while others were mailed directly to readers. On Sunday, June 16, I wrote: “My question wasn’t in Answer Man. Damn it!”

We, as Catholics, know there is an afterlife and our faith is our strength. People think that kids our age can’t begin to grasp this but I know we can. All it takes is understanding and depth. I have been fortunate enough not to have had deaths in my family but I think I can imagine the grief I’d go through if my dad died.

Two weeks after writing “The Answer Man,” I received an address where condolence letters could be mailed to the Kennedy family. I placed the address with the letter in my dresser drawer.

It had been a year of political torrents. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April. We kept a world events notebook in social studies class, filled with clippings about the Vietnam War. Sister Paul Francis played Simon and Garfunkel in class; their moody, poetic lyrics united generations. Then, Bobby Kennedy was shot the same day we seventh-graders were supposed to sing at eighth-grade graduation. Our performance was canceled.

I forgot about the letter once summer arrived. I was off to Camp Sweyolakan and later in the summer, my main focus was trying out to be a cheerleader for St. Charles Grade School. One August night, as my friends and I rehearsed cheers on the lawn outside Karen Wilke’s house, the adults inside the home watched in horror as riots raged through Chicago during the Democratic Convention.

Very little of this world reality is reflected in my diary. So it’s no surprise that I never mailed the letter. Ten years ago, when I moved my childhood bedroom dresser to my own house, I discovered the letter wedged in the back of a drawer.

On May 5, at the Women Helping Women luncheon, I met Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the featured speaker. She is Robert’s older sister. She was delightful in person, friendly and generous with her time during a press conference before her talk.

I made a copy of my letter for her, and another one for her brother, along with the four pages written during the week of her father’s death and funeral. They are rare spots of introspection amid pages of absolute and necessary shallowness that marked my life at 13.

The letter and diary are nearly four decades old. Tragedy has continued to plague the Kennedys, and I have lost a few family members, including my dad. I was wrong to think I could imagine the grief.

As I handed the letter to Townsend, it was as if I were keeping a promise from the past, from my younger self, the oblivious seventh-grader, unaware of a changing, serious world. It felt like an answer to a question I didn’t realize I was asking back then.

I hope you don’t laugh at this letter because I’m serious. I wanted to share my feelings with you. I don’t expect an answer because I know how busy you’ll be. At least remember me. I hope you read this. Sincerely, Becky Nappi.

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